Braves: We should really start paying attention to Tucker Davidson

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Considering the droves of young and exciting pitchers within the Atlanta Braves minor league organization, it’s quite understandable for one to slip between the cracks from time to time. For fans of an organization with an elite farm system, I’m sure there are probably far worse problems to have. And a matter of fact, I sort of like an unexpected surprise every once and awhile — an occasional out-of-nowhere performance from a player. It keeps things interesting. Outfielder Trey Harris certainly provided that for us in 2019… as well as countless others in years past. But I’m going to spoil at least one surprise today, for there’s currently a Braves’ pitching prospect going unnoticed among Braves Country. 

Now ranked No. 14 on THE BOARD at FanGraphs — a ranking that will surely improve in the coming months — lefty starting pitcher Tucker Davidson has flourished in the Braves’ system since the day he was taken in the 19th round of the 2016 MLB Draft. As a relatively unknown prospect — he pitched at Midland College (Texas), a small four-year school with roughly 1,600 full-time students — Davidson has quickly propelled himself into what is unofficially known as the ‘Next Wave’ of Braves pitchers, which is pretty impressive for a guy who didn’t even start taking baseball seriously until his sophomore season of high school, as he was more interested in playing college football as a teenager. Now, with four years of development in the minors, there’s a promising future up ahead. But first, let’s review…

2016 — Rookie Ball

At 20-years-old, Davidson was first assigned to the Gulf Coast Braves in 2016, a team that — at the time — included 17-year-old Cristian Pache. There, Davidson quickly progressed, though he was utilized mostly as a reliever (10 relief appearances / 1 start) in a bullpen that for a time featured top prospects Bryse Wilson, Ian Anderson, and Kyle Muller. 

Pitching amongst several Braves’ first-round picks that year, Davidson finished his first pro season, maintaining the second-highest K rate in the bullpen (9.7 K/9), as well as the second-lowest walk rate (1.2 BB/9) overall among Braves’ pitchers with at least ten innings pitched. His final numbers in 2016 included 32 strikeouts in 29.2 innings pitched, good for a 1.52 ERA — an impressive start to his Braves’ career.

2017 — Rome

Davidson was promoted to Single-A Rome in 2017, and the Braves began working him as a starter. With his 4-pitch repertoire, Davidson had a strong enough pitch-mix — not to mention a mid-90s fastball — that being regulated to middle-relief was a waste of potential talent. Throughout 103.2 innings, Davidson pitched in 31 games, twelve of which were starts. The 6’2″, 215-pounder helped lead Rome to a 74-65 record in the Southern division of the South Atlantic League, finishing tied with Joey Wentz for the second-best ERA (2.76) in the starting rotation (among pitchers with at least ten starts). 

With Rome’s starting staff consisting of a Braves prospect All-Star team — starters Jeremy Walker, Wilson, Anderson, Wentz and Alan Rangel made up the five rotation slots — Davidson proved that he was no longer a fringe prospect in the bullpen, but a potential top-tier prospect that could one day pitch in a big-league rotation. His final numbers in Rome weren’t quite as impressive as what he posted in his first pro season, but Davidson still finished the year with less than three walks per nine (2.6), as well as an elite ability to prevent home runs. In fact, he allowed just four of them while pitching more than triple the number of innings compared to the previous season. 

The mostly-unheard-of lefty was beginning to garner some well-deserved attention, though he was still left off FanGraphs’ list of top-32 Braves’ prospects throughout the ’17 season.

2018 — Florida

Davidson’s lack of recognition would quickly improve, and by the start of the 2018 campaign, FanGraphs tabbed him as the No. 18 prospect in the organization, just behind outfielder Drew Waters. By then, the Braves had converted Davidson into solely a starter, a sign that his stock had finally reached heights that matched more appropriately with his performance. 

However, that 2018 season featured Davidson’s first real challenge, and his numbers — though still plenty respectable for a 22-year-old in the Florida State League — took a hit by the end of the year. While with Florida, the lefty struggled with walks (4.4 BB/9) and wasn’t able to generate the same rate of strikeouts (7.7.K/9), finishing the season with a 4.18 ERA in 118.1 innings pitched. 

Davidson’s prospect ranking fell two spots to 16th once into the winter of 2018, despite a somewhat expected spell of regression. He remained excellent at keeping the ball in the park, surrendering only five total home runs. 

2019 — Mississippi / Gwinnett

That brings us to this past season, the ultimate icing on the cake for what is now — as I mentioned above — potentially a top-10 prospect in the Braves’ system. Davidson put it all together in 2019, starting in Double-A Mississippi but ending the year in Triple-A Gwinnett. He amassed 25 starts between the two levels, featuring a dominant 21-start run with the Mississippi Braves. 

