Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ben Davis

Anthony Gargano wrote an interesting story about Ben Davis. The former Padres catcher is attempting a comeback as a pitcher. http://tinyurl.com/34rfyxw

Kevin Towers drafted Davis second overall in 1995. By the time Davis rose through the farm system, Towers was the GM of the Padres. The Gunslinger said a lot of glowing things about Davis, as GMs tend to do regarding top draftees. Unfortunately for Davis and the Padres, Davis pretty much was a wasted draft pick. The question is, why?

Here is some of what I gleaned over the years:

* The track record for high school catchers drafted in the first round is, as I recall, dreadful. The late Wayne Lockwood chronicled this many years ago, and I recall that Wayne wrote a cautionary story about Davis on the day the Padres drafted him. Wayne was right on the money, as often was the case.

* My sense was that Padres CEO Larry Lucchino wasn't wild about the decision to draft Davis. Shortly after the draft, Lucchino, whom Padres owner John Moores referred to as the Smartest Man in Baseball, told me on the record that he preferred Rice outfielder Jose Cruz Jr. to Davis but wanted his young executives, Randy Smith and Towers, to make the call. I don't think those comments went over so well with the execs. Lucchino didn't hire Smith, and I never sensed those two meshed although Smith had traded for a lot of good players who would help Lucchino's regime get off to a great start. By year's end, Smith was on his way to the Tigers.

* Davis' first batting practice with the Padres was poor in a way that made me cringe. Admittedly, he was only a teenager, freshly drafted and surrounded by the likes of Tony Gwynn and Ken Caminiti. No one expected home runs from him. Yet....here's this big, strapping Jack Armstrong figure swinging with gusto, and the ball just dribbled off his bat. I don't recall him clearing the infield.

* Davis got a lot of attention for his good looks, and some of his teammates thought the club should have downplayed him rather than trying to turn him into a star. Back then, the Padres marketed their players relentlessly, overly so with Davis. For instance, when the Padres played at Philadelphia, one of the newspapers there ran a photo of Davis jogging at the beach. The photo was lifted from a Padres promotional video or commercial. It was too much, too soon, according to Padres veteran players, who wondered why a below-average player was getting so much attention.

* Hitting experts told me early in Davis' career that his swing would be a problem as he moved up the ranks and encountered better pitching. They described it as a "grooved" swing. Sort of like a robot would go about it, sweeping the bat at the same angle, over and over. Years and years of hitting the same way in a batting cage, they said, had created the grooved swing. Therefore, years of dubious muscle memory needed to be broken. Impossible, virtually. On the opposite end of the spectrum technically is Buster Posey, the young Giants catcher. A scout told me recently said Posey covers as much hitting area with his bat as some of the best hitters in the game. For what it's worth, Posey was not a catcher in high school or early in his college career. He was a shortstop and a pitcher until Florida State moved him behind the plate.

* Bruce Bochy was a former catcher, but I never sensed that he and Davis had a strong relationship.

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