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Prospect Retrospective: Chili Davis

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The first player born in Jamaica to play in the majors, Oakland Athletics hitting coach Chili Davis hit 350 home runs in a 19-year career, evolving from a catcher to a speedy outfielder into a DH. Here is a look at what he was like as a prospect.

Chili Davis, 1982
Chili Davis, 1982
Getty Images

Oakland Athletics hitting coach Chili Davis was one of my favorite players as a young baseball fan. From the prospect development perspective, he was certainly an interesting case.

Charles Theodore "Chili" Davis was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1960. His family moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1970. He played high school baseball for Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, primarily as a catcher. He showed enough to interest scouts and was drafted in the 11th round in 1977. Originally a right-handed hitter, he began switch-hitting in instructional league.

He made his professional debut with Cedar Rapids in the Low-A Midwest League in 1978, hitting .281/.342/.460 with 16 homers, 15 steals, 36 walks, and 103 strikeouts in 424 at-bats. He was very raw behind the plate, making 22 errors and giving up 22 passed balls in just 49 games as a catcher. He also spent considerable time in the outfield, where it was felt his speed and arm would work well if catching didn't work out. The bat looked good and he was one of the more dangerous hitters in the league.

Assigned to High-A Fresno in the California League in 1978, Davis hit .269/.371/.467 with 21 homers, 80 walks, 91 strikeouts, and 30 steals in 34 attempts over 490 at-bats. The speed/power combination still stood out, and he dramatically increased his walk rate as he gained command of the strike zone. He continued to struggle as a catcher, giving up 17 passed balls in 42 games, and spent most of his time in the outfield.

Moved up to Shreveport in the Double-A Texas League in 1980, Davis hit .294/.367/.462 with 30 doubles, 12 homers, 19 steals, and a 52/94 BB/K mark in 129 games. Shreveport was a weak team in a pitcher's park and his production was solid for the context; he was also a full-time outfielder now.

After an excellent spring training, Davis began the 1981 season on the big league roster. He went just 2-for-15 in eight games, but with a strike impending he was sent down to the friendlier environment of the Pacific Coast League to play every day. Davis hit a stunning .350/.431/.605 with 19 homers and 40 steals in just 88 games for Phoenix and was clearly one of the best outfield prospects in baseball heading into 1982, with his combination of power and speed.

Davis was the regular center fielder for the Giants in 1982, hitting .261/.308/.410 with 19 homers and 24 steals, with a 2.1 WAR. He was inconsistent and Candlestick was a tough place to play. After a difficult sophomore year (.233/.305/.352), he exploded with a .315/.368/.507 mark in 1984, running up a 4.6 WAR.

Leg and ankle injuries steadily eroded Davis' speed, gradually shifting him from center to right field and then eventually designated hitter after signing with the California Angels in 1987. Despite the defensive problems, he remained valuable as a consistently solid source of home run power and OBP. Aside from the tough sophomore year, his production was above league average every year of his career. Even at age 39 he was effective, hitting 19 homers with a 108 OPS+ for the Yankees in 1999 before retiring.

Overall, Davis hit .274/.360/.451 with 350 home runs in 2436 games, OPS+ 121, with a career WAR of 37.9. His best seasons were 1984 (4.6 WAR, 148 OPS+) at age 24, 1986 (3.9 WAR, 128  OPS+) at age 26, and 1991 (3.3 WAR as a DH, 141 OPS+) at age 31.

Historically, his Sim Score comparables are Dwight Evans, Don Baylor, Carlos Lee, Ruben Sierra, Luis Gonzalez, Ron Santo, Joe Carter, Gary Gaetti, Dave Parker, and Dale Murphy. His historical WAR ranking depends on if you want to count him as an outfielder or a DH. As a DH, his 37.9 WAR put him with range with players like Harold Baines (38.5), Rico Carty (34.7), and Baylor (29.4). He spent considerable time at all three outfield positions, so looking at generic "outfielders," he ranks in the neighborhood of Baines (38.5), Felipe Alou (38.1), Dusty Baker (37.9),  and Magglio Ordonez (37.8).

These are all names from the Hall of the Very Good.

When Davis played, there was a sense at times that he didn't fully live up to his early potential due to the loss of speed and defensive value, but I always felt that was unfair. He was a consistently dangerous and productive hitter for a long time and played in the Show 19 years. That's a damn fine outcome for anyone, let alone an 11th round pick.