Jason Davis, a 6-foot-6-inch right-handed fireballer, pitched in seven seasons from 2002 through 2008 for Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, and Pittsburgh Pirates. Known for a high-velocity sinking fastball in the upper 90s, Davis in 2003 led all American League rookie pitchers in innings pitched (165⅓), his first full season. Indians pitching coach Mike Brown compared Davis’s velocity to that of a teammate, future Cy Young Award winner and 3,000-strikeout club member C.C. Sabathia.1 Davis would see time as a starter and a reliever, compiling a record of 22-26 with one save in 144 games. All but his final 2008 season (with the Pirates) was in the American League, so Davis pitched with the designated hitter and had few interleague matchups. Over the seven seasons, he had only 19 plate appearances, and a .059 batting average. His one major-league hit was a home run against the Atlanta Braves on a career day, June 20, 2004, earning him the legacy of a one-hit wonder.
Jason Thomas Davis was born to Gary and Deborah Davis in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on May 8, 1980. His family has strong roots in Bradley County, Tennessee, and he was raised in the county seat, Cleveland. His father, Gary, coached Little League for Jason and his older brother, Nathan. Sister Michelle rounded out the Davis family. Jason was a tall (6-foot-6, 230-pound) multisport athlete, excelling in basketball and baseball. In a newspaper article, Davis recalled a humorous anecdote: He was playing outfield for his seventh-grade team, but his mind was on a Dixie Youth Baseball game he was scheduled to pitch later that day. “I ended up losing track of the game. I was bored out of my mind, so for a whole half inning I was out there working on my windup, having a good ol’ time. What I didn’t realize was everybody in the dugout was watching what I was doing. My coach even hollered out there (and) asked who I was playing for. My friends still bring that up from time to time.”2
Davis excelled in baseball and basketball with his brother, Nathan, at Charleston High School playing baseball for Tennessee high-school coaching legend Mike Turner. Talent on the court earned Davis a basketball scholarship to Cleveland State Community College in 1998. “I … wasn’t going to play baseball,” he recalled. There are two versions of what happened next. Nathan said in 2003 that he insisted on Jason joining the baseball team. “I knew Jason could pitch,” he said. “I mean, he could really pitch. As soon as our coach saw him throw for the first time, he offered him a baseball scholarship on the spot.”3 Jason related the second version in 2016: “They had an issue in the fall and were struggling for pitching, and (coach) Mike Policastro approached me about coming to throw a little and see how I liked it.” Davis loved pitching and decided to devote his time and talents to baseball, which he said “presented more opportunities.”4
Cleveland, Tennessee, has had a long history of producing major-league talent. Frank Bates pitched for two seasons in 1898 and 1899 for the syndicate-owned National League Cleveland Spiders and St. Louis Perfectos. The brothers Doc Johnston and Jimmy Johnston could be regarded as the town’s most successful baseball products. Doc played for 11 major-league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Philadelphia Athletics from 1909 to 1922. He was the first baseman for the 1920 World Series champion Indians. Jimmy broke into the majors in 1911 with the Chicago White Sox, but did not stick in the majors until 1914, playing for the Chicago Cubs, Brooklyn Robins, Boston Braves, and New York Giants until 1926. He compiled a .294 batting average and stole 169 bases in 13 seasons. Jimmy set the Pacific Coast League record for stolen bases in a single season with 124 for San Francisco in 1913.5 The brothers played against each other in the 1920 World Series. It was the first time brothers played against each other in the fall classic. Jimmy was called the “Greatest Utility Player” in 1926 by Baseball Magazine.6 More recent ballplayers with ties to Cleveland, Tennessee, include Guy Lacy, Duff Brumley, Ray Stephens, Bubba Trammell, and Stephen Pryor.
