People may remember on my first ever North Shore Nine show I boldly said that the Pirates should sell high on Henry Davis in front of the Louisville grad himself, Jim. I think it’s too early to tell if I was justified in saying this, but the signs are not pointing towards success for him in a Pirates uniform. I desperately want Davis to succeed, I was jumping for joy the night that he took Shohei Ohtani deep not once, but twice. In order for the 2024 Pirates to be good, the Pirates need Davis to start living up to his status as the first overall pick in the 2021 draft. However, what we saw from Henry Davis in 2023 is nowhere near good enough. Luckily, I’m pretty sure Henry is the first guy who would tell you that.
However, there are 3 problems I see with the Davis experiment that really compromise the idea that he is the surefire right fielder of the future. The first problem is that Davis is really bad defensively at both right field and catcher. Even when Davis was drafted as a catcher out of Louisville, most draft analysts agreed that he simply was not cut out for big-league catching. I’m not here to bore you with the “intricacies of catching” that justify having a terrible bat like some catchers would talk about but frankly Davis is a bad catcher. With Endy Rodriguez looking comfortable behind the plate as a catcher and leader, Davis seems to only have a spot in Right Field since Endy will catch and Andrew McCutchen will be back as the DH. But herein lies the rub, Davis looks like a high schooler out in right field trying to catch baseballs. I have not seen someone look so uncomfortable and out of place manning right field for the Pirates since seeing old man Melky Cabrera jog around half-heartedly after every double hit into the gap. His defense was just as bad as his offense, which is far scarier. Which leads to his next problem, the bat.
Henry Davis was awful at the plate last season, which is a major cause for concern considering when he was drafted he was seen as by far the best college bat in the class. To find the root issue with Davis you don’t need to look far, it’s his inability to hit breaking pitches, primarily the slider.
Combined with his worrying 43% groundball rate, Davis’ struggles against sliders simply aren’t going to go away it is a problem he needs to face head-on. With a shocking whiff rate of 44% against breaking pitches it’s not a surprise to see Davis’ paltry slash line of .213/.302/.351/.653. You could maybe live with this if he was an elite defensive catcher, but Davis was drafted specifically for his bat and he isn’t even allowed to play catcher anymore. He is currently not rosterable if his bat doesn’t significantly improve during the offseason.
And that’s not even his fault, which leads us to our second problem with the Davis experiment. The front office.
I do not pretend like I am smart enough to work in a major league front office or that I’m qualified to lead a baseball team in any regard. However, seeing how Ben Cherington has used Henry Davis has me wondering how he ever stumbled his way into this job. The front office’s treatment of their former number 1 overall pick has been nothing short of malpractice. Instead of focusing Davis on learning how to properly play catcher or right field, they have chosen the “play both poorly” option. They won’t let Davis actually catch, only giving him 2 entire innings in the majors this past season. Instead, they have him practicing catcher behind the scenes which takes away from his time to learn how to play right field, which he was also atrocious at. You can see how this is not the best way to introduce a rookie to the major leagues, and it shows. Sure, Davis has a cannon for an arm, but his complete inexperience in the outfield betrays a lack of decisive decision-making within the front office. Poor Hank is merely a victim of this incompetence and the stats paint a clear picture. Davis had a disastrous rookie campaign, totaling a staggering -1.4 bWAR in 62 games last season. Now, is all completely lost when it comes to Henry Davis? No, and in this bitterly downbeat article I will at least attempt to shine some hopeful light for the Louisville graduate.
If there is one thing I’ve always been impressed with in terms of Henry Davis’ game it is his attitude and work ethic. I remember clearly seeing him playing while he was in Altoona against the Richmond Flying Squirrels, when he wasn’t on the field he was always up next to the manager discussing the game for the entire 2 and a half hour affair. Davis hates losing, he lives the game of baseball, and his work ethic is incredible. I know how frustrating it was to watch him play last season. No one is more upset about 2023 than Davis himself. The power is still there, he hits the ball hard and when elevated it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Davis also showed how unsatisfied he was about last season by taking about 3 weeks off and immediately got himself to Driveline Baseball along with teammates Joshua Palacios and Canaan Smith-Njigba. Tyler beat me to the punch talking about this so go read his article about our young players looking to get better on offense. I do not pretend that Driveline is a guaranteed sign of success, but they do have quite a few success stories. J.P. Crawford just enjoyed a 30-point bump to his wRC+ in 2023 after going to Driveline and is bringing struggling Ty France there with him this offseason. Austin Riley of the Braves has become a top 5 3rd baseman in the sport after attending Driveline to improve his swing. What speaks to me mostly is that these young Bucs, with Davis being at the center of it, know that what happened last year was not good enough and that they are taking time away from their families in the offseason to get better at their craft.
This piece is not an indictment on Davis as an athlete or his work ethic. How could it be? The organization drafted him as a catcher, treated him as a catcher, spent the vast majority of his minor league innings playing catcher, and only now as he arrives at the hardest transition from AAA to the MLB does he get told he’s actually playing right field. He is being forced to juggle learning 2 positions, neither of which he is particularly good at. On top of this, he’s being asked to learn major-league pitching. It’s no wonder he’s been so bad during his rookie campaign. He has been completely failed by a front office who is scared to make decisions. Successful organizations do not hit on every single prospect. This is true, but when you read articles about how teams like the Orioles are focused on putting guys into the best position to succeed you can’t help but wonder what the Pirates are doing with their development process. Successful organizations do not yo-yo their best young talent in between positions to the point that they are unusable anywhere in the field. Henry Davis is not the only case of the Pirates failing their prospects but it’s certainly the most egregious. There is a reason the most successful rookie so far brought in by a Ben Cherington draft is Carmen Mlodzinski, a reliever. For a team with no budget and dependent on homegrown talent, unless we see a major change in how we handle our future, this is going to be a rebuild that blows up before it can even start sailing.
Let’s go back to this past spring and check in on what Fangraphs Eric Longenhagen had to say about Henry Davis’ future as an MLB catcher when he joined the NS9 Podcast.