Braves fans have been calling this name for months now, and the time has finally come to see the debut of left handed starting pitching prospect Tucker Davidson. Davidson burst onto the scene with a strong spring training where he allowed one run over 6 1⁄3 innings and fans have been clamoring for him since as the rotation on the big league club fell to shambles. The Braves finally rewarded his work and progression by giving him a spot start late in the season to dip his toes into the major leagues and see what he’s got going into the offseason. This is a big moment for Tucker’s career and an exciting one for fans as he is one of those intriguing high ceiling arms that are always fun to let lose.
Davidson wasn’t a particularly highly regarded prospect when he came out of Amarillo, Texas in 2014 as he possessed fringy stuff and didn’t have the classic baseball body a team would look for. He went undrafted that season and went the Junior College route staying close to home with Midland College. Davidson was brilliant for Midland in his sophomore season going 6-2 with a 2.27 ERA and 75 strikeouts in 71 1⁄3 innings. This got him the attention of Division 1 schools and he committed to play at North Carolina State before the major league draft came knocking. The Braves took in the 19th round in 2016 and after some deliberation he decided to sign and join Atlanta’s organization.
Davidson did what college guys are supposed to do in rookie ball after the draft and in 11 games - mostly as a reliever - he posted a 1.52 ERA with 32 strikeouts to 4 walks in 29 2⁄3 innings for the Gulf Coast Braves. This earned him a spot with the stellar 2017 Rome pitching staff, but it wasn’t all as it seemed as he was in the bullpen out of the game for them. His first 19 games were all out of the bullpen but it became clear early on that the Braves have found a gem as he was dominant over South Atlantic League hitters. He frequently went multiple innings for the Braves and in 41 2⁄3 innings he had a 2.38 ERA and 47 strikeouts to only 10 walks. The Braves made the move to give him a chance in the rotation late in the season and he made good on that opportunity. Over the final 12 games he pitched 62 innings and went 4-2 with a 2.76 ERA and 54 walks to 20 strikeouts. This season vaulted him into prospect talks as he clearly had the stuff to match the numbers and he came into 2018 with high expectations to raise his stock even more.
Davidson put in a lot of work in the 2017-2018 offseason to refine his game and improve his physical ability, but while that had him throwing harder it also led to him struggling a bit to adapt immediately and he struggled out of the gates in 2018. Through his first seven starts in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Florida State League he was one of the worst pitchers in that league with an ERA over eight and more walks than strikeouts. He improved a lot through the middle of May and over his next 10 starts only had a 1.81 ERA against him but he was still struggling to get strikeouts and his walks were staying high. He went on another five game stretch with a 7.66 ERA but his strikeout rate significantly improved in that time and he finished off the season strong with 13 1⁄3 scoreless innings with 13 strikeouts and only one walk in his final two starts. This was the glimpse of what was to come for Tucker and it was back to work in the offseason as he continued to improve himself physically and refine his game to push his ceiling up.
Davidson started gaining attention from Braves fans this offseason for his off-the-field work and with the effort he put in his could now push his fastball into the upper 90’s with solid spin. He took this new arsenal to the Southern League and got off to an enormous start posting a 1.75 ERA through his first twelve starts. His walks had once again taken a bump but he was now striking out batters at the highest rate of his career and hitters were struggling to come up with solid contact against him. On June 13th he faced 25 batters in 5 1⁄3 innings and set his career high with 10 strikeouts while allowing no earned runs. He went on a four game stretch in July and struck out nine batters in three of those with a 2.05 ERA and 28 strikeouts to five walks in 22 innings. In total he had a 2.03 ERA with Mississippi and struck out 122 batters in 110 2⁄3 innings. He did allow 45 walks but otherwise was unstoppable with a .618 OPS against and only a .085 ISO. He earned a late season call up to Gwinnett and started off strong, but walks caught up to him a bit as he had nine in 19 innings and only struck out 12. He still managed a 2.84 ERA but much of that was escape artistry as he had a 4.10 FIP and 5.82 xFIP.
Davidson has never had truly mindblowing peripherals but 2019 was his best as his time in Mississippi saw him post a 27.2 K% and a 10% walk rate. He’s been more one of steady improvement and consistency that has allowed him to fly under the radar. He had the fifth lowest FIP in the Southern League and three of the four above him (Ian Anderson, Sixto Sanchez, Josh Fleming) have already seen major league success in limited time this season. His ERA topped the league (min 100 IP) and he was propped up by the fourth lowest home run rate in the league to go along with the fourth highest strikeout rate. He’s also always carried great ground ball numbers, and last season he was over 50% which ranked third highest in the league. This all combines similarly to how we’ve seen Ian Anderson pitch as a guy who strikes out enough batters and forces so many ground balls that he can work around his tendency to walk guys as he tries to improve his command.
