GREENSBORO — Getting sent down stinks.
In the world of professional baseball, the goal is always to move up the next level or at least hold on tight to a roster spot. No one wants to take a step backward, to move down a rung on the minor-league ladder.
But sometimes, stepping back helps.
Jonah Davis can vouch for that. Watch the 22-year-old Greensboro Grasshoppers outfielder swing the bat now, and you’d never imagine how lost he was in April and May.
The Hoppers open their final homestand of the South Atlantic League season on Monday, four games against the Rome Braves at First National Bank Field, four chances to see Davis staring down pitchers from the left-hand batter’s box.
Since July 1, Davis has been terrific. In 47 games he has batted .303 with 11 doubles, 14 home runs and 32 RBIs. Those numbers are on par with his short-season debut last year, after the Pirates drafted him in the 15th round out of Cal.
“Walking up to the plate confident means so much,” Davis says. “From the beginning of the season until now, I’m much more confident walking up there.”
The beginning of the season was a hitter’s nightmare.
Davis started the year with the Hoppers and batted .131 with 40 strikeouts in 22 games in April and early May. On May 18, he got the news from manager Miguel Pérez.
He was being sent down, back to extended spring training in Bradenton, Fla.
“At the time, it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Davis says. “But looking back on it, it was definitely what I needed.”
Davis pauses a moment, remembering that dark time in the spring. The team was successful. He was not. And he was trying way, way too hard to contribute.
“It definitely was tough having to leave here,” Davis says. “I love playing out here, love the guys, love the coaches. But I sat down with the coaches here, and they told me what the game plan was. They wanted me to come back here, but first they wanted me to be able to hit the reset button, to figure out what was going on without the pressure of real games, the pressure of worrying about batting average, worrying about getting hits.”
Down in Florida, Davis could work with Pittsburgh’s minor league coordinators, as well as the coaching staffs from the Pirates’ short-season teams in Bristol and West Virginia that hadn’t begun their seasons yet.
“It gave me a chance to step back and calm down, relax for a day or two and then get back to work,” Davis says. “I was able to work on things with those coaches during live at-bats. You can’t do that in a real game, because it’s really tough to hit if you’re thinking too much about your body, your head position. Working on that stuff in Florida was huge. It turned my season around.”
The adjustments weren’t earth-shattering. Davis has always hit, from tee-ball to today.
But subtle changes helped rediscover his lost swing. Stay back, don’t fall forward. More hands, less arms and upper body. Banish the voices of doubt echoing in your own head.
“Honestly, the biggest difference is his confidence level,” Hoppers hitting coach Chris Petersen says. “He’s being aggressive on pitches in the zone, and he’s not missing them. …Confidence makes all the difference in the world. It doesn’t matter who you’re facing, if you’re confident then you’re already at an advantage. If you’re not confident, then you’re fighting more than just one opponent.”
There’s an art to hitting, and Davis understands art. Born in New York, he grew up in California. His father, Anthony, is a composer and jazz pianist, a music professor at UC-San Diego. His mother, Cindy, is an opera singer and voice teacher.
And Davis is a muscular 5-foot-10 outfielder with hazel eyes and a quick bat, a young man who has always loved baseball.
Even when it didn’t love him back.
“One of my earliest memories,” Davis says, “is getting hit in the face with a ground ball that took a bad hop, back when I was still an infielder. So I had a busted lip in my Little League picture that year. But I’ve always loved the game. It’s always been my favorite.”