Unearthing a gem: How J.D. Davis flourished after being traded to the Mets

NEW YORK – J.D. Davis kept mulling through scenarios, trying to figure out why Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow had just called him at 7:30 a.m. on a Sunday.

“I was like, he never calls me. I was like what is this about?” Davis told Yahoo Sports during a recent interview. “I’m talking to my girlfriend, like, am I getting traded now, what’s going on? Because Luhnow never calls me, not in a bad way, but GM to a player, something impactful is going to happen.”

Davis called Luhnow back but he did not pick up, and 30 minutes later, the phone rang again and it was Luhnow letting Davis know his detective work had led to the right theory.

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No longer was Davis an Astro. He now played for the Mets, a fresh start for a player who had been hoping for his chance.

Luhnow told Davis that the organization felt had a better chance for success elsewhere, and the Mets made the best offer among a handful of teams.

“He told me, ‘you made a name for yourself,’” Davis said.

That chance to leave the Astros and get a chance to crack another team’s 25-man roster has since proven to be a boon for him and his new team.

Davis has emerged as one of the key players of the Mets’ young core, answering all questions about whether he could be an everyday player by slashing .303/.368/.508 with 18 homers entering Tuesday’s game against Arizona.

The infielder/outfielder will be a key bat in the Mets’ lineup for years to come.

“That’s all I wanted to be a part of something special and part of a group. I was with the Astros, a young guy, but I felt like I didn’t belong or like I was an insurance policy,” Davis said. “That’s nothing against the clubhouse guys over there, they were awesome. The coaches were awesome and welcoming every time I came to the big leagues, but you knew that (Alex) Bregman was ahead of you.

“I was more of a guy off the bench or if someone got hurt.”

Aug 21, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) hits a game winning RBI single defeat the Cleveland Indians in the tenth inning to at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 21, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) hits a game winning RBI single defeat the Cleveland Indians in the tenth inning to at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

29 other teams are watching

Houston’s minor league coaches preached a consistent message to Davis and other young prospects who recognized that it could be tough to crack a loaded major league roster filled with top young talent.

“A lot of coaches told me you’re playing for 29 other teams, don’t be discouraged, keep working hard,” Davis recalled. “They said ‘you’re going to be a third baseman, going to be in the big leagues and have a bright future,’ and you keep trying to tell yourself just to keep pushing in and keep working. At times, it can be frustrating.”

Davis’ path from the Astros to the Mets highlights how it can be a blessing and a curse for some players to be part of a deep organization like Houston.

There isn’t any player that doesn’t want to play for a winner. It’s much more fun to show up to the park when each game matters than to play out the string.

But, the drawback for some of the younger players on the Astros, Yankees or Dodgers, is there isn’t a clear route to playing time.

And players will tell you that having the chance to play every day outweighs winning since that’s ultimately how you get paid.

Davis, known for his voracious studying and intellect when it comes to hitting, still remembers the chain of events that left him pondering his Astros future.

When Houston selected him in the third round of the 2014 Draft, the Astros’ third baseman was Matt Dominguez, who last played in 2016.

“There was a chance I could make a big jump and be the future third baseman for the Astros,” Davis said.

Over the course of the next 12 months, that outlook changed.

First, the Astros acquired Colin Moran from the Marlins, and in a bigger development, they selected Bregman with the second pick in the 2015 Draft.

Bregman has since become one of MLB’s elite stars.

“In a year and a half,” Davis said, “it’s like I’m third on the depth chart.”

Davis started pondering whether he could play other positions, but the Astros are so deep in talent that other avenues weren’t available.

They had a first baseman in Yuri Gurriel, plus Tyler White and A.J. Reed were already in the same boat as Davis, waiting for their shots. Both are now with new teams.

The Astros have also invested in their outfield, and selected stud prospect Kyle Tucker just three picks after they nabbed Bregman in that 2015 draft.

It didn’t help that Davis also underwhelmed in limited showings with Houston, hitting just .194 with a .581 OPS spanning 181 plate appearances. Davis, like most young players, never adapted to sporadic at-bats and playing time.

And since he wasn’t an elite prospect, the Astros weren’t going to keep him in the lineup every day and let him work through his slumps.

“There was a lot of uncertainty from 2017 to this last offseason of what my future was with the Astros,” Davis said. “It’s one of those example it’s hard to be in that system and crack that lineup because they’re so good over there and so dominant.

“They’re just really good.”

Jul 2, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) celebrates his solo home run against the New York Yankees with left fielder Dominic Smith (22) during the sixth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 2, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) celebrates his solo home run against the New York Yankees with left fielder Dominic Smith (22) during the sixth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Finding your own Justin Turner

As the cross-town rival Yankees have often found diamonds in the rough with the likes of Aaron Hicks, Didi Gregorius, Luke Voit and others, the Mets have instead been the poster child for giving up on talent too early. The most famous example being Justin Turner.

The Mets famously non-tendered Turner after the 2013 season, and he’s since become an elite third baseman with the Dodgers. And for the past five seasons, the Mets were not able to find their own version of Turner to plug into their lineup.

Enter Davis.

Acquiring Davis has proven to be a shrewd move by general manager Brodie Van Wagenen and his staff, and perhaps could be a sign of the Mets are trying to look for more underutilized assets from other teams.

The Mets liked Davis for two main reasons: he had a good offensive track record in the minors, and he offered positional versatility with the ability to play both corner infield and outfield spots, albeit with some concerns.

Davis’ underwhelming showing in the majors with Houston did not deter the Mets since they chalked it up to an insignificant sample size.

“We truly believed in the bat,” Van Wagenen said.

