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Orioles 2021 draft preview: Henry Davis

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The Orioles have already got their catcher of the future. Louisville catcher Henry Davis might still tempt them in the coming draft.

Louisville catcher Henry Davis celebrates during the College World Series.
Louisville catcher Henry Davis celebrates during the College World Series.
George Walker IV / Tennessean.com

The Orioles already have their hands on their catcher of the future, unless something awful occurs. Adley Rutschman, the 2019 #1 overall pick, began the season as most prospect lists #2 minor leaguer in all of baseball and will soon be the top prospect in the game, once Tampa’s Wander Franco plays enough to drop off of those lists.

Having one top catching prospect is not, or at least should not be, a reason to discourage a team from selecting another catcher with a high pick in a subsequent draft. Take the best player available and see what happens in the future. The Orioles of 13 years ago had a mega-prospect in Matt Wieters and never seemed to seriously consider that draft class’s top catcher, Florida State catcher Buster Posey. Posey’s career numbers have trounced those of Wieters.

This history is worth a mention when considering the Orioles #5 overall pick in Sunday’s draft because one player who may be available to them is Louisville catcher Henry Davis. Wieters should not have been a barrier to the O’s drafting Posey 13 years ago and Rutschman’s presence shouldn’t change how they look at Davis in 2021. Davis was the Orioles selection in a Fangraphs mock draft last month.

Over the course of this week, I’ll be looking at some of the prospects mentioned in connection with the O’s top pick in this year’s draft. Yesterday, if you missed it, was a look at North Carolina high school shortstop Kahlil Watson.

Davis is just about every publication and ranking’s top player among the crop of college hitters for this draft. If the Orioles want to do the underslot strategy again, Davis will not be their choice. The Athletic’s Keith Law has Davis sitting at the top of his big board of 100 players. At Fangraphs, Davis is the #2 player in the draft class, on the cusp of being a top 50 prospect in all of baseball as soon as he signs. MLB Pipeline rates Davis “only” fifth, behind only three of the “big four” shortstops and Vanderbilt pitcher Jack Leiter.

All of this points to a simple truth that Davis may not even be available when the Orioles make their pick. Some other team might get to him first, unless the draft plays out closer to Pipeline’s ranking than the others. Don’t get too attached to any of the names I write about this week. The Orioles will draft at most one of them, and odds are against it being whichever one you like the most. Just hope the Orioles pick someone good and be ready to cheer him on once he’s in the system.

Davis, who turns 22 in September, is fresh off a junior season where he blasted 15 home runs in 50 games for Louisville, with a batting line overall of .370/.482/.663. Davis struck out in only 10.5% of his plate appearances for the season, and he walked about 25% more often than he went down on strikes. That’s facing ACC pitchers with composite bats rather than pro pitchers while using a wood bat, but it points to plenty of positives.

Law, who rated Davis at the top of his board, praised the righty batter’s “elite approach at the plate, an ideal combination of selectivity, pitch recognition, and hand acceleration” after scouting him in April. You can read a lot of exciting words about any top draft prospect or top minor league prospect. This is no guarantee that’s the player who actually makes it to MLB. Speaking of Wieters, here’s what Baseball Prospectus said about him before the 2009 season:

A monster on offense, Wieters is a switch-hitter with plus to plus-plus power from both sides of the plate, an excellent batting eye, and a fantastic feel for contact. He walked more times (82) than he struck out (76) in ’08, hits to all fields, rarely chases a bad pitch, and punishes mistakes. Defensively, he’s incredibly agile behind the plate, and his plus-plus arm can shut down an opponents’ running game.

We just never saw all of that version of the guy at the MLB level, except for maybe the defensive stuff before his Tommy John surgery. The challenge for any drafting team is to figure out who deserves the consensus hype and who doesn’t.

In support of Law’s scouting of Davis is that it is a rarity for Davis to swing and miss at a pitch. “Davis doesn’t swing and miss much” is not a familiar phrase in Birdland, since the Davis most recently familiar to us is Chris Davis, who spent his last few seasons failing his way into the top 20 on the career strikeouts list. Fangraphs logged Henry at a 7.6% swinging strike rate for the season. Even when he was good, Chris swung and missed over 15% of the time. The MLB-level average for the 2021 season to date is 11.4%.

With Davis as the #2 prospect on the Fangraphs board, they’re clearly big fans. In their scouting report on him, they say he is “arguably the safest prospect in the draft because he plays a premium position, has impact raw power, and has no contact red flags.” On the other hand, there is some potential defensive downside as well:

Davis’ size makes it hard for him to crouch like most catchers. He catches on one knee with the bases empty and fewer than two strikes, but when he’s in a traditional crouch, he is so high that you could slide an ottoman right through his legs. He also has issues with lateral mobility, ball-blocking, and throwing accuracy.

With Pedro Severino behind the dish for the 2021 Orioles, O’s fans have seen plenty of what it looks like when a catcher has issues with lateral mobility, ball-blocking, and throwing accuracy.

The Orioles, or whatever team drafts Davis, will have to have some confidence in Davis having the capability to be coached into a better technique. Or, perhaps, with Rutschman already seemingly locked in behind the dish, the O’s or another team could just kick Davis out to a different position.

Pipeline’s report on Davis notes that he could be a possibility at third base or an outfield corner thanks to his arm strength and greater quickness than most catchers. If his offensive capabilities are as great as people think, the bat will play anywhere. This is said of far more prospects than actually end up having a bat that can play anywhere, of course. We can hope, if the Orioles draft Davis, that it’s actually true in this case.

The first round of the draft kicks off on Sunday at 7pm Eastern. We’ll find out who the Orioles have the chance to take, then who they actually take, soon after that.