It seems like every other day a player makes some sort of history being the first to do something in X number of years. One example of that would be Jackie Bradley Jr's monster performance the other day for Boston where he became the first player with five extra base hits in a game in almost a century, and just the seventh person ever to accomplish that feat. Impressive.
What David Denson has done though, is a first in the history of affiliated baseball. Denson, a 20 year old first baseman in the Milwaukee Brewers system, became the first active baseball player to come out of the closet and publicly declare he is a homosexual.
Last year NBA player Jason Collins became the first active athlete in any of the four major professional sports (MLB, NBA, NFL, and NHL) to say he is gay. Earlier this year a player in the independent Pacific Association, Sean Conroy, became the first professional baseball player to come out of the closet, but the league he plays in has no organizational ties to any of the 30 major league organizations.
After months of debate, Denson decided to get in contact with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after consulting with Billy Bean, MLB's Ambassador for Inclusion. He did a phone interview with well-respected journalist Tom Haudricourt about the subject and stepped forward, becoming the face of gay athletes across the globe. Please take the time to read the entire article which goes into incredible depth about the struggles, depression, and stress Denson had to deal with before making his decision. I'll highlight a few quotes from Denson later on, but before we get to that, lets take a look at David Denson the baseball player.
Born in La Puente, California, Denson attended South Hills High School in West Covina, California. The Brewers selected Denson in the 15th round of the 2013 draft and was sent to the rookie level Arizona League. He performed well, showing off some serious power, exactly what you would expect from a 6-foot-3, 254 pound first baseman. Just how much pop are we talking here? Take a look at this video from his senior year in high school at a showcase held in Marlins Park (or whatever it's called these days).
He popped six home runs in 40 games with a .244/.385/.449 slash line and a 134 wRC+. He was patient, drawing 29 walks at an 18% clip, but his big swings resulted in him striking out 45 times (28% K rate). Defensively, he committed just four errors in 305 chances.
In 2014, Denson was given a very aggressive assignment straight to full season ball as a 19 year old. He broke camp with the Low A Wisconsin Timber Rattlers of the Midwest League and struggled to really find his footing. Over 68 contests and 269 plate appearances, Denson posted a .243/.364/.350 triple slash with a .714 OPS and a 113 wRC+. He hit four homers, 10 doubles, drew 43 walks (16% BB rate), and struck out 80 times (29.7% K rate). He also played in six games for the AZL Brewers in July on rehab for a minor injury. Denson's power completely deserted him and he came up empty many more times than he made solid contact, but his willingness to take a walk was still an asset. He made 10 errors in 601 chances at first that year, good for a .982 fielding percentage.
Coming into the 2015 campaign, Denson was sent back to Wisconsin, but had an even tougher go than the year before. As Haudricourt writes, Denson had convinced himself his personal turmoil was responsible for his poor on-field performance. He only collected 16 hits in his first 82 at bats, resulting in a disastrous .195/.264/.305 batting line before being demoted to the advanced rookie Helena Brewers of the Pioneer League. Denson mustered just four doubles, a triple and a home run in his first 24 games with the T-Rats while striking out 34 times (37.4% K rate), and drawing just eight free passes (8.8% BB rate).
This was when he decided it was time for him to confront his biggest fears. According to Haudricourt, Denson came out to his Helena teammates in mid-July in a very impromptu fashion. As the story goes, while in the clubhouse an unnamed teammate jokingly called Denson a slur commonly used against gay men. If you've never been in a locker room or dugout with a bunch of teenage boys, as politically incorrect as it is, these kinds of derogatory terms get thrown around flippantly.
Denson replied to his teammate with a smile, "Be careful what you say. You never know." Before long, he was addressing practically his entire team. Their response floored Denson and he described the feeling as a giant relief. "They said, 'You're still our teammate. You're still our brother. We kind of had an idea, but your sexuality has nothing to do with your ability. You're still a ballplayer at the end of the day. We don't treat you any different. We've got your back."
Since joining the Helena squad in June, David has posted a .247/.339/.390 triple slash with 10 doubles, four home runs, and an 87 wRC+ in 154 at bats. He's struck out 35 times (20.1% K rate) with 21 walks (12.1% BB rate). Now in a league more appropriate for his age, Denson has brought his strike out rate to a career low while still having the potential to be in scoring position as he stands in the batter's box. He's also added a pair of new positions to his repertoire, spending time in both corner outfield spots where he's made an error at each position. While manning first base he's been marked down with four defensive miscues.
Players with one standout tool like Denson will always get second chances. He's not the fleetest of foot, his arm isn't anything remarkable, and he's got a lot of swing and miss to his game. All these red flags have dampened his prospect status to the point where he's likely an organizational type player that may never reach the majors. Youth is on his side though and the kind of raw power he can generate just isn't found very often. It's going to take a lot of work, but if he can play a passable corner outfield, the added versatility could help him carve out a niche as a quad-A player that gets a few shots at the show.