Brennen Davis and Confirmation Bias

Written by: Ray Butler

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Same James, same…..

If you’ve been living under a rock or have been on a technology hiatus the past two weeks, Brennen Davis was finally promoted to Low-A South Bend, officially marking the full season debut for a prospect who gradually gained helium leading up to the start of the 2019 season.

He’s only played in ten games since being promoted, but Davis is already setting the Midwest League ablaze, slashing .382/.475/.647 with two home runs, a stolen base and as many walks as strikeouts (five apiece) in 40 plate appearances for the Cubs’ low-minors affiliate (215 wRC+). Ten percent of his plate appearances have ended with an extra base hit.

This is uber-intriguing for a countless amount of reasons. First, Prospects 365 was certainly ‘in’ on Davis this preseason. Staff writer Dylan Matthews started the hype on our site, stating the 19-year-old possesses .300 AVG/20 HR/20 SB upside in a profile on the outfield prospect. Davis ranked 233rd on the VIP portion of my preseason prospect list; he also joined Cardinals outfield prospect Dylan Carlson (who I featured in this week’s Ramblings) as a focal point of one of my prospect bold predictions for the 2019 season. Both are doing their fair share to ensure it comes true.

But the ‘why’ with Davis’ growing helium is just as important (perhaps even more so) than the results themselves. Selected by the Cubs in the second round of last summer’s MLB Draft, the teenager was basically a toolsy ball of clay deemed a ‘project’ on draft night. Here’s Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel‘s write-up on Davis from their most-recent Cubs prospect list on Fangraphs (published last December).

“If you’re looking for the Platonic Ideal of upside, it exists in Davis, who is raw as a hitter but still enthralling in every other possible way. Davis was his conference’s Defensive POY on a 2016 state championship basketball team and didn’t fully commit to baseball until his senior year. His mother was a track and field athlete at the University of Washington and his father is former NBA All-Star, Reggie Theus. In addition to his athletic gifts, scouts rave about Davis’ maturity as a student and a worker (often citing the odd hours he keeps taking care of a goat and llamas at his family home), and all thought he’d be able to cope with likely early-career contact struggles and would work to improve his ability to hit. If Davis grows into a 40 bat, he could be a star because of his power and ability to play center field. There’s some risk he never gets there.”

The outcomes were anywhere from ‘never makes enough contact to sniff the big leagues’ to ‘legitimate, five-tool monster’. The sample is dangerously small, but it’s impossible to hate on what we’ve seen from the outfielder since being drafted.

Make no mistake about it: Davis is an entirely different hitter than that ball of clay drafted last summer. The Cubs completely tore down the teenager’s swing, rebuilding it from the ground-up to unlock the outfielder’s lower half while optimizing the swing path. When you pair that fact with Davis’ progression in the weight room (and obvious addition of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame), you realize we’re cooking with grease. Now re-read the numbers he’s posted in his first ten full season games. It’s impossible to not be excited.

For Cubs fans, the outfielder could eventually become a sign of hope. With a weak farm system and a big league contention window that’s arguably closer to being closed than originally opened, I spoke with Bryan Smith (who runs the well-known @cubsprospects handle) about the potential impact a prospect with Davis’ upside can have amongst the fanbase.

“(Epstein) has spoken countless times about the Cubs’ current window, which extends until 2021, and the team has made sacrifices in the farm system to try and maximize success in that window. If a guy like (Davis’) breakout proves legitimate, it will really help give some hope that there’s success lying beyond this window, that the front office can restock the cupboards even while maintaining Major League success.

Here’s the 19-year-old’s second home run of the season, hit Tuesday night. Even from the broadcast angle, you can tell how well he stays back on a curveball. Lower half stays engaged and connected, then BOOM. Elevate and celebrate.

Before diving into his fantasy value, it’s worth re-touching on the numbers once more. For a player whose hit tool was the only real concern when he was drafted, it’s quite reassuring to see a 12.5 BB% and 12.5 K% in his first full season stint. As I stated, the sample is so small that things can drastically change fairly quickly, but I’m pleased with the early plate discipline nonetheless. The batted ball profile is also quite appetizing, but it’s far from stabilization and normalization (only 40 PA) so it’s not worth discussing… yet.

It’s nothing more than speculative at this point, but check out his tool grades from Fangraphs. Now imagine the type of prospect we’re dealing with if the early success in South Bend isn’t entirely a fluke.

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Even if the potential of the hit tool is average (or slightly below average, even), we’ve got a prospect on our hands with no tools weak enough to genuinely cap the immense potential. Remember: the short-sample numbers don’t make this conversation worth having. The obvious swing adjustments and improved approach (seen and heard via video and in-person reports) do. With the rapid alterations and improvements we’ve already seen from Davis (distributed to the ability to make future adjustments when bigger challenges come along), I don’t think it’s completely unfair to dream on a player whose weakest tool someday grades at 55. That’s scary.

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Let’s close with a fantasy-focused scenario I found myself in re: Davis earlier this week. I love discussing these scenarios with readers and followers.

My home-league’s FYPD began as soon as the Orioles went on the clock Monday night (J2 prospects can be added in our offseason draft). Each prospect in our league costs $10 FAAB to add, and I entered our draft with enough FAAB allotment to add one prospect if I’d like (there are 12 teams and about 125 prospects rostered in our league).

J.J. Bleday was taken one pick ahead of mine, so I was put on the clock with the following conundrum: do I add Hunter Bishop, or pass my pick and instead add Dylan Carlson or Davis in free agency? Our draft was offline, so I was given as much time as I needed to research the scenario to my contentment. I agonized over the decision.

I rolled with Davis.

Here’s the thing: my team is a well-built, perennial contender. My active roster is stacked; my farm system is loaded. I can afford to target high-risk, high-reward prospects in hopes of hitting the jackpot if one develops into a bonafide star without worrying that a ‘miss’ would have the adverse effect on my roster. Once I convinced myself of that, Davis was the fairly easy choice (and for what it’s worth, I would rank the upside of those three prospects as 1) Davis, 2) Bishop and 3) Carlson). Of course, not every keeper or dynasty league player can afford that same luxury. I have no idea how I’ll rank the trio in my midseason prospect list, I just know that at least Davis and Carlson will be slotted aggressively.

But here’s another thing: as the sample on Davis grows, are we sure the risk in the profile is volatile? Yes, there’s inherent risk with any teenage prospect. Yes, Davis will battle through adversity at some point of his minor league career. But (and this seems like somewhat of a worst-case scenario based on where we stand now) if the strikeout rate only regresses to ~22%, the walk rate regresses to ~8% and the BABIP continues to resemble that of a plus-runner in Low-A, won’t the floor begin to look a lot higher than it was perceived to be this preseason?

There is no scenario in which your fantasy league rosters 200 prospects and Davis isn’t one of them. By the end of the regular season, you may be able to cut that number in half and the same thought would hold true.

How open is your acquisition window, you ask? You can scout the stat line here and get a good idea of Davis’ progression and performance. As always with elite athletes, make sure you keep a close eye on the strikeout and walk rates. Search his name on Twitter and find access to as much video and first-person anecdotes as possible. When it’s time for you to pounce, don’t be late.

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Featured image courtesy of photographer Rikk Carlson and Chicago Now


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