Coach Mike Policastro had built the Cleveland State Community College Cougars baseball team into a regional junior-college powerhouse. Word of a 6-foot-6 right-handed fireballer throwing 90 miles per hour attracted area major-league scouts. Mark Germann, the Cleveland Indians area scout, first saw Davis in a playoff game. Quickly, Germann ran through his checklist. Did he have a major-league body? The physical tools to succeed at the game’s highest level. Yes, Davis did and he worked well for a big guy. Everything about his motion was long. He threw hard but lacked a breaking pitch. Davis was interesting to the scout. Then Germann started researching what got Davis to this point. Attitude and a growth mindset are important. Is the player the type of person who is driven enough to put the team on his back? Does the team trust him enough?
Why did Policastro trust him in this playoff situation? How did that happen? Germann researched and found that Davis was a multisport athlete. He had even earned a basketball scholarship and played the sport during his first year. Davis was a good shooter, which Germann translated into “feel” and the ability to throw strikes. Davis’s velocity was in the 88-89 range and would touch 93. Collegiate summer baseball, like the Cape Cod League, was a typical path. Davis had the physical tools. He passed the first test. Germann recommended a draft and follow to the Indians.7
The draft-and-follow system was eliminated with changes to the amateur draft in 2007. The drafting team had up to one year to sign a drafted player. Teams could draft high-school or junior-college players, follow them through the next season, and then sign them, or not, until one week before the next draft. Typically, later-round picks would be draft-and-follow. If the player blossomed during the “follow” season, the drafting team could end up with rights to a player who would warrant a high draft pick and compensation. Teams were expected to reflect this improved value in the contract offer. If not, the player could refuse to sign and return to the following amateur draft.8
Germann continued to scout Davis. Now the research went to the next steps. He investigated his character. He met Davis and his family. They were grounded. He looked at how they treated him as a scout as well as the interaction with each other. The Davises were a religious family and extraordinarily respectful with each other. It was clear that Jason had the support he needed to give him a firm grounding. By 2000 Jason’s velocity was up to 94-95; however, the reliable breaking pitch still eluded him. Could he develop a splitter? Could he develop a swing-and-miss pitch? Germann told the author that the question for Davis, as well as all players, was and is, “Where is the ceiling?” As a scout it is always a question of risk. “There are so many variables that success is not predictable,” he said. At this point, Germann brought in John Mirabelli, a longtime scout and executive with Indians, and he was positive. He liked what he saw in Davis. As the following draft in 2000 was shaping up, it was clear that Davis could go in the top five rounds. Still the question, the risk, was big arm, does it play at the major-league level without a secondary pitch?9 The Indians made the decision and signed Jason Davis on May 18, 2000.
Davis was assigned to the Burlington Indians in the Rookie Appalachian League. Coming straight from the junior-college season, he posted a 4-4 record in 10 starts with 35 strikeouts and a healthy 2.19 K/BB ratio for a team that finished with 21-46 record. The next season, 2001, was Davis’s breakout year. Assigned to the Columbus RedStixx of the Class-A South Atlantic League, he led the team in games started, wins, and innings pitched. Posting 115 strikeouts and keeping a 2.25 K/BB ratio, Davis earned a reputation for throwing hard and throwing strikes for the RedStixx and manager Ted Kubiak.
Davis began the 2002 season at high Class-A Kinston (Carolina League). Promoted to Double-A Akron (Eastern League) in midseason, Davis excelled (6-2, 3.51 ERA) and was called up to the Indians when rosters expanded in September. “If you could call any of our guys a nontraditional promotion, this is the guy but for right reasons,” general manager Mark Shapiro said. The direction of Davis’s season was onward and upward. “He was better in big games,” Shapiro said. Davis had hit 97 MPH with a sinker paired with an effective split-finger fastball.10 This was not expected to be a long-term promotion as Davis had not played at the Triple-A level; however by the Indians’ estimation, he had not run out of gas and might benefit from a taste of major-league competition. “I don’t think he is there yet,” said Indians manager Joel Skinner, “But he does things you like to see a young guy do, in addition to having good stuff. He can control the running game and field his position.”11
Davis was called up the same day as switch-hitting catcher, frequent batterymate and future five-time All-Star Victor Martinez.12 He made his major-league debut on September 9, 2002, in a home loss to the Toronto Blue Jays. The game was described as an evening of contrasts by sportswriter Sheldon Ocker.13 Jaret Wright, recovering from a second shoulder surgery, struggled. Davis made his debut in duress. Brought in at the top of the third inning with the Indians losing 6-0, he pitched four innings of relief. Davis got through the third, giving up one hit. In the fourth inning Eric Hinske hit a leadoff home run and Carlos Delgado doubled with one out, after which Davis retired the next eight batters he faced before being lifted. “I started to lose my butterflies and focus in on throwing strikes,” he said after the game. “I cannot describe how nervous I was when I got in there.”14 Davis’s performance earned him his first major-league start, against the Minnesota Twins in Cleveland on the 14th. Davis went 5⅔ innings, allowing six hits and one run. He left the game with the lead, but the Indians fell, 3-2. Six days later, Davis started and got his first major-league win, 1-0, against the Kansas City Royals on September 20 in Kansas City.
