(The 2021 MLB draft starts on Sunday. The Red Sox hold the No. 4 overall pick in the first round, their highest selection since 1967. Leading up to the first round on Sunday, the Globe will offer a closer look at some of the players in consideration for the team’s first-round selection.)
Henry Davis emerged this year as the top college position player in the draft, an All-American catcher who represents one of the most appealing candidates for the Red Sox with the No. 4 pick of the first round. Earlier this week, he was at Fenway Park for a workout, further reinforcing the sense that a future with the Sox is possible. If that does come to pass, it may owe in part to a partnership Davis formed with a pair of Red Sox relievers a year ago.
Davis burst out of the gates for Louisville at the start of his sophomore season in 2020, hitting .372/.481/.698 in 14 games before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the remainder of the season. The catcher returned to Bedford, N.Y., where he worked out at home and hit with his younger brother, Morgan, while trying to stay sharp in case an opportunity to play — whether for Team USA or in a summer league — emerged.
For the initial weeks of the shutdown, Davis hit off a tee and threw to his brother. But when he saw a social media post featuring then-Yankees and current Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino throwing into a net in his Westchester County home in mid-April, Davis saw an opportunity.
“I messaged him, not expecting him to see it, and just said, ‘I’m in the area. I’ve caught good arms before if you need somebody,’ ” recalled Davis. “He actually responded.”
At the time, contact with anyone outside household bubbles represented a delicate issue. That was true for both Davis (“My family and I were on full lockdown, wiping down groceries and mail,” Davis said) and Ottavino (“It was during the scary part of this pandemic,” said Ottavino).
But after the reliever mulled the possibility with his wife, Brette, he reached a decision.
“I said, ‘If I were a kid and was able to get in touch with Jorge Posada or Jason Varitek, if somehow they were willing to work with me, I would do whatever it took to make that happen,’ ” said Ottavino. “I have an obligation to pay it forward. I didn’t know how big of a prospect he was at the time. I just knew that he played for Louisville and he was from my area. That’s already a huge achievement. I said, ‘Let’s see what he’s got. It’ll be fun for me.’ ”
And so, to Davis’s delight, he started catching Ottavino multiple times a week. The first time the two got together, Davis was struck by something the pitcher did before he started throwing.
“Before he warmed up or anything, he’s clipping his fingernails to make sure they’re perfect. I was like, ‘What is he doing?’ I’d never seen that before,” said Davis. “Then the next time he’s doing the same thing, and the next time. You realize the importance they place on detail at that level. It’s incredible.”
That was one of many lessons that Davis received from catching Ottavino. So, too, was he struck by the quality of an established big leaguer’s stuff (“Completely different,” Davis said) and the range of experiences that had helped Ottavino travel a path he soon hoped to follow of a Northeast-area native who eventually reached the big leagues.
“I didn’t want to annoy him but I had a million questions. Hearing him talk about his experiences and what he’s learned from a pitching perspective, I felt so excited to go back to pitchers on my team and share what I was learning,” said Davis. “I was trying to learn from [Ottavino] so I could help guys around me get better.”
The opportunity to learn soon grew. Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes, who lives in Connecticut, about a half-hour from Davis, needed a catcher as he tried to stay ready if a big league season resumed. The two connected.
In a spring and summer where many amateur players were on their own, Davis received a one-of-a-kind learning experience with a pair of late-inning pitchers — both of whom had been drafted in the first round — who perennially rank among the elite strikeout artists in baseball.
Both pitchers enjoyed throwing to Davis and appreciated having a catcher who could work with their bat-missing mixes. They also took note of the catcher’s arm, one of the best in the country.
“He’s got an absolute cannon,” said Barnes.
For Davis, the opportunity to work with big leaguers proved eye-opening. The workouts recalibrated both his understanding of the talent that exists at the game’s highest level and showed the work needed to translate that talent to success.
“You just love watching people who are at the top of their craft do what they do. You learn from people who are great at what they do,” said Davis. “A goal of mine, the goal of mine, is to be a big leaguer who consistently helps his team win. The two different perspectives helped.
“If you want to be great you have to learn from people who are great. There’s a reason that they are where they’re at,” he continued. “What it takes at that level and then translating it to the college game definitely helped me. I think that had a huge impact.”
When Davis got back on the field for Louisville, he never had to readjust to the speed of the game. As a junior this year, he hit .370/.482/.663 with 15 homers and more walks (31) than strikeouts (24), a performance suggesting a strong likelihood of a hitter who will post strong average and OBPs with above-average or better power in the big leagues.
As the most promising college hitter in the draft and someone who will at least start his career at a premium position, Davis is expected to get taken in the first half-dozen picks. The idea of joining the same organization as Ottavino and Barnes represents a real possibility, and one that Davis would welcome.
“I’ve talked to both of them about it,” said Davis. “I would hope they would feel [excited] if next spring I was catching some of their ‘pens. The real thing that entices me about [the Red Sox] is the dream is not just to play. The dream is not just to be a big leaguer. I want to help my team win a ton of games. I want to help a ton of guys get better. I want to learn from guys like that. An organization like the Red Sox would only help me reach those goals.”