Finding and securing a high-upside catcher is one of the more difficult things to do in baseball. Most would agree you can count the number of premier catchers on one hand. The Seattle Mariners are in an uneasy position moving forward behind the plate. Louisville catcher Henry Davis might not only be the best player available at no. 12, he may fit a position of need for the organization.
We’ll get to Davis momentarily, but let’s review where Seattle stands at the position.
At the big league level, Tom Murphy had a breakthrough season in 2019 at the age of 28. But after missing all of 2020 with a foot fracture, he’ll be 30 years old Opening Day 2021. Murphy is controlled through 2023, so while he does have a few years with the team left in front of him, it’s easy to assume he won’t be starting for the Mariners in 2024 at the age of 34. And none of this takes into account the potential for regression.
Luis Torrens was impressive in his abbreviated opportunities with the team in 2020. He hit .254/.323/.373 in 18 games with Seattle, and certainly showed enough to warrant extended playing time in 2021. That said, Torrens has never had an aura of hype offensive upside behind his name, and has more often than not been considered a future defense-first platoon candidate. There’s certainly things to like with Torrens, but it’s a bit early to call him the future at the position for the Mariners.
Down on the farm, Cal Raleigh draws rave reviews from his coaches and his pitching staff for his leadership prowess and coach-ability. Raleigh has a good arm, though inconsistent at times. There’s no doubting the raw power, but the hit tool has been a concern as he’s moved up the ladder. There are legitimate questions as to whether he’ll hit enough to warrant a full-time role. Raleigh may be the Mariners future starting backstop, but even Mariners General Manager Jerry Dipoto would likely admit it’s foolish to throw all your eggs in one basket.
Guys like Jake Anchia, Carter Bins and Dean Nevarez are still deep in the throes of minor league ball, and could breakthrough in the next couple years, but for now, it’d be a little premature to forecast their contributions at the big league level.
The other option, of course, is the team spending on a free agent catcher in the coming years to fill that gap. That can be a spendy venture and those are funds probably better served on the mound or elsewhere in the field.
Before we jump into Davis’ tools specifically, I want to talk about the intangibles, because as the leader of a pitching staff, you need to be a force on the field. Catchers have to be able to command the moment and coach-on-the-go with a struggling arm. That may be one of my favorite things about Davis. Much like Mike Zunino of yesteryear, Davis is constantly engaged. Here he is demanding his pitcher get the changeup “Down!” after a bad miss. He trusts his guy, calls for the pitch again, and the pitcher executes. That’s the sort of thing that endears a staff to their backstop.
Another thing worth mentioning, coming from Louisville, Davis is catching some of the best arms in the country, against the best hitters in the country. In 2019, he caught two fourth round picks in Shay Smiddy and Nick Bennett. 2020 was obviously a completely different animal as he caught first rounders Reid Detmers and Bobby Miller every week.
The last catcher selected in the first round out of Louisville was Will Smith by Dodgers in 2016, 32nd overall. He’s been an enormous success story for Los Angeles and while the correlation isn’t linear by any means, it is reason to believe a transition from that program into big league ball can be successful.
So what about Davis makes him so tantalizing to scouts and talent evaluators? Let’s get into it.
Tools (Future Value)
Davis employs a wide base and a moderate leg kick in his load while doing a really nice job staying in his legs throughout. He’s a very, very strong guy, and he’s puts that strength to work with an aggressive cut on pitches he offers at. He gets some separation in his hips, though it’s incumbent on his timing at foot strike being on. The lead leg block is pretty impressive, generating tons of torque. Davis uses a similar loading mechanism to the Yankees’ Luke Voit, allowing his bat to get into a position that’ll help his barrel path stay short through the ball.
Davis does a good job staying short through the ball, exhibiting said barrel control. There are some balance concerns on pitches away, but for the most part Davis has shown an all-fields approach throughout his collegiate career.
The numbers are pretty staggering. Davis was immediately thrust into the starting role as an 18-year-old his freshman year. That’s pretty uncommon in college baseball, especially in the ACC. But Davis was an immediate force in the Cardinals lineup. Over 45 games, he’d slash .280/.345/.386 with 3 home runs. Maybe more impressive, Davis ran a 12% K-rate and an 8% BB-rate -- pretty impressive for a frosh.