Before 2003 spring training, Baseball America ranked Davis as a Top Ten preseason prospect for the Indians. It was expected that he would begin the season in Triple A. But in 19 innings pitched in spring training, Davis posted a 1.42 ERA, and there was no stop in Triple A. Davis made the major-league roster. Sports Illustrated commented, “Davis is a four-pitch package, but everything keys off the fastball.”15 Local sportswriter Terry Pluto wrote, “This kid throws 95 mph, and his ball moves all over the place. He needs a change up and experience, but what an arm!”16
Davis made his first start on April 4 in Kansas City. The dominant spring gave way to a disastrous first start. Davis gave up five runs in three innings. His second start was a struggle as well: five runs surrendered to the White Sox in four innings. Finally, at home on April 15, Davis earned his first win of the season. Manager Eric Wedge commented, “This was just a small piece of Jason Davis. He has a tremendous future.”17 Davis added another win and a loss in April to start the season 2-3. May and June were very good for Davis, but not the Indians, who were rooted in fourth place in the American League Central Division. Being down did not mean rolling over. Bad blood with the Minnesota Twins had been brewing most of the season and on July 4 it boiled over. With Davis on the mound, Torii Hunter took exception to an inside pitch at the waist. Hunter jumped back and pointed to Davis, who motioned for the hitter to come on out. Benches cleared. Three Indians, including Davis, and two Twins were ejected.18 By the All-Star break, July 13-15, he was routinely mentioned as part of an emerging formidable rotation, along with C.C. Sabathia, Brian Anderson, and Billy Taber.
On August 8 Davis was one pitch from a 1-0 shutout of the Anaheim Angels. Garret Anderson, who had hit a grand slam off Davis on May 8, smacked a three-run homer to take the lead and snatch a victory in Cleveland. “I think I’ve learned a lot this year. I learned the hard way today. Sometimes that’s the best way,” Davis said.19 Scratched for the final home game of the season on September 21, his season was done. Shoulder fatigue was the cause. He compiled an 8-11 record in 165⅓ innings, the second most on the staff and the most among all American League rookies.
Coming out of spring training in 2004, Davis earned the second position in the rotation behind Sabathia. The Indians remained confident; “Jason is talented enough that being in the minors last year would not have taught him as much or as fast as the things he learned with us,” said manager Wedge.20 Davis’s outings were inconsistent. He would pitch well and then make mistakes that changed the game. The Indians bullpen was not a help, and the team hovered just below the .500 mark. Getting Davis to pitch to a win was beginning to gnaw on the Cleveland faithful. He had only two wins in his last 25 starts. The Indians simply were not winning when he pitched. Family always gave Davis a boost. Interleague play, Sunday baseball, and a 120-mile drive from Cleveland, Tennessee, to Atlanta aligned for a career day on June 20, 2004.
