Around the Horn: Davis eyeing left-field job
Former seventh-round Draft pick gets chance with Braun's shift to right
This is the ninth installment of an Around the Horn series that has already bounced around the diamond to cover the starting rotation, the bullpen, second base, right field, first base, center field, catcher and shortstop
PHOENIX -- If you want to know about his rise from collegiate bench warmer to seventh-round Draft pick to presumptive starting left fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, Khris Davis has a suggestion.
"Call Rick Vanderhook," Davis suggests. "He's seen me at my lowest."
His "lowest" was in 2007, when Davis was a highly-touted freshman at Cal State Fullerton and Vanderhook, who is now the Titans' head coach, was an assistant in charge of hitting and outfield play. Davis arrived with a reputation for power but hit zero home runs and slugged just .288 in 125 at-bats that season, and watched his playing time diminish.
Flash forward to 2013 and Davis was slugging .596 in the Major Leagues, trailing only Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis (no relation) among big leaguers who logged at least 20 plate appearances.
Khris Davis was so good as a fill-in for the suspended Ryan Braun that the Brewers are moving Braun to right field and giving Davis a chance to win everyday duties in left.
"Khris had never failed before he got to college. Never," Vanderhook said. "It's hard. When you get to that next level, sometimes it's a completely different world."
Vanderhook has a long history with the Davis family, playing against Khris' dad, Rodney, from the time they were 12 years old. Rodney Davis went on to play in the Minor Leagues for the Dodgers. Vanderhook played at Fullerton and then went straight into coaching, helping develop at least 17 hitters who went to the Major Leagues.
He knew Davis could be special because of his "stupid" power, especially to the opposite field.
Khris hit a lot of home runs in high school, and as you see with a lot of guys in professional baseball, it normally takes time to develop power [at more advanced levels]," Vanderhook said. "He had it, but I don't think he knew how to use it."
Davis had no trouble winning power-on-power matchups against hard-throwing pitchers in high school, but had to learn to hit pitchers who could pitch in college.
It proved a difficult adjustment.
"When you got 2-and-0, you didn't get the fastball. You got the changeup," Vanderhook said. "So he ended up taking too many bad swings and just had to learn how to stick with [an approach]. He struggled with it, and then when he didn't have success, he had to learn with not having success.
"He obviously learned well."
Davis came back better in 2008, hitting four home runs with a .205 on-base percentage and a .462 slugging percentage in 93 at-bats. In 2009, he became a full-time starter and hit .328 with 16 home runs and 58 RBIs, a .412 on-base percentage and .642 slugging percentage in 232 at-bats.
The Brewers made him their seventh-round Draft pick that June and Davis kept on hitting. In his first full professional season, he smacked 22 home runs at Class A Wisconsin, a club record since tied by another power prospect, Victor Roache. In 2011, Davis hit 17 more homers and set a career high with 84 RBIs between advanced Class A Advanced Brevard County and Double-A Huntsville. In 2012, he missed some time with a calf injury but advanced all the way to Triple-A Nashville and the prestigious Arizona Fall League.
In 2013, Davis rode a strong Spring Training (six Cactus League homers, plus another tape-measure shot in an exhibition against Team Canada) to an Opening Day roster spot with the Brewers. He struggled with sporadic playing time and was returned to Nashville, but came back to the Brewers after Braun was suspended and became Milwaukee's regular left fielder down the stretch.
He's vying with Logan Schafer, Caleb Gindl and other outfielders in camp to seal the job for 2014.
"We're not saying that this is Khris' job coming into camp," manager Ron Roenicke said. "Those other guys are going to be fighting for a job, too."
That's just fine with the soft-spoken Davis.
"Every year, I definitely want to earn what I deserve," he said. "The opportunity that's in front of me, I see it. But I have to kind of let it come to me. I feel like I could create a lot of pressure, but if I let it [happen], I think I could do really well."
Davis speaks clearly and calmly and deliberately. He prides himself on his laid-back demeanor and says he admires other athletes who carry themselves the same way, like NBA star Kevin Durant or NFL quarterback Russell Wilson.
"Always cool, calm," Davis said. "I respect those personality traits in athletes."
It might help him as a hitter. The Brewers love Davis' patient approach, which saw him swing at only 31.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone last season, fifth-best among the team's hitters with at least 50 plate appearances, and see 4.05 pitches per plate appearance, trailing only Rickie Weeks.
"I think there's an instinct part in hitters," Davis said. "I learned quality ABs in college, like producing good outs. College brought that out of me. Before, I think I was pretty immature, wanted to get a hit every time. I mean, I want to get a hit every time now, but it's different."
Speaking of difference, Davis knows his circumstances have changed dramatically from this time last year.
"No one expected me to break camp last year," he said. "I definitely feel like I'm being watched, and it's definitely different."
His old coach is one of those watching.
"The normal fan doesn't understand how hard it is just to get to the Major Leagues for one day," Vanderhook said. "Most guys are playing 400-500 Minor League games, and then that jump from Triple-A to the Major Leagues is the biggest jump of anything in any sport. When guys achieve that goal, it's a big deal."