PITTSBURGH – It is never wise to hastily jump to conclusions, even if that often seems to be the reason why the internet was invented.
However, the way the Pittsburgh Pirates went about deploying Henry Davis in his first major-league game Monday night is enough to raise an eyebrow. So, too, is how they plan on using him in the weeks to come.
Davis started in right field in an 8-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park that extended their losing streak to seven games. Veteran Austin Hedges was the starting catcher. After Hedges was removed for a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, Jason Delay finished the game behind the plate.
The Pirates drafted Davis as a catcher when they took him first overall from the University of Louisville in 2021. He made 78 starts behind the plate in the minor leagues compared to 15 in right field.
Yet Davis began his big-league career in right field and it is where he is going to get the majority of his playing time. It seems an odd way to introduce one of the best catching prospects in the game to the major leagues, but the Pirates have their reasons.
This was general manager Ben Cherington’s explanation when he met with the media prior to the game in which Davis went 1 for 4 with a double off left-hander Drew Smyly in his first plate appearance.
“I think short-term our priority is to give ourselves the best chance to win games,” Cherington said. “We believe that Henry in right field gives us the best chance to win tonight. Henry’s going to catch in the big leagues. This is really about giving our team, in the short term, the best chance to win games. We think our catching tandem, with Hedges and Delay, are a big part of our overall improvement this year. We want to honor that and keep that intact and also find a way to improve our team. We think Henry does that for us by playing a different position.”
Defense is Davis’ biggest weakness and many talent evaluators I’ve spoken to around in the game wonder if he will be able to be a quality major-league catcher. Many believe he profiles better as a right fielder or first baseman.
It is also telling that the Pirates had Davis make his debut in right field while Hedges caught. Hedges is one of the worst offensive players in the big leagues with his .172/.227/.238 slash line in 43 games this season while Davis slashed .284/.433/.541 in 51 minor league games with 11 home runs and nine stolen bases.
The Pirates are committed to Hedges as their No. 1 catcher, though and Delay as his primary backup. Cherington knew Hedges couldn’t hit when he signed him to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent in the offseason. Hedges was brought in for his defense and has done nothing behind the plate to disappoint the Pirates.
Yet it seems rather unusual that the Pirates will attempt to develop a young catcher without letting him catch much in games. Cherington believes the Pirates can get Davis enough work in pre-game drills, particularly warming up members of the rotation in their between-starts bullpen sessions, to sharpen his defensive skills.
“We’ll have a plan with Henry and incorporate catching work into that plan in a practice season,” Cherington said. “Then we’ll just see how the season evolves from there. We’ll take it a day at a time.”
Davis is taking a rather unusual career arc only one day into his MLB career.
Usually, players begin their careers as catchers and eventually switch to other positions either because of defensive deficiencies or injury concerns. Davis will break into the big leagues the other way.
It doesn’t happen often but there is one interesting case of a Hall of Famer who took that career path all the way to Cooperstown.
Gary Carter got the majority of starts as an outfielder with the Montreal Expos in 1975, split time between catcher and the outfield in 1976 then became a full-time catcher in 1977. Carter went on to make 11 All-Star Game appearances before retiring in 1992.
Perhaps Davis will become the next Carter.
Yet, the way the Pirates plan to use Davis makes it fair to question if they truly think he can handle the position.