Blue Jays’ Davis hopes to take off in Lansing

Blue Jays prospect D.J. Davis. (Scott Mapes/Lansing Lugnuts)

LANSING. Mich. – It takes a Corvette Stingray just 3.8 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. That’s roughly the same amount of time it takes D.J. Davis to go from the batter’s box to first base.

With jaw-dropping speed like that, it’s no wonder Davis is considered one of the fastest players in the minor leagues and a prized prospect for the Toronto Blue Jays, who made him their top overall selection in the 2012 draft, five picks ahead of Marcus Stroman.

Add in Davis’s developing bat, and you’ll understand why scouts rave about his physical gifts and draw comparisons to Carl Crawford and Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton.

After struggling with inconsistency last year, the early signs are the 19-year-old outfielder is an improved player this spring following a promotion to the Blue Jays’ Class A affiliate Lansing Lugnuts.

The biggest change in Davis’ game since last season with the rookie-level Bluefield Blue Jays? He’s developing discipline as a hitter. In 2013, he chased pitches far too often, piling up 76 strikeouts in 58 games for a .240 batting average.

This year, he’s showing more patience at the plate, and evolving from a pure power hitter to someone who can hit for average. In 17 games so far in 2014, he’s hitting .262 with 17 hits, five doubles and 15 runs batted in.

While he’s still working to cut down his strikeouts, and wants to increase his stolen base count (just three in five attempts so far), his improvement is encouraging.

“I’m just learning more about the game. I’m seeing good pitches, and not chasing the bad stuff,” he said.

The first-round pick knows he’ll need to keep refining his raw talents to advance the big stage – but he still hopes to be called up to the Jays before his 22nd birthday. Those watching his progress say he may just be good enough to do it.

“He’s legit. He’s the whole package,” said Ken Huckaby, the former Blue Jays catcher who’s now the hitting coach in Lansing.

Davis is from tiny Wiggins, Mississippi – a former lumber town that once claimed the world’s largest pickle factory. Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean, one of baseball’s most colourful pitchers and broadcasters, grew up on the outskirts.

As a boy, Davis idolized Ken Griffey Jr. and wanted to play the outfield in the same flat-out style. He says he started getting noticed for his speed around Grade 10 at Stone County High School.

“It was just God-given. I was just working hard in the gym every day, and something just clicked,” he said in his southern drawl.

The attention that comes from being a first-round pick who signed for $1.75 million at age 17 doesn’t appear to faze him. Less than a month into the season in Lansing, he’s already developing a reputation as a quiet leader in the young clubhouse.

“I come from a small town, I’m just being myself out here,” he said. “I’m just enjoying every minute of it and not thinking too much about it. I’m not worrying about the hype. I’m just trying to stay myself.”

Lansing’s manager John Tamargo has also been working with his prized centre fielder to take smarter routes to balls in the outfield, instead of relying on his legs to make up for mistakes. The pair have been putting in extra time with ground-ball drills, too.

Some scouts think Davis’ speed is exceptional enough to allow him to blossom into a 50-bags a year kind of player. To help polish his timing and technique, he’s been working with Tim Raines, the Blue Jays’ roving base running instructor. Raines ranks fifth all-time with 808 stolen bases at a remarkably efficient 85 percent success rate, so he can teach Davis a thing or two about stealing bases.

“I’m working on getting better jumps and reading the pitcher. The speed will always be there, it just comes down to getting good jumps,” Davis said. “My goal is just to get in the pitcher’s head and make him make mistakes, so the hitters can hit me in.”

Davis’ speed means opponents fear his bunt just as much as his ability to hit for extra bases. Once on base, he can be a completely disruptive force. In his first season of pro ball in 2012, he stole 25 bags in just 60 games.

“When he’s on the base paths, it completely changes everything for the guys hitting behind him. The infielders are cheating a little bit and the pitchers are throwing more fastballs in case he steals,” Huckaby said. “He throws everything off. He’s that fast.”

No prospect ever comes with a major-league guarantee, but his hitting coach has been impressed with the strides Davis has made since overcoming some early struggles.

“He’s maturing mentality. He’s starting to take pride in his craft and putting the work in, and it’s starting to show dividends,” Huckaby said.

“He’s finally on the path to success, and he just needs to stay on it. He has the raw talent, but more importantly, he’s starting to get his mind into the game. That’s the most important factor in making it to the big leagues.”

It doesn’t hurt to have good baseball genes, either. His father Wayne played for the Blue Jays farm system in the 1980s.

“He was a big influence on me. Ever since I was growing up, he’s been teaching me the game, showing me how to hit, run and throw. He’s a big part of me,” Davis said. “But he didn’t put pressure on me, I really didn’t think of it like that. I just thought if him as a father.”

A pro ball-playing dad. A first-round pick. Sky-high expectations. You might think a teenager couldn’t help but get caught up in some of that. But Davis says he doesn’t worry about any of it.

“It’s just you and the baseball, that’s how I feel. Wherever the baseball goes, I go. I don’t worry about the media, or the fans, and the things they say don’t affect me,” he said. “I just focus on baseball.”