February 26, 2013
Painting the Black
The Other Pitcher the Royals Got
Not long ago Wade Davis placed near the top of prospect lists. At 6-foot-5 with a simple delivery and easy arm action Davis was the textbook power pitcher. He had a lively fastball that ranged into the mid-90s and could touch higher, a knee-buckling curveball, a solid slider, and a developing changeup. You weren't alone if you thought Davis could turn into a frontline pitcher. The Rays showed confidence in their young arm by refusing to trade him for Jason Bay or others, and by signing him to an extension after just 35 big-league starts. Success seemed like a birthright to Davis back then.
Davis reached the majors as a 23-year-old. In his first start in the majors he struck out nine batters, including three in a row to start the game—his first six outs were recorded via strikeout. After six starts Davis had a 118 ERA+ and a 2.77 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But that early success turned out to be a tease, a figment of small-sample magic, and not an omen. Davis would spend the next two seasons in the rotation looking average. He made 58 starts, posted a 90 ERA+, and struck out 1.74 batters per walk. Faced with an overcrowded rotation the Rays opted for Jeff Niemann over Davis last spring, then Alex Cobb over Davis when Niemann suffered an early-season injury.
To Davis' credit he took his relegation to the bullpen about as well as you could hope. Though he spoke about his desire to start he went out and pitched the best season of his career to-date—he struck out 11.1 batters per nine after posting strikeout rates that added up to 11.2 the previous two seasons. After the season Andrew Friedman said he would not ask Davis to pitch in relief again. True to his word, Friedman sent Davis to Kansas City in the James Shields-Wil Myers trade, thus rewarding Davis with the opportunity to once again take the mound every fifth day.
Davis is reportedly entrenched in the Royals rotation, which leads to some questioning, such as: Why should anyone expect this time to be different? As best as anyone can tell there were a few factors that led to Davis' so-so efforts in the Rays rotation. The problems begin with a shallow arsenal. Davis was never able to foster the changeup, leaving him with what amounted to a slow fastball. The lack of an offspeed pitch to go with his fastball and curveball allowed teams to load their lineups with right-handed batters since Davis didn't have anything that moved away from them.
After moving to the bullpen last spring Davis began toying with a splitter and a cutter. The latter stuck in his repertoire and takes the role of a changeup by offering a different look from his fastball. The resulting interplay was something to behold, with Davis showing confidence in each of his offerings. Despite the progress it is notable that Davis has not had to use his new collection of pitches against batters more than once per night. This seems to be a theme with Davis: even when he solves problems he still has to show more of his work to convince us he's figured it out.
Muddying matters for Davis the starter was spotty fastball command, a questionable philosophy, and durability concerns. Too often Davis would nibble as a starter, leading to prolonged at-bats. It's one thing for Cliff Lee to pitch to the blacks, it's another for a pitcher with sub-par command. Jim Bowden suggested during the 2012 season Davis had tried mimicking Jeremy Hellickson too much. No one can prove the theory true or false, and yet Davis did appear more aggressive last season in challenging hitters with his pitches.
And then there are the durability concerns. During Davis' prospect days he gained the reputation of a slow finisher. He'd fall apart down the stretch and enter the offseason vowing to improve on it the next year. Unfortunately Davis, great build and all, has not proven to be a workhorse. He made trips to the disabled list in both of his starting seasons, and his velocity would taper off from time to time without warning. Perhaps Davis can condition his body better now that he's experienced the rigors of having to prepare to throw day in and day out.
While Davis attempts to resolve those issues, Royals fans should take comfort in the positives of his game. He earned the nickname "Bulldog" in part because of his mound demeanor, and while he hasn't lived up to expectations, he still managed to hang above the replacement-level threshold. Likewise, even with wavering velocity, there is something to be said about the late life on his fastball, as evidenced by how often batters get underneath it. Pop-ups account for 15 percent of his career fastballs hit into play, and 35 percent of the fastballs turns flyballs, according to Brooks Baseball.
The entire package bares resemblance to a typical no. 4 starter. That may not be the front-of-the-rotation dreamboat everyone saw when they looked Davis' way a few years back, but he could be a much-needed contributor for a Royals team dealing with a sticky rotation situation. After all, Kansas City has one perceived lock (Shields), another somewhat lock (Jeremy Guthrie), and potentially two pitchers they hope have bounce-back seasons (Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen). Having an average-ish Davis hanging around won't ignite fires of passion but it will help win games.