Davis’s grandfather would take Jason and Nathan to games in Atlanta. Now Jason would pitch at Turner Field. Nearly 100 family and friends made the two-hour trip. He was masterful, holding the Braves scoreless for six innings. Back-to-back home runs by J.D. Drew and Chipper Jones were the only scoring by Atlanta. With interleague play at a National League park, Davis would get to bat, “I had almost 100 people here, so I did not want to strike out. I didn’t want them to have anything on me when I go back home,” he said. He delivered. In the top of the second inning, Atlanta pitcher Russ Ortiz missed his spot and Davis connected for a home run. This was his first, and last, major-league hit. Davis cruised through a career day: seven innings for the 5-2 win and his first major-league hit. He gave the ball to his grandmother, Maxie Davis.21
Davis’s next three starts resulted in one loss and two no-decisions with 16 earned runs. Through July 8, the Indians were 5-13 in his starts. He was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo to take a deep breath and give himself a chance to become the pitcher the team believed he could be. For Buffalo Davis pitched in nine games, all starts, with a record of 3-2 and a 3.00 ERA. He was recalled in September, but questions about his ability to start and remain in the rotation at the major-league level arose.22 After a decent start, Davis was moved to the bullpen. There were concerns about the move to this role. Erratic command paired with an overly emotional tendency doom the relief pitcher and both were becoming common in Davis’s outings. He relished the opportunity, but the results were mixed. At season’s end, Indians general manager Shapiro said, “We don’t think Jason Davis is ready to close. Look at the best closers, most of them are veteran guys. They worked into their roles.”23
The 2005 season brought uncertainly to Davis’s role. A strained-oblique injury to C.C. Sabathia left a hole in the rotation. Davis pitched well enough to earn a start on April 10. He earned the win but returned to the bullpen. Now he was in middle relief. The ability to throw strikes and remain composed blew up on April 24. After entering the game in the bottom of the seventh inning and retiring the Seattle Mariners in order, Davis lost command in the eighth. He walked five batters in a row, throwing only three strikes to them. The game was a contrast of pitching styles. The crafty Jamie Moyer efficiently cruised while the Indians floundered.24 Davis was sent to Buffalo and made the occasional spot start for the Indians.
During the 2006 season Davis was a reliever and pitched just 55⅓ innings. Again he shuttled between Buffalo and Cleveland. Finally, in 2007, out of options and his performance at an all-time low, Davis was designated for assignment on May 8. Quickly, the Indians and the Seattle Mariners made a trade. That he landed with the Mariners was not a surprise. Mariners manager Mike Hargrove was an assistant to the general manager with the Indians in 2004. He saw Davis at his best. A big guy with a big arm.
Davis saw spot relief duties for the Mariners and earned two wins in June. On the 22nd, the game against the Cincinnati Reds was out of hand at 9-0 when Davis took over with two outs in the top of the third. He allowed a run in the fifth, and in the sixth he was tagged for two home runs and six runs, leaving the game with the score 16-1. Davis saw action in two more games with Seattle before being sent to Triple-A Tacoma. He made five appearances for Tacoma and was granted free agency after the season.
In 2008 Davis went to spring training with the Texas Rangers, but was released. He was picked up by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He started the season in Triple-A Indianapolis and finished back in the majors. Davis made 14 appearances and four starts (2-4, 5.29). Now arbitration-eligible, he was given outright assignment. Davis re-signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent for 2009 but did not pitch at the major-league level again.
After comeback attempts in 2009 and 2011, Davis retired from professional baseball. With his wife, Sarah, he had four children, Lily, Jaxon, Landon, and Sadie. He worked as an individual pitching coach while taking a year off, and then he entered the workforce with M&M Mars at the candy maker’s production plant in Cleveland, Tennessee.25
Jason Davis has an interesting hobby that gained him notoriety during his playing days, taxidermy.26 The hobby started with a deer head in his Cleveland, Ohio, apartment, a basic instruction manual and taxidermy supplies. Working over the offseason, he focused on trophies from what he hunted. His trophy room included deer, ducks, bass, walleye, steelhead, pheasant, bobcat, and fox.27
Baseball continued to present Davis with opportunities, namely, coaching. His first foray in coaching came at Ocoee Middle School, in his hometown, where he became an assistant coach in 2016 and “had an absolute blast.”28 At the behest of his high-school coach turned athletic director, Mike Turner, Davis then joined Walker Valley High School at the varsity pitching coach. “… [W]orking with those kids and seeing them progress – I really developed a passion for that,” Davis said.29
Davis was inducted into the Cleveland State Community College Hall of Fame in 2019.30
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted Baseball-Reference.com, baseballalmanac.com, retrosheet.org, and thebaseballcube.com.
