Last year Wade Davis was pushed into the bullpen by Tampa Bay, and then sent to Kansas City over the summer. His career arc is an interesting one. In 2009 Davis came up and had six really good starts, but followed that up with two mediocre years in 2010 and 11, which when coupled with Tampa Bay’s plethora of starters caused the bullpen move. He thrived in the pen, and the Royals have attempted to take that new found success to move him back into the rotation a la Zack Greinke. To this point it has not worked, and I am starting to believe it is not going to.
First, let’s recall the Greinke bullpen move success. He moved to the bullpen after leaving baseball for awhile and was quite good out of the pen for the Royals in 2007. He went from a guy with a low 90s fastball to a mid 90s guy who could reach back and get a 97 or 98 when needed. In 2008 when he headed back into the rotation, Greinke lost some of the velocity that he showed in the pen, which is to be expected, but his overall velocity was improved from his time before the switch. Now his fastball was sitting 93 or so and he still showed the ability to go up and hit 96 or 97 at times. Wade Davis showed the velocity gain in his transition to relief, but this year has not been able to maintain any of the gains when starting again.
The Fangraphs velocity chart may show something even worse. Last year Davis’ fastball averaged 93.7 MPH, and toward the end of the year was sitting above 95 consistently. This also lead to a massive spike in strike out rate from 5.14K/9 in 2011 to 11.13 last year. Looking at this year, his velocity is back down to an average fastball just above 91 MPH. That is his lowest average ever. Now it does show that his velocity tends to tick up a bit as the season wears on as a starter and as a reliever, so maybe he will be 92 to 93 in the middle of summer. If that happens though, that would be more in line with 2010 and 11 when he was a back of the rotation guy at best, and his strike out rate this year is showing the same sitting at 6.64 per 9.
There has been a major change to his pitch mix. He has been using a cutter that he hadn’t thrown in the past. Davis has thrown the cutter 16 to 19 percent of the time and so his two and four seam fastballs have been used a lot less. None of his pitches have done very well based on pitch values and most of this comes from an increased line drive and home run rate. One of the problems with the cutter, in my opinion anyway, is that it might make his change up less effective. The speed differential between the two pitches is only about 2 MPH, 88 down to 86, so the batters may not be thrown off by the change at all. Part of that might also be because his change has been on average 1 MPH faster than last year too.
For Davis to be effective like last year something is going to need to change. Right now he looks way too much like the bad Wade Davis that Tampa Bay took out of their rotation and nothing like the good Wade Davis they had in their bullpen last year. The answer is probably not as simple as getting away from the cutter, but that may be one place to start. Hopefully as summer comes his velocity will come back as it has before and help some, but it would be nice to see him show some signs that the successes of 2012 in the pen can be moved into the starting role.