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J.D. Davis’ elite defense didn’t come out of nowhere



© D. Ross Cameron | 2023 Apr 21

Manager Gabe Kapler has characterized his defense as Gold Glove-caliber several times this week. 

Michael Conforto, his teammate both with the Mets and now with the Giants, marvels at his consistent excellence that showed only sparingly in past years. 

Alex Cobb, who benefitted from two of his spectacular plays during his complete game shutout Monday, called him the type of player who surprises outside observers that seemingly every contender has. 

The player, of course, is J.D. Davis. The surprise Cobb referred to, of course, is his defense. 

Seemingly not a game goes by without a web gem highlight from the hot corner. Davis, for the first time in years, has earned an everyday role — partly due to substantial improvements defensively. His 3.1 DEF, Fangraphs’ catch-all fielding metric, leads all third basemen; he’s never put together a positive defensive season at any position in his career before this opening month. 

Development as substantial and rapid as Davis’ doesn’t just come randomly. Much of it traces back to Davis’ offseason work with Kai Correa, SF’s bench coach/infield instructor/defensive guru. 

“I feel great,” Davis said. “I feel like I’m up to speed with MLB. Game speed, in that sense. And that’s all I can ask for, is to keep getting reps out there. Keep getting games under my belt. I feel like I’ve put in the work with Kai, and a lot of credit goes to him.” 

The specifics of Davis’ improvements are a laundry list. 

Davis’ pre-pitch adjustments make him more nimble laterally. 

Footwork tweaks have helped him throw on the run, showing off his already powerful arm more frequently. 

Drills with the popular little red machine have softened his glove hand. 

More consistent playing time has allowed him to find a rhythm and field with conviction. 

When the Giants acquired Davis from the Mets at last year’s deadline, he came with a generally poor defensive reputation. He had registered negative defensive runs saved above average at every position in his career. The Mets lost faith in his glove, moving him to first base and the outfield. Inconsistent roles, in turn, cannibalized his struggles. 

“I definitely saw flashes of it,” Conforto said of Davis’ defense in New York. “The arm strength has always been there. Range. I think the throws may have been a little erratic at times, maybe he was dealing with some arm stuff from time to time. I never viewed him as like a liability over there. I thought, with his inconsistent reps, eventually he was going to put it all together.” 

Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Davis and Correa identified that his posture before pitches was limiting his range. He could still go forwards and backwards, but because of how wide and stationary he stood as the pitcher delivered, his reaction time wasn’t as sharp as it could be. 

That was the first fix. Now Davis is narrower and steps into his defensive position with the pitch, allowing him to be more athletic. It might seem like a subtle change, but the adjustment can be difficult from a timing standpoint, Correa said. 

But Davis still needed to improve defensively. Despite hitting eight home runs in 49 games after the deadline, Davis still hadn’t proven enough to earn consistent playing time at third. 

Most established players begin their fielding regimens in the offseason around New Years. Davis started thinking about how to improve in November, Correa said. 

Davis bought his own little red machine, which shoots out balls a third of the normal weight at blazing speeds. He said the machine has helped him gain confidence with his fundamentals. Before every game, he trains with it. 

“So it’s just really miniscule: keeping your nose down, keeping your chin down,” Davis said. “Really have to do those things and soften your hands. Kind of all those things together, and we cross our Ts and dot our Is every single day.” 

Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing improvement Davis made is his on-the-run throwing ability. Most players take an even amount of steps — two or four — after they get the ball. When on the move, fielders are supposed to take an odd number, be it one or three, Correa said. 

In New York, Davis took as many as five steps before throwing. Now, he’s consistently releasing the ball after one, trusting his arm. 

“Really hammered that in the offseason, just trying to have a quick release,” Davis said. “I already have a strong arm, there’s no sense in taking my time, taking an extra step. An 80% throw for me is better than most guys. That’s not me being cocky, it’s just the velocity that I throw. He just keeps reiterating that, get a fast exchange and get my feet under me.” 

That change has provided for a slew of highlight plays. It’s also made tough plays, like multiple he made Tuesday night against the Cardinals, appear more routine than they are. 

On one this week, he checked down to second base while ranging to his left, only to discover there would be no play there. He quickly turned his head to first and fired instead in time for the out, letting his arm strength and instincts take over. 

“The cool thing is the things that are standing out, the things people are praising on, are the things he worked on,” Correa said.

Heading into the season, one of the Giants’ big questions was how to fit Davis’ power bat into the lineup. He’s always ranked among the sport’s best in underlying metrics like barrel rate. But San Francisco wanted to give David Villar the first crack at everyday third base duty. 

The Giants expected Villar to be the club’s best defensive third baseman. He’s been as advertised. Davis, though, has been even better.

And in return, the seven-year veteran has played in 21 of SF’s 23 games, logging 144 of his 146.2 innings at third.

Davis and Kapler sat down for a meal during spring training, during which Davis laid out his goals for the season. Kapler’s eyebrows rose when Davis said he wanted to be a Gold Glover. 

“It was hard to visualize some of the goals that he had,” Kapler said. 

At least a month in, the campaign is well underway.

“He’s been working his ass off on it for years now,” Conforto said. “So it’s good to see all that hard work come to fruition for him. He’s been awesome.”