1 “Tribe Rookie Jason Davis Bidding for Starting Spot,” Tribune (Coshocton, Ohio), March 2, 2003: 14.
2 “Pros Fondly Recall Playing as Youths,” Indianapolis Star, July 31, 2008: D3.
3 “Davis Gets Jump-Start from Family,” Akron Beacon Journal, May 13, 2003: C1.
4 “Former Indians Hurler Jason Davis Back at Home; Will Coach Walker Valley Pitchers,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, September 22, 2016.
5 “Jimmy Johnston, Top Base Stealer Dies,” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1967: 35.
6 “‘Greatest Utility Player’ Leaves Glorious Record,” Jackson (Tennessee) Sun, February 15, 1967: 12.
7 Mark Germann, telephone interview with author, July 6, 2020.
8 John Manuel, “The History and Future of the Amateur Draft,” Baseball Research Journal (SABR), Summer 2010. https://sabr.org/journal/article/the-history-and-future-of-the-amateur-draft/.
9 Mark Germann, telephone interview with author, July 6, 2020.
10 “Davis a Surprise Addition,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 10, 2002: C5.
11 “Tribe Notebook,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 11, 2002: C5.
12 “Indians Recall Vic Martinez,” Telegram-Forum (Bucyrus, Ohio), September 10, 2002: 11.
13 “Wright Blasted in Loss,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 10, 2002: C1.
14 “Ex-Aeros Pitcher Davis Has Nice Debut in Relief,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 10, 2002: C5.
15 Albert Chen, “Cleveland Indians: Patience Will Be Key as This Former Power Takes the Next Step in Rebuilding,” Sports Illustrated, March 31, 2003. https://vault.si.com/vault/2003/03/31/3-cleveland-indians-patience-will-be-key-as-this-former-power-takes-the-next-step-in-rebuilding.
16 “Talking Tribe,” Akron Beacon Journal, March 30, 2003: C4.
17 “No Woe Versus O’s” Akron Beacon Journal, April 16, 2003: C1.
18 “Rivalry Hot, but Indians Offense Not,” Akron Beacon Journal, July 5, 2003: C1.
19 “Davis’ Consolation Prize,” Akron Beacon Journal, August 9, 2003: C1.
20 “On the Mound, Learning Is a Slow Process,” Akron Beacon Journal, March 28, 2004: C1.
21 “Davis Does It All for the Indians,” Akron Beacon Journal, June 21, 2004: C1.
22 “Indians Summon Bard, Bartosh from Buffalo,” Akron Beacon Journal, September 2, 2004: C5.
23 “Pitching Main Concern,” Akron Beacon Journal, October 3, 2004: C4.
24 Larry Stone, “Moyer’s Milestone: Lefty Ties Johnson for Most M’s Wins,” Seattle Times, April 25, 2005. https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/moyers-milestone-lefty-ties-johnson-for-most-ms-wins/.
25 Saralyn Norkus, “Former Major Leaguer Joins Mustang staff,” Cleveland (Tennessee) Daily Banner, July 30, 2016. http://clevelandbanner.com/stories/former-major-leaguer-joins-mustang-staff,39406.
26 Ben Reiter, “The Right Stuffing,” Sports Illustrated, August 15, 2005. https://vault.si.com/vault/2005/08/15/the-right-stuffing.
27 “Pitcher Hunts for Spot in Rotation,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 24, 2009: 35.
28 Saralyn Norkus, “Former Major Leaguer Joins Mustang staff.”
29 Ward Gossett, “Former Indians Hurler Jason Davis Back at Home; Will Coach Walker Valley Pitchers,” Chattanooga Times Free Press, September 22, 2106. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/sports/preps/story/2016/sep/22/former-indians-hurler-davback-home-will-coach/387907/.
30 Cleveland State Cougars, “Six to Enter Hall of Fame at Saturday Ceremony,” February 5, 2019. https://www.cscougars.com/general/2018-19/releases/20190205hs3bdc.