First of all, in case you were wondering, it's RAH-jay, not RAH-jai or rah-JAI. Davis was born in Norwich, Connecticut in October 1980, on the same day that the Phillies defeated the Kansas City Royals, 4-3-, to win the World Series, courtesy of a Mike Schmidt home run and a gutsy relief performance by Tug McGraw.
Davis grew up in Connecticut, where he played baseball, football, and basketball, and attended UConn-Avery Point (where John McDonald also went for a time). Davis was a second baseman in college and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 38th round of the 2001 amateur draft, where he was almost immediately moved to the outfield. Davis didn't hit much in his draft year, and so was back in the rookie league to start 2002, where he had a great season (.380/.444/.537 mostly in rookie ball), eventually working his way up to A ball. 2003 saw Davis in the single-A Sally League, where he put up a .305/.383/.416 line with 40 steals in a season that would become something of a theme for him - good average and on-base numbers, not a ton of power, lots of steals, and a very fine walk/strikeout ratio)
2004 saw Davis essentially repeat his performance at the next level up (high-A) but for a college draftee he was moving a bit slowly as he was 23. At 24 in 2005, Davis took the AA test and passed with decent marks (.281/.351/.369 with an impressive 45 steals in 54 tries) though his numbers took a small hit. The following season Davis went up another level to AAA, where he posted a .283/.335/.348 line and earned himself a cup of coffee in the majors with Pittsburgh.
In 2007 Davis repeated AAA and was much better, hitting .318/.384/.469, and showing some respectable power for the first time. He returned to the majors and was soon traded to San Francisco for Matt Morris. Davis stayed in the majors for San Fran in a part-time role, often filling in for aging outfielders Dave Roberts and Barry Bonds. Davis put up a familiar looking line for the Giants in 162 plate appearances - .282/.363/380 with 17 steals in 21 tries.
2008 saw Davis stick in the majors for good and another organizational change - with Fred Lewis breaking into a regular role, Davis became expendable and was claimed off waivers by the Oakland Athletics. Davis was a part-time player for Oakland and struggled in that role, particularly in his approach at the plate, where his ability to reach base all but disappeared (.288 OBP), though he did make the most of his opportunities on base, stealing 25 bags in 31 tries in just 207 plate appearances.
In 2009, Davis, now 28, had his finest mlb season, playing more or less full time in centre field and putting up an impressive .305/.360/.423 line (.354 wOBA) while stealing 41 bases in 53 tries and playing excellent defense in centre field (11 DRS, +8 UZR for 4th in the league-wide Fielding Bible award). Fangraphs rated Davis as a 3.3 WAR player, which made him worth almost $15 million. On the other hand, his 2009 was powered by a .361 BABIP that wasn't explained by a solid but unspectacular 20% line drive rate - though a small amount at least could be explained by a healthy groundball rate combined with his blazing speed (8.0 Fangraphs speed rating)
2010 was a tough season for Davis - his hitting took a step back (.321 wOBA) and UZR didn't like his fielding one bit (-7.9 UZR in the outfield). When the A's acquired Coco Crisp they moved Davis to the corners and that hurt his value - now that they have acquired David DeJesus Davis became expendable, hence the trade. He did have 50 steals in 61 attempts, which adds to his already very impressive baserunning record.
The bottom line with Davis is that his ability to be an above-average mlb hitter is almost entirely based on fluctuation in BABIP - in 2009 he had a crazy high BABIP and enjoyed a great season - in 2010, look at his OBP per month as compared to his BABIP that month:
And of course Davis' career BABIP (.326) and his career OBP (.330) further supports the correlation. Davis just doesn't walk enough in the majors to have an above-average on-base percentage unless it is supported by an unsustainable BABIP. And of course he has very little power which means his offensive value is tied up in his ability to reach base (and run fast once he has done so).
Which doesn't mean he's not a useful player. Assuming, as the Jays surely do, that 2010 was an aberration in the field, Davis has a career 4.9 UZR in center field, which is useful. His ability to swipe a lot of bases at a high success rate has made him an above average offensive player even in seasons like 2010 where he hit poorly (103 wRC+ in 2010). Bill James projects Davis overall to be more in line with his 2010 than 2009 numbers (.324 wOBA, 102 wRC+) but that's partially because they don't give him full credit for his proven skill on the bases (they've projected 39 steals and 13 caught stealings, which would be the fewest steals and the most caught stealings he's had in a season) - his OBP is projected to increase to a reasonable, if unspectacular, .336.
It's not clear in what role Davis will be used in 2010. the Jays could put Davis in a corner spot, where his fielding would likely be well above average, and move Jose Bautista to third base. They could use him as a 4th outfielder, taking advantage of his speed and defense off the bench. Or they could conceivably put him in center field and move Vernon Wells over to right for what would likely be a very good outfield defensive alignment, assuming Davis fields to 2009 levels. What is clear, though, is that the Jays were missing the skillset that they acquired in Davis and that skillset makes Davis -- if used correctly -- a potentially very valuable player to them in 2011.
Today's title from the Childish Gambino (alterego of comedian and comedy writer Donald Glover) song "My Hoodie" - for some reason reading about Davis' Connecticut upbringing made me think of Glover's hip-hop.