Congratulations are in order for Barry Bonds, of course, as the former Pirate passed Hank Aaron in baseball’s record books last night. I won’t say much more about that—there’s plenty of coverage all over the network—but I’ll tip my cap in Barry’s direction and thank him for allowing me to watch history being made.
It’s actually a nice transition into what I’d like to write about this morning, too.
The Matt Morris trade was one that received a lot of national attention over the past week or so; I’m still getting the occasional e-mail poking fun at the Pirates for making such a mind-bending move. Most of the comments have to do with Morris’ contract, but a few folks are wondering why the Pirates would give up a stud like Rajai Davis.
I’ll admit that when Jayson Stark called Davis “legit” in his post-deadline column, I did a double-take. Is there something I’m missing?
Consider what Pirate prospect expert WTM had to say about Davis entering 2007:
Considering his age—he’s only half a year younger than Chris Duffy and a full year older than Nate McLouth—and his mediocre  season in AAA, Davis probably doesn’t project as more than a 5th outfielder. The Pirates seemingly agree, as they didn’t bother to give him a single start while he was in the majors [as a September call-up]. He’ll have almost no chance of making the team in spring training and should return to Indianapolis [to start the year].
And when he was with the Pirates, Rajai Davis was just that—a crummy extra outfielder of which we have an endless supply. I mean, Davis certainly doesn’t stand out of a pack that includes Duffy, McLouth and Indianapolis’ Nyjer Morgan.
It was Barry Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record that gave me reason to take notice of a new Rajai Davis.
I’ve been staying up well past my bedtime to watch Bonds’ at-bats. As a necessary side effect, I’ve seen his teammates’, too—including Rajai Davis’.
Baseball Musings’ David Pinto saw the same broadcasts:
One player who might have made a difference for [the Pirates] is Rajai Davis, who now toils in San Francisco [after being traded along with a PTBNL for Matt Morris]. The Giants were smart enough to install him as a leadoff man, and he’s rewarded San Francisco with a .417 [on-base percentage]. The player has no power, but the Giants concentrated on what he can do. What he does is get on base, something the Pirates needed more than an old starting pitcher.
The indisputable fact is that Pittsburgh desperately needs more offense. What’s questionable is whether or not Davis is a player who can provide that spark.
The player he was as a Pirate didn’t have much promise. He was a slap hitter who refused to put the ball on the ground. He’s much like Chris Duffy in that sense. Remember when Duffy left baseball last summer after the Pirates’ coaching staff tried to tweak his style in an effort to better utilize his speed?
That tweaking is exactly what the Giants have done with Davis, and so far it’s working out well.
As an illustration of sorts, take a look at a couple of hit charts. The one on the left features the singles Juan Pierre hit at his home, Wrigley Field, in 2006; the right depicts every single Ichiro has hit in his career at Safeco Field:
What I notice is that anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of their base hits never leave the infield. That’s what a speedster does: He puts the ball on the ground via a bunt or slash and runs like hell. It’s the first 90 feet that are most important. Once he reaches safely, it’s up to his teammates to bring him home.
The first time I tuned into Barry Bonds’ “Road to History,” I heard that the Giants had Davis on the field before batting practice started to work on his bunting for an hour. Then I saw him come up (as if on cue) with two runners on and lay down the perfect sacrifice. So perfect, in fact, that he nearly beat out the throw despite the fact that the corners were expecting a bunt.
Davis’ strikeout-to-walk ratio has always been solid after an initial adjustment period to a level, so his patience isn’t much of an issue. He’ll look at enough pitches to be useful from the leadoff spot.
What he could never do is hit for much of an average: In full seasons at Altoona and Indianapolis in 2005 and 2006, Davis hit under .285 with an .OPS near .700. That’s nothing spectacular, and probably why we Pittsburghers never considered him to be a special ballplayer.
If the Giants, though, can turn on a lightbulb—make him realize that if he keeps the ball on the ground, he’ll be able to better utilize his speed—then Rajai Davis could turn out to be useful. Couple hitting for average with a little plate discipline, add in an affinity for stealing bases and mediocre defense and you’ve got a recipe for a fourth outfielder—or even a fringe starter on a rebuilding team like San Francisco.
You’ve got to wonder what stopped Jeff Manto and the rest of the Pirates’ staff from trying to get a little more use out of Davis’ skills.