Padres Farm Report: Ben Davis

Ben Davis is a switch-hitting catcher out of a Pennsylvania high school. The Padres selected him in the first round of the 1995 amateur draft with the second pick overall, after Darin Erstad and before Jose Cruz, Jr. Many in the organization wanted to pursue Cruz, but they ended up taking Davis, which in light of Cruz’ almost immediate impact at the major league level has left the Padres open to much criticism.

But comparisons between Cruz and Davis are unfair. Cruz was a polished college player, while Davis was very much a work in progress. The Padres were looking long term with this pick, and although high school catchers do not have a very good track record as major-league prospects, San Diego GM Kevin Towers felt Davis was a once-in-a-generation kind of talent.

Whether that bears itself out remains to be seen. We can discuss this more intelligently 15-20 years from now. In the meantime, what we do know about Davis is this. As an 18-year-old he put up good numbers in the Northwest League. The following year, at the recommendation of scouts and against Towers’ wishes, the young receiver jumped a level to the fast A California League.

At Rancho Cucamonga, the gangly teenager looked overmatched. Only a late-season surge pushed his batting average over the .200 mark. Davis didn’t show much pop for a guy 6’4″, and an elbow injury suffered while showing off his arm in spring training limited him to DH.

This spring, however, Padres manager Bruce Bochy, himself a former a major-league catcher, worked with Davis on his footwork and throwing mechanics to help the youngster avoid injury and get the most out of his natural ability. Just as tall pitchers sometimes get out of whack in their delivery, so do tall catchers.

In 1997 Davis, still only 20 years old, finally started to show the power many had predicted he would have. But his hitting overall was still below league average, and his plate discipline, not his strong suit to begin with, actually got worse. His swing is long from both sides of the plate, and at times he appears somewhat lackadaisical on defense.

But the one tool that will get Davis to the Show is his arm. He makes throws that inspire not so much exclamations of “Oh wow!” as stunned silence, perhaps a subdued “ooh,” as when Kramer on Seinfeld discovers how good it feels not to wear underpants. Davis’ mechanics still need work, but already he has a major-league gun. The only catchers I’m sure have stronger arms are Brad Ausmus, Charles Johnson, and Ivan Rodriguez.

While Davis’ arm will bring him to the big leagues, what keeps him there will be how well he develops his other skills and how dedicated he becomes to improving himself as a ballplayer. He probably won’t be the superstar San Diego once envisioned he’d become, but given that he’s still growing and that catchers often take a long time to develop, he’s got a much better chance of being a productive major leaguer than a lot of people are currently giving him credit for.

Update: 5/1/98

 AVG  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO  SB
.182  77  10  14  4  0  2   9   5  12   0

After a dreadful start offensively at Double-A Mobile of the Southern League, Davis has started to pick things up of late. Although his batting average remains low, a large percentage of his hits have been for extra bases. Another encouraging sign is the relatively low number of strikeouts. Last season at Rancho Cucamonga his swing was a bit long from both sides of the plate. If he can tighten it up, and hit even .250 with 15-20 homers this year, with his defensive abilities, this season should be considered a success.

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