Former Cal State Fullerton star Khris Davis may be little but he hits it a long way for Oakland A’s
The eyes of the scout sometimes clashed with the eyes of the father as Khris Davis slugged his way from Little League through high school in Arizona, to Cal State Fullerton, the minor leagues and big leagues.
Davis could always generate power, but his diminutive frame stirred debate among talent evaluators and caused confusion for his father, Rodney.
The professional scout in Rodney envisioned another Joe Morgan or Jimmy Wynn, smallish All-Stars whose power belied their stature. But the parent in him tried to suppress any thought that his son might someday hit 42 home runs in a major league season — as Khris did for the Oakland Athletics during a breakout 2016.
“You don’t dare dream something like that, it’s just not responsible,” said Rodney, who spent 23 years scouting for Seattle, Cleveland, Arizona, the Dodgers and Angels. “I knew that ultimately the game would decide whether or not he could play, but I’m looking at him and thinking, ‘Is anybody else seeing this?’
“There were guys who watched him play in high school, and they couldn’t see it. I’ve also scouted long enough to know that there were players I just missed. So the scout in me is saying, ‘Hey, I think this is real,’ but the dad in me is saying, ‘Hey, cool your jets, we’ll see what happens.’ ”
While Rodney kept his expectations in check, Khris, all 5 feet 10, 195 chiseled pounds of him, blazed a path through the amateur and professional ranks to become a modern-day Toy Cannon, establishing himself as one of the premier power hitters in baseball.
Davis tied for third in the major leagues in home runs behind Mark Trumbo (47) and Nelson Cruz (43) last season and, according to Baseball-Reference.com, was only the seventh player in major league history to exceed 40 homers while standing 5-10 or shorter.
Four of the others — Willie Mays, Mel Ott, Hack Wilson and Roy Campanella — are in the Hall of Fame. The other two — Al Rosen and Kevin Mitchell — won most valuable player awards.
Davis, 29 and in his fifth big league season, entered the weekend with 10 homers, second in the American League behind Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees.
Not that much of America has noticed. Some fans still confuse the A’s cleanup batter and left fielder with Chris Davis, the Baltimore Orioles slugger.
“I don’t think people really know who I am, which is OK with me,” Davis said when the A’s were in Anaheim late last month. “I don’t mind. I’m pretty shy. I like to just let my play speak for itself.”
Teddy Roosevelt would have loved this guy. Davis truly talks softly and carries a big stick.
“That’s his personality,” Oakland third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “I don’t think he really enjoys being ‘out there.’ He just comes in and works. In a lot of ways, he’s our Marshawn Lynch.
“The way Marshawn was with the [NFL’s Seattle] Seahawks, that’s how Khris is with us. He’s quiet, but at the same time, he has a lot of personality that, once he gets to know you, he lets out. He’s the heart and soul of our team, no doubt.”
Rodney Davis, 54, said his son “has a little Samson in him,” referring to the Biblical figure with ordinary size and extraordinary strength. Khris Davis generates whip-like bat speed with strong forearms and quick wrists, and he is sturdy through his core, hips and thighs.
“Yeah, I work out,” said Khris, whose A’s will open a three-game series against the Angels in Oakland on Monday night. “I get after it in the weight room.”
Plouffe, who played seven seasons in Minnesota, marveled at Davis from the opposing dugout last season. After signing with the A’s and sharing a clubhouse with him for three months, he is not surprised by Davis’ power.
“I mean, have you stood next to him?” Plouffe said. “He’s built. He’s solid, man. He may not be the tallest guy, but he’s stronger than anybody in this clubhouse.”
The torque Davis creates with his trunk, combined with his ability to keep his bat in the hitting zone, allows him to hit with power to all fields. Of his 112 career homers, 46 have been hit to the right of center field.
“True power hitters can do that, and he is a true power hitter,” Plouffe said. “That’s also the mark of a good swing. He’s not just trying to pull the ball, to do damage that way. He’s able to use the whole field, and when you have that ability, it breeds confidence. I think you’re starting to see that now.”
When Khris was a kid, Rodney often took him to a field with a bucket of balls and had him toss balls into the air and hit them toward right field.
“That was the start of it,” Khris said of his opposite-field stroke. “He always taught me to stay right-center. If you can show power there, you’re going to have power everywhere else. It’s translated to better plate coverage, for sure. And it puts fear in pitchers.”
Khris also spent time as a youngster watching games with Rodney and other scouts and in the spring-training clubhouses of his father’s employers, which helped Khris develop what he calls his “baseball IQ.”
His most vivid childhood memories include serving as a batboy for Seattle Mariners teams that featured future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. in the late 1990s.
“I still have flashbacks,” Davis said. “Griffey was a superstar. I mimic his stance and his swing.”
Is that hard to do from the right side?
“Yeah,” Davis said. “I think I’m a lefty inside a righty’s body.”
Davis hit some 30 homers as a Little Leaguer in Arizona and was a two-time all-state player at Deer Valley High in Glendale, Ariz., where he hit .592 with 10 homers and 50 runs batted in as a senior to lead the team to a 2006 state title.
He was a part-time starter in his first two seasons (2007-2008) at Cal State Fullerton, hitting .261 with four homers and 34 RBIs. He blossomed as a junior starter, batting .328 with 16 homers and 58 RBIs to help the Titans reach the 2009 College World Series.
A seventh-round pick of Milwaukee in 2009, Davis reached the major leagues by 2013 and had an .809 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 60 homers and 162 RBIs in 2 1/2 seasons for the Brewers.
But Davis, with a below-average arm, low on-base percentage and high strikeout rate, did not fit the vision of David Stearns, who took over as general manager of the Brewers at the end of 2015.
Davis was traded to Oakland that winter for two prospects who are now in double A, catcher Jacob Nottingham and pitcher Bubba Derby.
“I wasn’t that surprised,” said Davis, who parlayed his strong 2016 into a $5-million salary this season, his first in arbitration. “If things in the front office were a little different, they might have held on to me.”
Davis wanted to embrace his new city, so he moved to the Oakland suburb of Piedmont, worked out at a West Oakland boxing gym and explored downtown restaurants. Describing himself as “quirky,” he even takes occasional morning strolls through a local cemetery when he needs a little serenity.
“I think it’s important because I go out there and play with my heart, so I want to feel the heart of the city, to be rooted in the city,” Davis said. “We have to play for something other than money. We play for our teammates, we play for the city, we play to win the game. Having that connection is important to me.”
Oakland and Davis have been a good match. The A’s found a slugger who launches baseballs into the outer reaches of the Oakland Coliseum and ranked 11th in the American League with a .954 OPS entering the weekend. And Davis found a new home.
“I love Oakland, it’s a great city,” Davis said. “It’s hard-working, very humble. It’s also not, like, glamorous, but it’s a fun city.”
Sound familiar? Davis laughed when told that he sounded like he had just described himself.
“I actually felt like I’d been there when I got there,” Davis said. “I felt a sense of home right away.”
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna
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