Reports from the alternate site remain high on Tucker this season, but the Braves have kept him down to work on his development and not rush him to the big league before they feel comfortable that his pitches are where they need to be. The fastball is the most eye-catching of his pitches as he consistently gets into the mid-to-upper 90’s and gets great spin and vertical movement on the pitch. This from a left handed pitcher is bound to make him jump out to scouts, but this velocity doesn’t come without costs. Davidson doesn’t have a natural easy 99 mph in his left arm, but has worked hard with Driveline and others to maximize his mechanics to create that power. His body naturally holds onto weight which likely pushed a lot of scouts off of him, but he worked hard to maximize his potential and work with that body instead of trying to work around it and it has shown dividends on the field. His delivery does have effort to it and it impacts his command as shown by his walk rates above, but with his pure stuff and spin he’s able to minimize the damage those walks cause and get outs.
Originally his slider and curveball were less distinct pitches and more variations within a single pitch but he’s refined both and given them more steady plane separation that has allowed both to project as above average to plus pitches. The slider gets up around 90 mph and frequently produces swings and misses, but the curveball is perhaps the better pitch. With plus spin rates and a nasty drop he’s able to get outs from both left handed and right handed batters. All three of those pitches are true out pitches and have creates a lot of swing and miss and poor contact in the minor leagues. The biggest knock save his command would be how far the changeup is behind those three pitches, and he has struggled to produce the same kind of strikeout numbers against right handed batters. He has progressed on this front though, and here are his splits
2017 vs RHB 18.9% K, 6.1% BB, .093 ISO | 2017 vs LHB 33.8% K, 9.2% BB, .039 ISO
2018 vs RHB 16.7% K, 10.9% BB, .087 ISO | 2018 vs LHB 23.9% K, 11.9% BB, .089 ISO
2019 vs RHB 22.2% K, 11.4% BB, .072 ISO | 2019 vs LHB 32.3% K, 7.5% BB, .121 ISO
He’s a nightmare against left handed batting and will continue to be so with his stuff, but the game isn’t as wide as it used to be and he’s steadily producing weaker contact and more swings and misses. The changeup may end up being more vital than the command in determining his ultimate role, but in positive news it has steadily progressed and there’s reason to believe it will be an average pitch. If he can end up with two plus pitches, an above average pitch, and an average changeup then there’s little chance he’s not a long term starter unless the command backs up so tremendously that he just can’t keep it near the strike zone. I don’t expect this to happen as he has worked hard on controlling his mechanics and has progressed to the point I’m confident he can keep the walks within reason.
The question for Tucker will be whether he’s ready or not. To that I don’t really have an answer because no one outside of the tight-lipped Braves organization has really gotten to see him pitch this season. I lean towards yes, but with the caveat that he’s not going to be immediately dominant like Ian Anderson. He’s probably too good for Triple-A lineups, but the changeup is what has made Anderson such an immediate hit and it’s not quite there yet for Davidson. He will be decent and left handed batters will struggle to hit him at all but there will be times that the changeup just isn’t working and it will make it easier for right handed hitters to sit on him if he’s not able to locate his curveball where it can’t be hit. Davidson to his credit tends to miss out of the zone and doesn’t give up a tremendous amount of meatballs, which is the way you want command issues to go, but it’s fair to expect decent but inconsistent pitching. Currently I think he has what it takes to be a decent back end starter, and he would be a fantastic reliever if the Braves felt they needed him to fill that role in the postseason. With the strength of the bullpen and them not bringing him up until now it’s obvious he won’t be in that spot, but the floor is high with a potential upper 90’s fastball and plus slider that would both play up in the bullpen.
Comparing him to other Braves starters the obvious one would be Sean Newcomb (with Fried’s command just being leagues better) and that one comes out favorable for Davidson. He has a better fastball with more consistent command, is not as prone to completely imploding, and has a slider that is on par with Newcomb’s curveball. Add in an above average curveball to that mix, and a changeup that doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Newcomb’s but is far more consistent and I think Davidson will have an easier time adjusting to the major leagues. Some of the struggles will be the same, and I think the lows will be better and the highs just a bit worse.
Long term I’ve improved my personal evaluation of Davidson’s outlook to a No. 4 starter with the potential to be a low No. 2/high No. 3 though I think a more realistic ceiling is a mid No. 3. He could probably step in now and be a good setup pitcher out of the bullpen, and I am incredibly interested in seeing his progression with my own eyes tonight. There may not be another pitcher in the system that has put as much effort into refining his complete game, and I’m happy that Tucker is being given this opportunity and I fully expect him to run with it and start a long and hopefully healthy major league career.