The Mets found a real hitter in J.D. Davis

Former Astros prospect has turned himself into an offensive force

August 22nd, 2019

waited years for the at-bat he had against Indians closer Brad Hand on Wednesday.

His teammates had scratched and clawed their way to a game-tying run in the 10th, leaving Davis with a chance for his first walk-off hit. Hand and his devastating slider stood as the obstacle, and Hand quickly got ahead of Davis with two well-placed deliveries. The Davis of old -- the one who couldn’t translate his Minor League dominance to Major League results -- would have been in trouble. The Davis of 2019 had a plan.

"Stay up the middle," Davis told himself. "Stay on the slider." He let two fastballs sail inside and then fouled off three pitches in a row, pulling consecutive line drives foul before he squared up the game-winner.

The Mets knew they were getting a power bat when they acquired Davis from the Astros for three Minor Leaguers in January. They knew they were getting someone who had torn up Triple-A pitching, capturing last year’s Pacific Coast League batting title with a .342 average. But they also got a young hitter obsessed with turning around a narrative, one that said he was a "Quad-A" player who would be blocked by the Astros’ loaded prospect pipeline. He was going to study his way to success.

“It was very evident from the get-go,” said manager Mickey Callaway. “Once he got in the regular season, you could tell that this guy is in the video room, digging deep into the numbers and he’s speaking up in the hitters’ meetings. He’s one of the most vocal guys in there because he’s studied these guys so much. It’s almost like having a third hitting coach in there.”

Mets hitting coach Chili Davis says the 26-year-old Davis is just the third hitter he’s ever seen take physical notes on opposing pitchers and bring them into the dugout (former Red Sox Lars Anderson was the first, Ben Zobrist the second). It’s something Davis does nearly every day, arriving early, watching video and scribbling out notes on pitchers’ tendencies, usages and what they’ve thrown him in the past. He’s done it his entire professional career.

“In High-A or Double-A, I’d cross the diamond with a gray binder in my hand,” Davis said, “and guys used to make fun of me like I was going to my first day of school.”

The preparation was there, and so was the pole-to-pole power. Statcast devotees might remember Davis from his first cup of coffee with Houston two years ago when, despite putting just 43 balls in play, his 98.5 mph average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives tied for fifth among 500 Major Leaguers behind Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo and Khris Davis. Unlike some baseball card stats, exit velocity is a skill that doesn’t require much time to stabilize: You’re either able to hit the baseball really hard, or you can't.

But the results eluded him. Across 66 games with the Astros over those two years, Davis struggled to a .194 average and a 60 wRC+ -- 40% below the league standard. In today’s game, where more and more prospects are breaking records as soon as they enter the Majors, Davis couldn’t afford that slip-up -- especially after Alex Bregman became a superstar at third base, his original position.

“It’s either black or white, there’s really no gray area,” Davis said. “Guys either come out, struggle and have to work through it, or you’ve got these guys like [Aristedes] Aquino or Rhys Hoskins that hit 10 home runs in 16 games. I feel like there’s no guy that’s in the middle."

Davis kept working. He devoted the 2017 season toward improving the way he loaded and rotated his hips when he swung. The following year, then-Astros assistant hitting coach Jeff Albert got him hooked on weighted bats (60 ounces), which Davis says is one of the biggest tools that helped him shorten his bat path and foul off pitcher’s pitches that eluded his bat completely in the past. The at-bat against Hand on Wednesday was a microcosm of that effort.

“So many guys are so strong that they can manipulate the bat with their forearms,” Davis said, “But with the weighted bat you can’t manipulate the barrel and let your hands take over. You have to use your legs and your core, and that helps you build more of a full body swing.”

Davis told that battling back from an 0-2 count is one of his favorite things to do, and the pride and care he’s taken into his two-strike approach this year is evident. His .220 average in two-strike counts ranks 48th out of nearly 330 qualified hitters.

That’s far from his only impressive statistic. According to Statcast, Davis ranks in the 95th percentile in hard-hit rate, 93rd percentile in average exit velocity and ranks second behind National League MVP candidate Cody Bellinger in expected batting average, which blends exit velocity and launch angle with strikeouts -- the area that dogged Davis in previous years with Houston. Davis’ 134 wRC+ is third-best on the Mets’ roster, and his 1.156 OPS at Citi Field would set the ballpark’s single-season record.

With Davis’ third-base spot blocked yet again, this time by Todd Frazier, Callaway has committed to giving Davis reps, both in the outfield and as a pinch-hitter. And with Frazier being an impending free agent, the Mets might have a third baseman they can build around alongside fellow revelations like Pete Alonso, Amed Rosario and Jeff McNeil. Davis is under team control for five more seasons and won’t be arbitration-eligible until after the 2021 season. Recently, Davis has been getting regular reps in left field as a result of injuries to McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, Yoenis Cespedes and Dominic Smith. He's certainly been making the most of them.

“It’s a pleasant surprise, but I think we did our homework as an organization to get a guy that could possibly get to this point,” said Callaway. “His preparation speaks for itself, and the results have been there.”

In Davis’ opinion, he just felt he needed the extended exposure to the big league environment -- something he wasn’t getting in Houston.

“To have that opportunity and come through for these guys is unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a big, big relief.”