Colorado Springs, Colorado —— Johnny Davis shouldn’t be playing baseball right now. Ask him, and he’ll tell you as much. So the fact that he’s here in the Pacific Coast League makes him maybe the greatest underdog in all of professional baseball.
Nobody can blame you if you don’t recognize the name; Davis, a Milwaukee Brewers farmhand, isn’t exactly a top prospect. But the 27-year-old outfielder, playing now for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, is one of the fastest men in pro ball. A 3.85-second time from contact to first base is considered 80-grade speed for a left-handed hitter; late last week in Colorado Springs, Davis twice registered times faster than that, nearly beating out routine ground balls at first.
“That’s insane,” one Brewers minor league pitcher said, reacting to the stopwatch while charting pitches during one of Johnny Davis’ sprints up the base line in a game against the New Orleans Baby Cakes. “How is that even possible?”
That’s a legitimate question — the fleet-footed Milwaukee Brewers prospect now holds claim to the two fastest home-to-first times I’ve ever recorded — but it surely isn’t what makes Davis’ career path such an underdog story. To get there, you have to start at the start, all the way back at West Los Angeles College in Culver City, California… where Johnny Davis picked up a baseball for the first time in his life.
Johnny Davis has always been a late bloomer. Despite being a self-described natural athlete growing up, he didn’t have much use for sports up until the very end of his prep career at Compton High School in the notorious southern California city.
“I started late playing sports, period,” Davis recounted before a game in Colorado Springs late last week. “Football even, man, I started in eleventh grade.”
Football ended after high school, and four more years passed with Davis away from organized sports. But as luck would have it, his little brother Tyree —five years Johnny’s junior — was playing baseball at Centennial High School in Compton, and by 2012, he was starting to draw attention from scouts. One thing led to another, Tyree’s success pushed Johnny towards baseball, and the elder Davis spent 2013 playing a full season of organized baseball for the very first time in his life at West Los Angeles College.
After hitting .336/.374/.549/.923 as a 23-year-old freshman for WLAC — with 22 stolen bases in 29 games — the Milwaukee Brewers selected Johnny Davis in the 22nd round of the 2013 MLB Draft, and the unlikeliest of professional baseball careers was born. Tyree was drafted by the Minnesota Twins a year later, and spent the next three seasons with them in the Gulf Coast League before being released last winter.
But Johnny, ten days shy of his 28th birthday, persists. A good rookie year in the Arizona League in 2013 earned him a promotion to Low-A Wisconsin in 2014. There, Davis stole 32 bases — but was caught 21 times — in 430 at-bats.
“You should have seen me as a rookie, I was terrible,” he quipped. “I could only hit because I was a good athlete. But I’ve taken that and worked hard, and I’ve grown so much over the years.”
Injuries claimed most of 2015, and then the outfielder split 2016 between High-A Brevard County and Double-A Biloxi. He returned to Biloxi in 2017, stole 52 bases (on 64 attempts), and earned a spot on Colorado Springs’ playoff roster at the tail end of last summer.
And now, here he is back in Colorado Springs, a Triple-A outfielder one step away from The Show despite only playing 29 games of amateur baseball before entering the pro ranks. It’s an underdog story to top all underdog stories — and it’s forced Johnny Davis to play catch-up with every aspect of the game besides the elite foot speed.
“If I had played baseball at a younger age, I’d be far more advanced than I am now,” he acknowledged, “but I’ve made adjustments each and every year, and I know I’ve gotten better each and every year. I’m a competitor, I’m an athlete, and when I get out here, I just try to compete.”
Speedy outfielders have enticed organizations many a time before. If he can just get on first base, one surmises, the havoc he’ll wreak upon pitchers and catchers will open up a lot of big innings. It’s a fine theory, and one the Milwaukee Brewers have put to the test with Davis’ 137 career stolen bases, but an old adage inevitably rears up sooner or later: you can’t steal first base. And for Johnny Davis, who owns a career .267/.327/.322/.649 slash line, that’s meant making wholesale adjustments at the plate over, and over, and over again as he climbs levels.
“In college I was just a free swinger, but it’s not like that any more up here,” he said. “When you get into the upper levels, the pitcher has a plan against you, and you need to have a plan against him. As long as I can put the ball in play, I should be fine, but the off-speed stuff is what really forces you to make an adjustment. I could always hit the fastball, but I’ve really had to make adjustments to learn how to hit the off-speed.”
Knowing he needed to get better at recognizing and reacting to off-speed pitches, the Milwaukee Brewers sent Johnny Davis to the Venezuelan Winter League this past offseason, where he received 54 plate appearances for the Bravos de Margarita. It marked Davis’ first time spent outside the United States, but more importantly for his career, it allowed the outfielder to routinely see breaking balls and changeups in an effort to grow in his approach at the plate.
“Winter ball was big for that,” he said. “Me going out over the winter to Venezuela and getting repetitions on breaking balls, and even me spending the year in Double-A seeing so many breaking balls, that’s helped. They’re going to throw you breaking balls no matter if you’re a speed guy or a power guy, so you need to learn how to make an adjustment.”
“Besides, nobody throws anything straight any more,” he added. “Now, the cutter is at 95 mph, and the sinker is at 97. That’s where all this is going, people are throwing more pitches like that. Nothing is straight.”
And so here Johnny Davis suddenly finds himself in Triple-A, a step away from Major League Baseball just five years after he first picked up the sport. Cite his speed as the reason he’s here, fine, but the outfielder’s approach at the plate has improved considerably over the last couple years. If he holds his own there, and if the Milwaukee Brewers find themselves in a pennant race down the stretch, there’s a realistic chance that Davis will find himself on a big league roster as a highly specialized pinch runner and defensive replacement. Whatever happens, there’s no question about one thing: Johnny Davis is the underdog every single time he steps up to the plate against pitchers more advanced and far more experienced.
“I know I’m an underdog,” he said. “I tell people all the time, I don’t want to be tall. I’m fine with being short. Honestly, I’m fine with being short, because it makes me the underdog. And when I do something, it’s way more crazy than the dude that was supposed to do it. I’m not supposed to be here right now, but I am, and I’ve been playing against guys that have been playing their whole lives. How does a pitcher feel when I get a base hit, or I steal a base off him? I love being an underdog.”
Editor’s Note: As luck would have it, in 2018, West Los Angeles College has two baseball prospects extremely reminiscent of the speedy Johnny Davis; click here to read about infielder Navari Julius, and click here to read about outfielder Paul Pollard.
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