Amidst Davis' struggles at the plate, Pirates turn to Grandal

May 4th, 2024

PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates signed days before Spring Training got underway, it was with the intention that he would be one of the team’s primary catchers, and that could earn a spot as well. After a hot spring by Davis and with Grandal starting on the injured list, it appeared that the starting catching job was more or less Davis’ to lose this year.

Well, the change has happened. The Pirates ended Grandal’s rehab assignment for his plantar fasciitis and activated him before Friday’s 3-2 loss to the Rockies at PNC Park. To make room on the Major League roster, Davis was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis.

While the Pirates’ offensive struggles are not limited to just Davis -- the team has scored only 33 runs over its last 17 games, and only got on the scoreboard with one out in the ninth on an Oneil Cruz two-run home run into the Allegheny River -- but the former No. 1 overall Draft pick’s struggles may have been the most apparent.

The overall stats were poor -- Davis was slashing .162/.280/.206 with no home runs over his 83 plate appearances -- but the peripherals were perhaps equally rough.

According to Baseball Savant, he ranked in the bottom 6% of hitters or worse in the following analytics: Strikeout rate (34.9%), whiff rate (35.5%), expected batting average (.178), expected slugging percentage (.236) and expected weighted on-base average (.254).

“I think the big thing is, offensively, there are some adjustments that need to be made,” said Derek Shelton before the game. “There’s some adjustments that the Major League game has showed him that need to be made. It was one of those things with Yas coming off [the injured list], it’s a chance for Henry to catch his breath a little bit.”

While Shelton didn’t offer specifics, there are a couple obvious spots. Davis had an average exit velocity of just 85.8 mph on non-cut fastballs, which ranked 218th of 230 hitters with at least 25 fastballs put in play. His whiff rates on pitches up are egregiously high, and he has a minus-3.4 run value on pitches right down the middle.

Perhaps a reset and a chance to reevaluate is what Davis needs at the moment. He had done some experimenting with his hand placement recently to try to get going offensively, but it did not yield much. Davis also had a rough road trip, striking out six times with two walks while going 0-for-7 on the trek to the Bay Area.

Ideally, Grandal might have been able to come up for Davis sooner, but a tornado outbreak in Omaha, Neb., led to a series of cancellations for Indianapolis, who were the visitors last week. Grandal needed to play back-to-back games before the team felt comfortable bringing him up since he played in only two Spring Training games.

“We just needed to make sure he got the amount of catching he needed,” Shelton said.

Shelton cited Grandal’s veteran leadership as a desirable trait right now, and while his best offensive days are probably behind him, it’s hard to see much downside in mixing up the pool of available position players amid an offensive slump like this.

But it’s hard to see the Pirates getting much offensive production out of the catcher spot without Davis. This is clearly a setback, but him being optioned doesn’t mean this was a lost year. There are still five months left in the season, and if he gets back on track, it’s very reasonable to assume he’ll get another crack in Pittsburgh.

“I think the thing we know about Henry is he’s probably one of the hardest workers I’ve been around at the Major League level,” Shelton said. “He’s going to go down there with a task and work on it.”