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What to expect from Henry Davis in the big leagues

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When a player is taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft, there isn’t just an expectation that he’s going to make it to the big leagues; he’s supposed to be an impact player, an All-Star, a [fill in the superlative of your choice here].

Henry Davis brings all of that with him to Pittsburgh as he makes his Major League debut on Monday vs. the Cubs at PNC Park. And if his 2023 season to date is any indication, he might be up for the task, especially offensively.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who followed Davis during his amateur days. It was his bat, more than anything else, that catapulted him to the top of the first round of the 2021 Draft. He carried an OPS of 1.146 in his last year at Louisville to the Draft that year. And while it’s true that he wasn’t a slam-dunk 1-1 and that the Pirates saved money (allowing them to be aggressive in later rounds), most felt the guy was going to hit.

Even in 2022, when he missed a considerable chunk of the season, he still homered 10 times in 59 games and had an .852 OPS without getting the kinds of consistent reps a player in his first full season, even an advanced college one, needs. This year, he’s put it all together while staying healthy, with a .974 OPS and 160 wRC+. He continued to hit the ball hard with the move up to Triple-A, with 10 balls at 100 mph or higher in as many games.

Davis has always had an advanced approach at the plate, and he’s raised that to another level this year. He might have been one of the most prepared hitters in the Minors in terms of knowing — and sticking to — his gameplan, and he has routinely worked to get into hitter’s counts. That’s enabled him to do more damage consistently, and he’s not tried to do too much, instead letting his hit tool and enormous strength do their things naturally.

He’s also shown a willingness to make some minor adjustments in terms of his setup at the dish. He’s always going to set up close to the plate — that’s part of what allows him to have some impressive plate coverage — but he has moved just a tiny bit off the plate to avoid the hit-by-pitches that seemed to find him magnetically in 2022. He was hit 20 times last year, one of which caused the wrist injury that shelved him. He’s still been hit eight times this year, but the small change is more meaningful than the HBP totals.

Davis, even his strongest proponents will tell you, has a very healthy stubborn streak. And let’s be honest, the really good players tend to lean in that direction. Its always come with an intense work ethic and a conviction in his beliefs that he’s studied the best ways for him to do a thing. But we all know this is a game of adjustments, and it’s an encouraging sign of growth that when this 23-year old was presented with information, data and reasoning, he was willing to make the adjustment. This, along with his preparedness, should help him hit the ground running with the bat in the big leagues.

The main thing evaluators questioned when the 2021 Draft approached was whether Davis could handle the defensive responsibilities as a catcher at the highest level. The Pirates believe he’s made huge strides there and eventually will be just fine as a big league backstop, if and when he’s needed. But, as it’s been reported, Davis will likely see more time in right field than behind the plate for the time being.

He’s played more games as a corner outfielder than as a catcher with Triple-A Indianapolis and has played 13 games there this season. It’s another sign of growth that he’s embraced playing the outfield more than last year, when his two games out there with Altoona were not exactly met with enthusiasm. Davis was, and is, intent on proving to doubters he can catch, but he’s also learned that not only has his ability to play right field helped him reach his ultimate goal of being a big leaguer, but that his athleticism, not to mention his 70-grade arm, play quite well out there.

The Pirates’ offense certainly needs a boost, and all signs point to Davis being completely ready to step in and help provide the necessary jolt. How much he catches really doesn’t matter right now, but expect his right-handed bat to be in the lineup more often than not, and don’t be shocked if his confidence that some might call cockiness rubs off in a very positive way on the big league roster.

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