While in central Mississippi, Davidson and Anderson formed quite the two-headed monster, as the former led the Southern League in ERA (2.03!) and the latter, for much of the season, strikeouts. While Anderson, Pache, and Waters filled the headlines in early August — when all four players were promoted to the Gwinnett — it was Davidson who was perhaps trending the hottest. 

The Braves sent the group to the Stripers to assist in Gwinnett’s postseason push in Triple-A’s International League Playoffs. Once at the minor’s top-level — admittedly, with not many more games left to showcase their skills — Anderson and Pache struggled a bit while Waters, and especially Davidson, thrived.

 In four regular-season starts with Gwinnett, Davidson tallied 19 innings pitched and a 2.84 ERA. It’s apparent that the Triple-A hitters were much more difficult to punch out — shown by his middling K rate (5.7 K/9) — though, once again, Davidson showed an exceptional ability to limit hard contact and ultimately allowed zero homers during that span. 

Once in the postseason, Gwinnett manager, Damon Berryhill, decided against using Bryse Wilson and chose to go with his hot hand in Davidson for Game 1 of the team’s first-round matchup against Columbus. Unfortunately, Davidson struggled to the tune of needing 84 pitches to get through 3.2 innings; and once his day was done, the final line looked rather uncharacteristic for a pitcher who was so reliable the entire season: 3.2 IP, 8 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 K

It’s possible that after totaling a career-high of 129.2 innings, Davidson was worn out. Regardless, that one mediocre start carries very little weight when held in comparison to what he did throughout the 2019 season, as well as his overall time as a minor leaguer.

Much like several of these talented and young Braves’ arms currently transforming into (hopefully) future major league contributors, Davidson hasn’t experienced many failures, which is a commonly overlooked reality within these quickly-acclaimed superstars. On top of that, prospect pitchers are rightfully heralded as the most volatile position group in baseball… perhaps even among all four major sports. Just look at Kyle Wright/Bryse Wilson and each of their almost identical ‘steps back’ in 2019: two top-5 prospects in the system that posted 7.00+ ERAs in the majors. Pitching development is far from linear, and on a year-to-year basis, it can seem impossible to project a guy’s future.

Davidson’s pitching profile

What Davidson has going for him at the moment, in addition to being a respectively hard-throwing left-hander, is a profile that doesn’t solely depend on swings-and-misses. Even while working at the more advanced levels of the minors, where strikeouts were much tougher to come by, Davidson was still able to get outs. 

Currently, Davidson carries what I’d call a three-and-a-half-pitch repertoire. His 4-seam fastball is effective for the simple fact that it’s coming in from the left side while sitting at 92-94 mph. Occasionally he’ll ramp it up to 95-96 mph, but the only drawback is that it’s rather flat. For him, that’s OK, as Davidson wields one of the better curveballs in the Braves’ system, which at the end of the day, will be his go-to offering for swings-and-misses. The changeup isn’t elite yet, but it isn’t poor either. The pitch is good enough to keep hitters honest when they’re trying to sit on his heater. 

Then there’s the half-a-pitch, which is Davidson’s slurve. He doesn’t throw it very often — sometimes going several starts without tossing it at all — and until reading a few scouting reports, I didn’t even know what it was. It looks sort of like a slurve, and several reports call it a slurve… so we’ll say it’s a slurve. 

It would be ideal if Davidson could incorporate one more plus pitch, whether it be a new offering or him simply mastering his changeup. Another option for him is tinkering with his fastball, morphing it into more of a cutter, but at this stage in his development, I’m not sure it would be the smartest move. Davidson pounds the strike zone consistently and keeps the ball down, so command-wise, he’s right where he needs to be.

2020 outlook

The 2020 season will be a crucial one for Davidson. I still don’t believe the overall majority is appreciating him quite as much as they should. As so — depending on the moves the Braves make this winter — it appears Wright and Wilson are the ‘next-men-up,’ while guys like Anderson, Muller, and Davidson reside in the tier below (perhaps in that order). 

However, it can be dangerous to gauge players by inherited-type features, such as draft position and even draft-day hype. But as a 19th round pick, Tucker Davidson is becoming an uncommon story. Guys like Acuña, Ozzie Albies, and even old-timer Freddie Freeman came into the Braves organization already marked by the industry as future All-Stars. If Davidson does take the next leap and soon evolves into an above-average major league contributor, it will be both a refreshing story as well as a true testament to the Braves player development. But after four excellent seasons in the minors … no one should be surprised by it.

 

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