The Brewers drafted Khris Davis in the seventh round of the 2009 draft out of baseball factory Cal State Fullerton. Despite the fact that he hit at nearly every stop along the way, he couldn’t get himself ranked in Baseball America’s top 30 Brewers prospects until 2012, when he snuck in at #29. He moved up to #16 in the system coming into this season.
Every team tends to have a guy or two like Khris Davis in their system at any given time. Someone whose numbers impress the heck out of diligent minor league box score followers, but who scouts never really believed in. They’re the kinds of guys whose names get scoffed at in Keith Law chats. Most of these guys don’t end up making it at the major league level in any real way, but every once in awhile someone is able to stick.
Given that, I think we have to begin any discussion on Davis with a healthy dose of skepticism on a couple fronts. First off, do we really believe the bat is for real?
It could be. Davis is battling a couple issues which may be holding back projections of what he could be. First, his listed height is only 5’11″ and that isn’t a typical profile for a power hitter. Scouts and fans like comps to create expectations for players they don’t know very well. Its hard to find a comp for a guy who looks like he should be a speedy singles and doubles hitter, but plays like Adam Dunn. Second, he missed time in the minors last year. Maybe people would take notice if he plays an extra 40 games. Third, he spells Khris with a “Kh.” It’s jarring to some people even though it’s awesome.
Like you said, look at his minor league track record and all the guy did was hit at every level. He has a career minor league slash of .288/.392/.506, and that’s with stops in Appleton and Brevard County. The Midwest and Florida State are difficult leagues to hit for power, and yet he did it. Davis has also demonstrated patience, walking in over 10% of his plate appearances in the minors. He strikes out around 20% of the time which isn’t a horrible number.
Davis is now hitting .278/.341/.595 with nine home runs in 48 games for the Brewers. Those numbers aren’t out of line with what he’s already established minor league player. He has the ability to play at the major league level and he’s taking advantage of the opening created by the Ryan Braun suspension. Let’s stop acting surprised by what this kid can do.
They’re not wildly out of line, but that is almost a 100 point difference in slugging percentage. I have a really hard time buying that he’s going to slug like that long term. I don’t doubt that he can crush some fastballs, but scouts have always questioned whether his swing was too long to adjust to quality major league breaking and offspeed pitches.
Right now, Davis is being seen by most pitchers for the first time. He didn’t come up to the majors with a lot of fanfare, and he’s been to the plate in the big leagues 123 times. Pitching coaches and pitchers are right now looking at tape and formulating new plans to attack him. We don’t know how successful those adjustments will be, but it’s almost certain he’s going to have to make adjustments himself, probably the type he’s never really had to make before.
Even for guys with top-of-the-first-round and top prospect pedigrees, it’s best to be cautious with expectations after such a small number of trips to the plate. Not to beat a dead horse, but Davis never appeared in any Brewers top 10’s by people who are wired into the industry. Not Baseball America. Not Keith Law, Jason Parks or Jonathan Mayo. It’s possible they all missed on his bat, but I think it would be a good idea to wait a bit longer than 123 plate appearances before crowing that they have for sure.
The real issue, though, is that even if he is able to adjust and post something along the lines of his career minor league numbers long term, there is still going to be some trouble trying to find him a place to play on the field.
Davis is a brutal outfielder, there is no way around that fact. He’s only played 48 games and is already -0.2 FRAA. Since the National League lacks a DH, he needs to get buried in left field or first base. Davis doesn’t have any experience at 1B, and as I stated earlier, he’s only 5’ 11”. Brewers fans have witnessed the limitations of a short first baseman with an iffy glove.
If the Brewers are going to get Davis into the line-up, they have a couple of moves they need to make. The front office will need to find a way to part with Nori Aoki in right field. They could pick up his option for 2014 and move him in the off season, or Davis again starts the season in Nashville and the Brewers trade Aoki at the trade deadline when the team is floundering again.
BUT! Davis doesn’t take over in left field. I’ve never believed that Ryan Braun is a strong outfielder, but he can probably handle right. He has a decent arm and he’s spent enough time in the outfield now that moving from one corner to the other isn’t radical. Braun would be entrenched in left if it wasn’t for the 65 game PED suspension. The last thing he can do at this point is complain about what position he gets to play.
Trading Aoki and moving Davis to right would be the easier way to move the pieces. Maybe the short porch in right would help Davis with his fielding deficiency. Carlos Gomez and his ability to cover a ton of ground in center would certainly help.
No matter what happens, Aoki and Davis won’t play together. Aoki will be in his age-32 season and his game is based on speed. He can’t be in the long-term plans for the organization. Also, his defense and baserunning is tends to be overrated. He’s average in right and his stolen base percentage has dropped from 79% in 2012 to 61%.
It should be noted that Davis has been tried out at first a few years ago in fall instructs, and it went so poorly that basically everyone just dropped the idea right there. Adam McCalvy did report last week that Davis is willing to give it another go, but as you pointed out, he’s limited there physically even if he does smooth over the mechanics of the position. His bat will also need to be that much better at first to make his overall value worth it to the franchise.
Realistically, I just don’t know if the team has the courage to either make Braun move to right or stomach Davis’ arm there for the long term. Arm strength is a little overrated in a right fielder, but his is quite possibly bad enough to make him just unplayable there. If he’s hitting like he is now, then there is an argument to just deal with it, but if he falls off significantly then it becomes a lot harder to ignore.
It’s not that Davis can’t make it in the big leagues, as stranger things have certainly happened. The argument here is more about probabilities. Scouting staffs and prospect analysts can be wrong. They are quite often, because it’s not an exact science. That being said, when judging a player against reasonable expectations, it’s best not to make rash assumptions based on small sample sizes. Khris Davis is going to need to keep proving all those scouts wrong for quite a while longer before we can say definitively they were, in fact, wrong. That may not seem fair, but it’s the most prudent course of action.