On Pursuing the Self-Actualization of Henry Davis

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

When the Pittsburgh Pirates took Henry Davis first overall in 2021, they knew they were making a compromise. No matter what happened, even if he blew away everyone’s expectations, he was destined to only be the second-best hitter in big league history with the first name Henry and a last name that’s also a first name.

More than that, the Pirates took him knowing he probably wasn’t the best player in the draft. Davis received a signing bonus of just $6.5 million, only the fifth-highest number in the top six picks. Going way under slot allowed the Pirates to overpay for highly touted high schoolers with their next three picks, and I guess Bryan Bullington and Tony Sanchez no longer count as “in recent memory.”

Nevertheless, having the first pick is a rare gift, and you don’t want to blow it.

Even accounting for the fact that the Pirates got the top pick again two years later, along with Termarr Johnson and a number of other exciting young prospects, they need Davis to pan out. Because it’s not good for you if you biff the no. 1 overall pick:

Biffed 21st Century No. 1 Picks
Year Team Player Career WAR
2016 Phillies Mickey Moniak 0.7
2014 Astros Brady Aiken 0.0
2013 Astros Mark Appel 0.1
2008 Rays Tim Beckham 2.8
2006 Royals Luke Hochevar 9.0
2004 Padres Matt Bush 1.4
2003 Devil Rays Delmon Young -1.3
2002 Pirates Bryan Bullington -0.2

Moniak did nothing in a Phillies uniform, and Philadelphia’s recent success has come after 1) the passage of many, many years and 2) the expenditure of many hundreds of millions of dollars in free agency, to say nothing of hitting on fellow lottery picks Aaron Nola, Alec Bohm, and Bryson Stott.

The Astros got away with missing with the no. 1 overall pick two years in a row, yes. But they already had Carlos Correa and George Springer in the system, and the compensation pick they got for not signing Aiken turned into Alex Bregman. This is the draft equivalent of falling off your balcony and landing in the bed of a truck transporting marshmallows.

Beckham was actually the best player the Rays drafted between the 2007 class of David Price and Matt Moore, and the miraculous 31st-round selection of Kevin Kiermaier in 2010. Every bit of success Tampa Bay has had in the past 15 years has been the result of savvy scouting and development, and when that pipeline dried up for a couple seasons, it coincided with a five-season fallow period that just so happens to overlap substantially with Beckham’s career.

The Royals were customarily terrible during most of Hochevar’s career, but he stuck around long enough to throw some middle relief innings for the World Series-winning iteration of the team in 2015. The Padres won 80 games four straight years after drafting Bush, who as a high school shortstop was expected to take time to develop. Bush’s lamentable actions off the field delayed his path to the majors until he’d changed teams and positions, and without the no. 1 pick, the Padres missed the playoffs in 13 straight seasons from 2007 to 2019.

Further back in franchise history, the Rays got away with a dud at no. 1 overall in Young, because around that time they were also spending high picks on Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Price. Sort a proto-Astros situation, in which quantity has a quality all its own.

Which brings us back to the Pirates, who were terrible when they drafted Bullington and remained so for about a decade afterward.

Other no. 1 overall picks during this time period — Joe Mauer, Price, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Correa — were franchise players. In order to survive not getting one of these with the first overall pick, a team either needs to hit on most of its adjacent early picks, or be able to buy off somebody else’s franchise player. Or in the Astros’ case (and sorry to bring up the Gerrit Cole trade in a post about the Pirates), both.

Davis has played all of 62 games in the major leagues, and even after a full college career and a couple seasons in the minors, he only just turned 24. I’m not writing him off by any stretch of the imagination; I’m merely emphasizing how important it is for the Pirates to get a meaningful player out of this draft pick. Ideally an All-Star, or at least a first-division regular.

But the early returns left something to be desired. Davis hit .213/.302/.351 in 255 plate appearances, with a 9.8% walk rate and a 27.1% strikeout rate. That would be pretty bad even if he’d played catcher, but the Pirates shunted him out to the outfield; Pittsburgh’s would-be franchise catcher has spent just two innings behind the plate in the major leagues. (Davis also graded out terribly as an outfielder, but in so few innings I’m inclined to view those numbers with extreme skepticism.)

Those positions are at opposite ends of the defensive spectrum. The league-average wRC+ for catchers last year was 90; for right fielders, it was 105. The most encouraging news about Davis since the offseason started was Ben Cherington’s announcement that the former Louisville star will enter next season as a catcher.

Nevertheless, this is not a Patrick Bailey or Mike Zunino type, where the glove is the carrying tool and any additional pop is a bonus. Wherever he plays, Davis needs to hit.

Last year’s results don’t look like some BABIP-y fluke. Davis posted a wOBA of .287 and an xwOBA of .288. And it could’ve been worse; Davis was one of the most extreme pull hitters in the league in 2023, and yet hardly ever got shifted (insofar as that’s possible under the new rules). Davis also hit the ball on the ground a lot, at least more than you’d want from a player with his raw power. He could’ve hit into a lot more hard outs than he did.

Now, can a hitter with his directional hitting tendencies put up big numbers? Absolutely. Consider another current National League catcher who went to college in the Ohio Valley: Sean Murphy.

Murphy vs. Davis
Name GB/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo%
Sean Murphy 1.07 50.2% 32.2% 17.6%
Henry Davis 1.21 49.0% 33.1% 17.8%

So they’re hitting a lot of the same types of ball, when they make contact, but let’s see what’s on the next page.

2 Murphy, 2 Davis
Name BB% K% O-Swing% Z-Swing% IFFB% HR/FB HardHit%
Sean Murphy 11.2% 22.4% 27.5% 71.0% 3.8% 20.0% 45.8%
Henry Davis 9.8% 27.1% 31.8% 64.2% 13.8% 12.1% 41.4%

This is where Davis needs to improve. Murphy has a slightly higher swing rate overall, but Davis is more aggressive outside the zone and less aggressive in it. As a result, he strikes out more, walks less, and hits four times as many pop-ups. Murphy and Davis have similar groundball-to-fly ball ratios, yes, but Murphy homers once out of every five fly balls, while Davis hits one out a little less than once per eight fly balls.

A lot of the flaws in Davis’ game — the relatively high strikeout rate, the pull-happy tendency, the balls on the ground — you could live with, if he made better decisions about what to swing at and what to take. Out of 362 players with at least 200 plate appearances last year, Davis was 314th in Z-Swing% and 129th in O-Swing%. Selective aggression is in the zeitgeist after Corey Seager went busalooey during the playoffs, and at the risk of making an insultingly obvious observation, Davis needs to be more aggressive on pitches he can hit.

It’s something to work on this offseason, but it’s something a no. 1 overall pick needs to figure out sooner rather than later.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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6 months ago

It made little sense to not get Hank reps behind the plate last year. Was he going to hit “worse” if he had to catch, too?