Once a major league slugger, Ike Davis is revamping his career as a pitcher in the minor leagues
Until Cody Bellinger turned his rookie year into a personal home run derby, Justin Turner never had a teammate who hit more homers in a season than Ike Davis.
Bellinger has 34 home runs, one shy of Mike Piazza’s Dodgers rookie record. In 2012, Davis hit 32 homers for the New York Mets. In the nine years Turner has played in the major leagues, no other teammate has hit even 30.
Bellinger should hit lots of balls far for a long time, but you might have thought the same thing about Davis back then. In the year he hit 32, so did Carlos Beltran, Adam Jones, Josh Reddick, Mark Trumbo and Alfonso Soriano.
Five years later, all but Davis and the retired Soriano are earning eight-figure salaries. But, when Turner and Davis met for dinner last week in Arizona, the talk was not all about hitting.
Turner and the Dodgers were in town to play the Diamondbacks, at air-conditioned Chase Field. Davis is based 20 miles away, at the Dodgers’ spring home at Camelback Ranch, toiling in 105-degree heat in an effort to rejuvenate his career by pitching.
And yes, Davis had a smile on his face. He is not devastated about the hitting part of his career becoming dormant. He is genuinely excited about trying to pitch, at 30, in a rookie league where some of the players are a little more than half his age.
“He’s genuinely excited about life in general,” Turner said. “I’m not saying he’s not human and doesn’t get disappointed or get down, but he’s always had one of the most positive attitudes about life of anyone I’ve ever played with.”
As this summer wore on, and Davis’ spot on a minor league bench became more secure, he broke up the monotony of bus rides by regaling Oklahoma City teammates with stories of his college pitching prowess.
They might have wanted to shut him up by looking up his statistics on a smartphone, but catcher Kyle Farmer said there was no laughter when they saw the numbers.
“Bugs Bunny numbers,” Farmer said.
He’s gone through a few different organizations now, trying to find a way back up. He might see this as an opportunity. He’s got a good arm.
Dodgers’ Justin Turner
In 2008, the Mets drafted Davis in the first round. He had hit .385 for Arizona State, with 16 home runs in 52 games, and the Mets hoped they had their first baseman of the future.
But Davis also had been a closer for the Sun Devils, walking four and striking out 30 in 24 innings, giving up just one home run amid all those aluminum bats.
His left leg had not been quite right after a 2011 collision with David Wright, originally diagnosed by the Mets as a strained calf and revealed months later to be a badly bruised and sprained ankle. He was drained for years by a lingering case of valley fever.
And he has not hit. In the five years since he hit 32 home runs for the Mets, he has hit a total of 23, shuffling from the Mets to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees. When he reported to Oklahoma City this spring, he joined his third triple-A team in two years.
The Dodgers floated the idea of trying pitching but left the decision to him. He was batting .212 when he stored his bats this month, heading to the lowest level of the minor leagues to learn again how to pitch.
“He had a lot of success in his amateur career off the mound, and it had gotten to a point where he wanted to dust off the cobwebs and see what it looks like,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “The early reviews have been really good.”
Ike has been a tremendous teammate. He’s demonstrated humility and flexibility by taking this first step.
Dodgers minor league director Gabe Kapler
He has faced seven batters, striking out four, walking one and giving up no hits. Still, neither Davis nor the Dodgers is getting too excited.
Davis declined to comment for this story, saying two innings in rookie league did not warrant much comment. The Dodgers declined to say where Davis might pitch after the rookie league.
“Ike has been a tremendous teammate,” Dodgers minor league director Gabe Kapler said. “He’s demonstrated humility and flexibility by taking this first step. We’re watching his mound progress very carefully. Before we take further action, we want to ensure he stays healthy. He has our enthusiastic support in this journey.”
The Dodgers earlier this season auditioned outfielder Brett Eibner as a pitcher. Eibner also had pitched in college, but the Dodgers’ interest was in converting him to a 25th man who could pinch-hit, play the outfield and pitch. The experiment ended when Eibner injured his elbow and required ligament replacement surgery.
In this case, Davis is a pitcher, period.
“He wanted to do it, to get a chance to play more, and play longer,” Farmer said. “He has a live fastball, really good changeup, and he’s working on his slider right now.”
Davis’ father, Ron, was a relief pitcher for 11 major league seasons, most notably with the Yankees and Minnesota Twins but also with the Dodgers in 1987. If Ike Davis were to work his way up to the Dodgers, he and his father would join Stu and Joc Pederson, Ivan DeJesus Sr. and Jr., and Al and Jim Campanis as father-son combinations to play for the Dodgers.
That is a long way from where he is now. At present, Davis is the new left-hander who likes to joke about how he loves coming to the ballpark. He’s often the first one to show up and the last to leave, Farmer said, even sitting in the clubhouse two hours after the game ends “while he is on the phantom DL.”
“He’s gone through a few different organizations now, trying to find a way back up,” Turner said. “He might see this as an opportunity. He’s got a good arm.”
Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin
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