The Mets also saw Davis as a player could get at a potential discount due to his draft status since he had not yet proven himself at this level, and as a non first-round pick who was not considered a can’t-miss prospect.

At the time of the trades, several scouts believed the Mets actually forfeited the best player in the deal in infielder Luis Santana.

Van Wagenen credited assistant general manager Adam Guttridge, who oversees the analytics department, with leading the charge to acquire Davis.

“From a profile standpoint we acquired him because we hoped he could be an everyday player and so far he’s shown that he has that potential and able to demonstrate huge value for us over the course of the season,” Van Wagenen said. “It’s never easy to give up three players for one, but J.D. was a guy we prioritized.”

Apr 6, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets third baseman J.D. Davis (28) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Washington Nationals during the fourth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets third baseman J.D. Davis (28) rounds the bases after hitting a solo home run against the Washington Nationals during the fourth inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Besting Patrick Corbin —twice

Davis believes his career changed on April 6.

That’s the day he homered twice off Patrick Corbin.

Entering that game, Davis had been just 4-for-20 as a Met.

Davis thought he actually was hitting the ball well, but the numbers didn’t reflect that. He had a potential homer knocked down at Nationals Park due to the wind. A line drive that got caught. That early in the year, two outs makes a difference.

“Going from Houston not hitting well, of course, we’re all human, and a little creep of doubt (comes in),” Davis said recently at his locker inside Citi Field. “You got failure going, things not going your way, you’re like, man what’s going on?”

Davis finally saw his process translate into results that Saturday afternoon, homering in the fourth and sixth innings off Corbin, one of the premier lefty starters who had just signed a six-year, $140-million deal in free agency.

“Those at-bats against Corbin, being one of the guys in the league being a high-priced market guy this last offseason just to come through in a big situation, big game and hit two home runs off of him it was kind of like the monkey jumped off my back,” Davis said. “It’s kind of like a self confidence booster in a way like I belong here. This guy is a dude and I got him twice. I was pretty pumped about it, and from there on I kind of settled in and had some fun.”

Davis has since emerged as viable offensive players who looks like a keeper, particularly since he’s answered the two biggest questions the Mets had about him.

For all the upside the Mets saw with Davis, they were unsure how he would handle righties, and if he could consistently hit velocity.

The book on Davis has been that he mashes lefties and off-speed pitches, but righties with strong velocity can get him out.

Davis is slashing .303/.364/.508/.872 against righties this season, and hitting .286 with a .586 slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs thrown by righties, according to BaseballSavant.com. Davis is in the 89th percentile in MLB in exit velocity, and 92nd percent in hard-hit balls, according to the website.

In his quest to improve against righties, the 26-year-old worked to shorten his load to shorten his distance to the ball. Mets hitting coach Chili Davis has worked with Davis on being direct to the ball, and making sure his hands are in the right place.

“For guys like him, that have had continued success in the minor leagues, it’s just a matter of timing,” Chili Davis said. “Maybe he came to the big leagues earlier and it wasn’t the right time and didn’t happen. You can’t say the kid can’t hit in the big leagues. Now, he’s in the big leagues, right time, right team and right guys around him and it’s happening. His confidence and success is going to breed confidence.”

Davis’ success does not come as a surprise to former Astros teammate and current Cubs outfielder Tony Kemp, who also had to leave Houston to play more

“He’s always had those tools, and always had the ability to put the ball over the fence and it’s nice to see him get regular playing time,” Kemp said last month. “He never really with Houston was able to get in there consistently and get comfortable, and now you see what he can do when he gets comfortable.”

Aug 29, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) is congratulated by first baseman Pete Alonso (20) after hitting a solo home run against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 29, 2019; New York City, NY, USA; New York Mets left fielder J.D. Davis (28) is congratulated by first baseman Pete Alonso (20) after hitting a solo home run against the Chicago Cubs during the first inning at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

A young Mets core to build around

Davis estimates he has only worn his World Series ring about three to four times.

He mostly keeps it in a safe, a nice keepsake to remember his time in Houston since he didn’t participate in that World Series run.

While the Astros were clinching their 2017 championship several hundred miles up the road in Los Angeles, Davis, like any regular 20-something-year-old, watched the game on a television in his home in Sacramento.

“Seeing them celebrate was a bittersweet moment,” Davis said. “I wanted to be there even if I was a reserve on the bench, just to be a part of it. Just, to be at home, it was odd to celebrate with your parents and your girlfriend.”

In that moment, Davis reflected on what his coaches had told him, that there were still 29 other teams out there he could land with.

He’s since found his home in New York, and he’s tried to impart that message on several of the other young players like home run leader Pete Alonso. This is their chance to build a core, and create an exciting future. This is their chance to shine.

There are still questions about where Davis fits in defensive in the long term, but with a bat like his, the Mets will find a spot.

A group featuring Davis, Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto and Amed Rosario is one that the Mets can build a contender around, if done right. It’s quite the jump from when the Mets acquired Davis and the jury was still out on him.

Now, Davis is a key part in it all, just as he always hoped he would one day be, even if it meant having to leave Houston.

“It means the world to me. I’m grateful for Brodie pulling the trigger on (the trade). I always knew – it’s not me being cocky or anything like that, it’s me being confident in myself that if I got more exposure. …I knew I’d be fine,” Davis said. “Did I think that in my first full year I would be batting .300 with 17 home runs? No. I would have been like, nah, you’re joking, I would’ve settled for hitting .270 with like 10 or 15 because I didn’t know if I was starting or not or anything.”

He added: He added: “It’s been fun, it’s been a blast. To be so inexperienced and come in and be part of at least a playoff race, that’s huge.”

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