In today’s age of specialization in youth sports, if a kid wants to have a future as an athlete, he or she needs to decide which sport they want to focus on basically before their pre-teen years. In baseball, there are travel teams, special camps and showcases, tournaments all across the country that take place all year round, events that help increase exposure for kids looking to catch the eyes of a collegiate or professional scout. The heyday of the multi-sport athlete, even at the high school level, has passed us by.
That makes the story of Brewers prospect Johnny Davis all the more enthralling. The Compton, California native didn’t play any baseball growing up outside of a season in little league at age 13, instead focusing on football and track during his high school years. Davis was 23 years old when his younger brother Tyree attended a camp with the Minnesota Twins. After scouts were impressed with the above-average speed of Tyree (who would eventually get drafted and signed by the Twins in the 37th round of the 2014 draft), he introduced them to Johnny, who proceeded to run the 60 yard dash in 6.0 second and begin his path to the professional ranks.
According to an interview with Cream City Cables, Davis said that a scout wanted to sign him right then and there but couldn’t because of his enrollment at West Los Angeles College. So Davis joined the baseball team, and during his first real taste of competitive ball in his whole life Johnny slashed .336/.374/.549 with 22 stolen bases in 29 games. With the 662nd pick in the 2013 MLB Draft, the Brewers rolled the dice on a player with less than one year of experience playing the game.
Davis hit the ground running – literally – in his professional debut. In 30 games with the rookie level Arizona Brewers that summer, Davis posted a .714 OPS with 17 steals, giving cause for the Brewers to skip him straight to low-A Wisconsin in 2014. There Davis finished third on the team with 111 hits (albeit 104 of them were singles) and second with 32 stolen bases, though the lack of refinement of his skills was also on display as he was caught 21 times as well. Appleton manager Matt Erickson praised Davis as “the closest minor league baseball player…that could steal first base.” He added that Davis was timed as the fastest runner in the organization, and that even on routine ground balls there’s a good chance that he makes it safely to first base.
2015 wound up being a bit of a speed bump for Johnny, as injuries limited him to just 10 games with high-A Brevard County. He started back in the Florida State League again to begin this season and quickly established himself as one of the top two hitters in a, let’s say, less than fearsome Manatees lineup. In 58 games with Brevard County, Davis hit .295/.390/.341 while also swiping 16 bags. Only Dustin Demuth posted a higher OPS than Davis’ .731 among Manatees with at least 200 plate appearances. The 26 year old Davis was promoted to AA mid-season and finished out the year by hitting .261/.312/.330 across 238 plate appearances with Biloxi, stealing another 16 bases and also slugging his first professional home run.
BP Scout Steve Givarz had a chance to get eyes on the 26 year old Davis while he was playing with Brevard County this season, grading his speed as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale and saying that he “makes fielders uncomfortable.” He also added that Davis needs to improve his jumps off pitchers, which Davis has admitted that he’s still trying to get comfortable with:
“My biggest focus is trying to learn to get good jumps, trying not to get picked off by pitchers. Those things are tough, especially when they know I’m running. Sometimes a pitcher will pick at me more times than he’ll throw pitches, so it’s really tough getting a jump, it’s really tough stealing bases. It’s easy for someone who’s an average runner to steal bases, but someone who’s a plus runner it’s very hard to steal bases, very hard.”
Davis may have MLB value in the future thanks to his outstanding speed, but if he wants to be more than a situational base stealer in the Quintin Berry mold, he will have to improve his skills at the plate. The switch-hitter owns nearly a 24 percent strikeout rate during his minor league career, and according to Givarz he lacks bat speed from both sides of the plate and his hit tool is graded as well below average. Power is obviously not a part of his game, either. Davis does take his share of walks (about eight percent during his career), but he’ll need to become more proficient at slapping the ball into play and beating out base hits in order to full utilize his blazing speed. Davis understands what his job is at the plate: “Just thinking about knowing my role and putting the ball in play. That’s what I need to do and that’s why I changed my approach and started putting the ball in play.”
In the field, Davis uses his wheels to help track down balls that he doesn’t get good jumps on or takes circuitous routes to. He has an accurate arm and average arm strength, profiling best in center field or left.
Given that Johnny Davis didn’t start playing the game until his early 20s and that he’s already missed nearly a year of coaching and development while injured, it’s still incredibly impressive how far the outfielder has come. The speedster could start the 2017 season just a step below the big leagues with the AAA Sky Sox. There may not be much of a ceiling, but Davis’ standout speed certainly merits some attention among an increasingly interesting collection of organizational depth players within the Brewers’ system.