MILWAUKEE — Sometimes all a young player needs is a chance to prove what he can do. If everything would have gone according to plan for the Milwaukee Brewers this season, Khris Davis wouldn’t have found an opportunity.
But with Ryan Braun suspended for the remainder of the season, Davis has not only seized the majority of the playing time in left field, but he’s also forced the Brewers to find a way to fit him into their future plans.
“He’s doing a great job,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “He keeps showing he can hang in there against tough righties. He takes some great swings off lefties.
“He works the count well, which is what I really like. He’s an aggressive swinger; he’s not a hacker. He doesn’t just go up there and swing at everything. He swings at the pitch he wants to swing at.”
By hitting .348 with eight home runs and 18 RBI since Braun was suspended, Davis has shown he deserves a chance to earn playing time next season, but where? Braun will be back in left field on Opening Day next season and is signed through 2020.
“I’m just seeing it real good,” Davis said. “I’m just getting my foot down on time and seeing it real good. Once that happens, he has to let it go and it’s mine then.”
As of right now, Davis is exclusively a left fielder. He’s not a great defensive outfielder and has a below average throwing arm. While Davis can work on some things in defensively, his arm strength is something that may never improve much.
In seeing him in left field every day for the past month, Roenicke would be fine playing Davis there for an extended period of time. But Braun isn’t losing his job, meaning the Brewers must feel comfortable enough with Davis in right field or hopes he learns first base, a challenging task.
“I think he’s done a real nice job defensively,” Roenicke said. “The arm part and the throwing part, it’s probably the least thing that comes up in the outfield. How many guys really throw somebody out at the plate? Does it even come up once a week in our games? It doesn’t.
“To think that’s a huge part of the outfield, it really isn’t. It seems like it should be, but it’s not. He runs well, he covers ground and he catches everything he gets to. That’s more important to me — the range and getting to a ball, probably the most important part of playing the outfield.”
If Davis had come up and struggled at the plate, the Brewers wouldn’t have even bothered trying to find a place for him to play.
Making the team out of spring training because of an impressive power display put on in the Cactus League, Davis struggled to adapt to a bench role. He got just 16 at-bats over the season’s first month and had just three hits for a .188 average.
Davis went back down to Triple-A on May 1 and came up for a short time before the All-Star break when Braun went on the bereavement list. When the star left fielder accepted a 65-game suspension on July 23, Davis was summoned again.
The second time around, he’s been a totally different player. With regular at-bats, Davis has shown patience at the plate, an ability to hit for average and home-run power.
“It’s easier,” Davis said of the difference regular playing time makes. “You just get comfortable. That’s it, being comfortable.
“It’s easier because you get a chance to make adjustments from AB to AB, from frame to frame in a game. Just having to pinch-hit, you might have to wait a day or so and face a different dude.”
Roenicke can speak from experience on how difficult it is for any player – let alone a rookie – to perform well in a bench role. The lack of at-bats while trying to adapt to the big-league level finds many young players lost. With consistent time in the lineup, Roenicke has seen much better at-bats from Davis.
“His at-bats are good,” Roenicke said. “He’s not up there wild swinging, he takes close pitches and makes that pitcher come back over the plate. When he does, he’s not missing the mistake right now. When you are coming off the bench, you know the at-bats are going to be about the same. If you are patient enough, you are going to get a mistake in your at bat. But when you are playing every day, you don’t seem to miss it.
“When you are coming off the bench, you get that one pitch and you miss it. Then you know it is going to be a couple of days before you get another at-bat. Mentally, that wears on you.”
Currently hitting .350 in August, Davis has a chance to finish with the highest batting average in a month by a rookie in team history. Dale Sveum holds the current record with a .385 average in May of 1986, but rookie second baseman Scooter Gennett is currently hitting .394 in August.
“They have confidence; I love it,” Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez said of Davis and Gennett. “They can hit. As long as they keep being consistent, if they do this, they belong here. They have great discipline at the plate. They look like they make quick changes in their approach to each at-bat.”
Davis has a very level-headed presence about him, but he plays with the attitude of a veteran. Milwaukee’s seventh-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2009, Davis has hit well at every level of the minor leagues.
But before this season, the Brewers had no idea what they had going forward.
“It’s difficult when they’re at Triple-A and you’re guessing how their game is going to play in the big leagues,” Roenicke said. “Now we get to see how it plays in the big leagues. Davis is showing me something. Scooter is showing me something.”
“I hadn’t seen (Davis) before spring training. In spring training, when he got his pitch, he hit a home run with it. Here, he’s got some plate discipline. I really like that. That’s going to help him to be more consistent and face some of these guys, like a funky left-hander or a side-armed right-hander. If you’re not just swinging at everything, you’ve got a chance if they make a mistake to hit it.”
After a recent game in Cincinnati in which he hit two crucial home runs, Davis said he knew he got both off the bat “did a little skip and touched ’em”. There’s a level of confidence rarely found in a young player inside of Davis and it even shone through when he was struggling early in the season.
“I’m never lacking confidence,” he said. “I come to the ballpark prepared. That’s where you get confidence, with preparation. That’s easy.
“I’ve been working for this my whole life. Now that I’m here, I just want to work at my own tempo and have a good time and do something to help the team win.”