He’d go on to play summer ball in the Cape Cod League in 2019, struggling in the 15 at-bats he actually got, tallying just two hits. A small sample size, for sure.
2020 was an absolute breakout for Davis and really thrust his name into first round consideration. In 14 games and 52 plate appearances, Davis slashed .372/.481/.698 with three more home runs. He walked twice as many times (8) as he struck out (4).
For now, we’ll call Davis a potential future .265 hitter. That being said, I’d like to see one more year to get a really good gauge for his future at the plate. I really like everything I’ve seen from the mechanics to the outcomes to the approach.
Either way, if he falls short of this grade, even an average hitter behind the plate can be a luxury for a big league organization.
Davis is very strong, there’s no doubt about that. Slugging three home runs in his first 14 games this season speaks toward his potential for damage at the plate. There are some definitive inefficiencies in his swing holding him back right now, but with a couple truly small tweaks his power tool could really take off.
The biggest thing you need to know about Davis is his exit velocity on batted balls events. His 109.7 max exit velo last season places him in the 95th percentile for all college hitters. His average exit velo of 92.7 would rank in the 90th percentile of all college hitters. His max exit velo ranked higher than every other player selected in the first 70 picks last year, with the exception of Spencer Torkelson and Aaron Sabato.
Better still, his max exit velo from 2019 as an 18-year-old was 112 mph... good for the 98th percentile of all college hitters that season. The only two guys he trailed in the top 70 draft picks from 2019? Hunter Bishop and Adley Rutschman, both Top 10 picks.
In short, Davis hits the ball really, really hard.
While he did hit three home runs in 2020, the inefficiencies in his swing may limit his ability to launch the ball. Davis’ average launch angle in 2020 was just 10.3 degrees. Yes, he hits the ball very hard, but his launch angle would rank in the 45th percentile. It’s a line drive oriented swing right now.
Improving his bat path and finishing high over his left shoulder rather than cutting across his core would be a big first step in creating more loft. Given his plate approach, raw strength, and natural ability to barrel-up a baseball, I do think there’s 60-grade raw power here. He can certainly get to that in game if the bat path is optimized.
In short, Henry Davis has a cannon. His pop times are consistently sub-2.0 seconds, topping out at 1.93 in 2020. I don’t have much concern in terms of arm talent, it’s just the polish around the edges he’s still cleaning up.
Davis has proven he can throw from his knees or come out of stance to throw out a would-be base-stealer. What he needs to improve upon is putting the throw on the bag. His throws can veer at times. He threw out two of four stolen base attempts last season. Regardless, with time and seasoning, it’s a definitive asset. The arm may be his best tool.
There’s work to do behind the plate in terms of fundamentals, but all signs point to Davis being an above average defender. He’s very athletic, and moves very well behind the plate. Davis has no problem dropping and sliding to block a ball, though his technique and/or focus has cost him a few opportunities.
In 14 games this season, Davis allowed 6 passed balls, a number I’d expect to improve. Glove orientation seems to be the main culprit in allowed some pitches to skirt to the backstop.
While Davis is an above average athlete behind the plate, he’s probably only a fringe-average runner. That being said, as far as catchers go, he’d be one of the better runners in the league. Home-to-first times I’ve had on Davis generally hover around 4.4-4.5, placing him in that fringe average to average bucket. I wouldn’t expect his athleticism or speed to improve as he ages, so a fringe average future grade is probably the most appropriate note here.
I’m a pretty firm believer Davis is a minor swing tweak away from being one of the 3 or 4 best college bats in this class. If the game power can catch up to the already impressive defensive actions behind the plate, Davis will see his name flying up draft boards next spring.
For now, you’ll see his name hovering in the 20-35 range on most boards, but given the underlying data, the defensive polish, and the lengthy track record of success, Davis is a guy I see elevating his stock as we approach next July, ultimately hearing his name called inside the Top 20 picks.