In Their Footsteps: The first baseman

It wasn’t uncommon for Chris Davis to make the 150-mile trip to Rangers Ballpark during his junior and senior years at Longview High School, which happened to be Mark Teixeira’s first two seasons in the big leagues.  Though Davis was a shortstop and pitcher for the Lobos, the first baseman Teixeira caught the teenager’s eye, particularly at the plate.  

“I just remember how cool it was that they played the theme from ‘The Natural’ whenever he hit a home run,” Davis recalls.  “And I think he homered every time I was out there.”

Davis hears the theme from “The Natural” a whole lot these days, too.  The 22-year-old, now a first baseman himself, homered in each of his first four starts in Rangers Ballpark.

The parallels between Teixeira and Davis are obvious.  The Rangers drafted Teixeira, a 6’3″, 220-pound power hitter, out of college.  He played his first pro season at third base, before moving across the diamond as he broke into the big leagues as a first baseman.  

Similarly, Texas drafted the 6’3″, 220-pound Davis out of college.  After a debut summer at first base and the outfield, he played his first full pro season at third base, moving this year to first base and arriving in Arlington at that position.

Their pedigrees weren’t the same, however.  Texas drafted Teixeira with the fifth overall pick in 2001 — three years after Boston failed to sign him as a high school pick — and paid him $9.5 million to turn pro.  The Rangers drafted Davis in the fifth round in 2006 — two years after the Yankees failed to sign him as a high school pick — and signed him for $172,500.  There was certainly a different set of expectations for the two, as Teixeira, even before he signed, was viewed as this franchise’s next star player, while Davis was virtually anonymous outside Longview and Corsicana (where he starred for Navarro Junior College), and did nothing to change that after hitting .179 for Spokane in his first month as a pro.

But Davis quickly erased memory of his slow start.  In the 2006 season’s remaining six weeks, he caught fire and finished in the Northwest League’s top five in most key offensive categories, hitting .277/.343/.534 with 18 doubles and 15 homers in 253 at-bats.  He not only made the league’s All-Star Team but was recognized by Baseball America as the first baseman on its Short-Season Class A All-Star Team and as the player who had the best pro debut of any first baseman drafted in 2006 and of any junior college player drafted in 2006.  

But what Davis did in 2007, his first full pro season, looked far less like his 2006 debut than like Teixeira’s debut season in 2002.  Despite playing on an injured foot for four of the season’s five months, Davis was among the most dangerous hitters in the minor leagues.  Splitting the season between High A Bakersfield and AA Frisco, he hit 36 home runs and drove in 118 runs, both of which were second in all of minor league baseball, and tied an all-time California League record by hitting safely in 35 straight games.

When Davis was promoted to Frisco at the end of July 2007, he continued to hit for eye-opening power but made a phenomenal improvement in two other key areas.  After striking out once every 3.1 at-bats and walking once every 17.5 at-bats for the Blaze, he cut his strikeouts to once every 4.0 at-bats with the RoughRiders and jumped his walk rate to once every 8.4 at-bats.  

Texas made the decision in the off-season to move Davis back to first base — something the club did with Teixeira in his big league rookie season of 2003 — and the organization’s excitement, not only about Davis’s potential but about how close he apparently was, became evident when Texas brought Ben Broussard in on a one-year deal at first base.  There was no effort to commit multiple years to a veteran first baseman, no effort to do anything that would present an impediment to Davis’s arrival.

As Broussard got off to a miserable start, Davis tortured Texas League pitching this spring, hitting .333/.376/.618 with a league-leading 13 home runs and 42 RBI (second-most) in 46 games before earning a promotion to AAA Oklahoma in late May.  He would last there for just a month.

Davis hit .333/.402/.685 in 111 RedHawk at-bats, with 10 home runs and 31 RBI in 31 games.  Teixeira never played in Class AAA, but it’s hard to imagine he would have done any more damage than Davis did in his unconscious month in the Pacific Coast League, which ended with a June 26 promotion to Texas.

The progress Davis had made offensively has been impressive.  He was a .290/.341/.557 Class A hitter, with a home run every 16.4 at-bats, a strikeout every 3.4 at-bats, and a walk every 14.2 at-bats. 

He was a .319/.374/.644 Class AA hitter, with a home run every 11.8 at-bats, a strikeout every 4.2 at-bats, and a walk every 11.4 at-bats.

He was a .333/.402/.685 Class AAA hitter, with a home run every 11.1 at-bats, a strikeout every 3.8 at-bats, and a walk every 8.5 at-bats.

As a major league hitter, two years removed from playing junior college baseball, Davis is hitting .259/.328/.655.  In 58 at-bats, he has as many home runs (six) as the Rangers’ five other first basemen have had in 283 combined at-bats.

Davis’s propensity for getting better is a testament to his ability to adapt.  “Chris has been very open to making adjustments since he signed with us,” says Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais.  “He picks and chooses what he uses, but he trusts.  He’s a special talent, he has aptitude, and he enjoys the game.” 
 
The adjustments have come quickly in Arlington.  Davis hit his sixth home run in his 15th Rangers game.  It wasn’t until game number 44 that Teixeira (whose 153 Texas homers are one short of the franchise record for any Rangers draftee) hit his sixth.

Teixeira and Davis also share agent Scott Boras, whose involvement might have been a factor in why the former is no longer this club’s first baseman and the latter is.  

But there’s no sense in wondering what might happen five years from now with Davis.  His arrival in the ballpark where he once paid to see Teixeira play came more quickly than anyone could have anticipated, and today there’s some kid driving in from Longview or Corsicana or Wichita Falls and getting the chance to see this franchise’s next great first baseman get his career underway in Rangers Ballpark, cueing “The Natural” with regularity.

 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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