SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Jaylin Davis abandoned the North Carolina cold the weekend before Christmas and got on a flight for sunny Scottsdale.
Weeks after the Giants officially brought in their new team of hitting minds — Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind — Davis was among the first pupils to go to class, diving into what turned a 35-homer hitter in the minor leagues into an overmatched major leaguer in September last year.
He still was making hard contact in the majors — Fangraphs gave him a hard-hit percentage of 45.2 — but they all were heading south. Sixty-eight percent of his batted balls in his small sample were grounders.
Davis spent three days with the new coaches, taking swings in the cage and going over video from last year. Different people attribute different sources for what went wrong; Davis has said he was feeling pressure, and Gabe Kapler said they will work on his confidence. For Davis, though, he feels he was being rushed last season, so much busy-ness in his swing making for reactions rather than attacks.
The coaches’ message, as they worked on shortening the path for a batter with a Gary Sheffield-like bat wag, was: “I was running a race last year with cinder blocks on. I was still doing good [in the minors],” Davis told KNBR recently. “They were like, imagine what you could do if you slowed things down a little bit because I had a lot of movement on my upper half of my swing, so I would get caught off-guard a lot. I wasn’t as consistent. So now it’s one motion.”
Spring is the season of swing changes and new pitches and a future as bright as the Arizona sun. And then the sun sets, camps get out and realities are stark. Yet, if Davis feels encouraged, he has right to be: Last year with Minnesota brought an enlightening spring in which he tweaked the lower-body mechanics of his swing, which turned him into a minor league star, which turned him into trade bait that the Twins (regrettably) cashed in for Sam Dyson.
Minnesota’s camp was the first time Davis used a bat sensor, which tracks his swing and spits out numbers like exit velocity. He’s doing the same this spring and seeing if a stroke with less movement can transform him into a player who doesn’t move off a major league outfield.
Davis is one of the most intriguing auditions in camp in part because of his outfield play; he’s not the biggest stolen-base threat but does have great speed and maybe the best arm among the Giants’ outfielders.
And yes, there’s the power, brought to life Tuesday with a live-batting practice dinger that had Kapler raving.
“My plane is a lot better now than it used to be,” said Davis, believing it will help him get more balls in the air. He is a coaching favorite because of his willingness to dive into the analytics, eager for anything that will help.
He said there has been a healthy dialogue back and forth about his tweaked swing, but “I couldn’t really argue with them [about last year’s swing] — I watched the video, I saw it too. … Feels like I have more time than I actually need now.”
Saturday begins the spring schedule, in which the 25-year-old can finally unleash what he’s been working on since December. He “can’t wait,” and the belief would make Kapler smile.
“The main thing we’re working on with Jaylin is his confidence,” the manager said Tuesday. “He has a near-elite engine. The bat speed is tremendous, the rotation speed is tremendous, the way the ball comes off his bat is really impressive. He didn’t perform his best last year at the major league level, but we know it’s in there. We want him to know we’re not paying much attention to a 40-plate-appearance sample size at the end of the year.”