Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Analyzing Wade Davis: Is There Still Hope?

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When Dayton Moore traded Wil Myers and other prospects for James Shields, Wade Davis, and Elliot Johnson, many saw Davis as the “key to the trade,” primarily because his contract would keep him in Kansas City for a few years beyond the time that Shields would be a Royal. Even if the Royals didn’t win enough in 2013 or 2014, they could still have Davis in their rotation at a reasonable rate, so if Davis succeeds, that could be a huge feather in Moore’s cap.

Unfortunately, for Moore and the Royals, Davis has not found success.

Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Currently, Davis has pitched 97.1 innings, and has an ERA of 5.92, which is the worst in all of baseball among qualified starting pitchers. As you would expect, many Royals fans are not pleased, and are wondering how much longer Ned Yost will continue to trot Davis out to the mound every fifth day until a change is made. While the results have been poor, I have observed what seems to me to be a much more emotional response to Davis’ struggles when compared to the struggles of other starters. It makes sense that fans would be more upset watching Davis give up home runs left and right, all while Myers is in Tampa Bay hitting home runs left and right. That’s not to say Davis is above criticism. When a player puts up an ERA as high as Davis has, he should expect some heat. I just think some may be allowing their feelings of the trade get in the way of objective analysis. I know I’ve been guilty of that in some situations.

But as I looked at Davis’ complete stat line, I tried to remove as much emotional influence as possible. When focusing solely on what was quantifiable, I kept seeing indications that made me think he actually may turn his season around. I dug a little deeper to get more information, and found some really interesting numbers.

Hold on to your pop tarts and pocket protectors. It’s about to get nerdy.

As has been pointed out on this site before, Davis is underperforming his peripherals by a fairly significant margin. While his ERA is approaching 6.00, his FIP and xFIP sit at 4.38 and 4.08, respectively, suggesting if he were pitching in front of an average defense, his numbers should be better. The problem with that, is the Royals have arguably the best defense in baseball, and every other current starter has an ERA lower than their FIP. For some reason, this defense is not getting to as many balls for Davis as they are for other starters.

It’s not that Davis is completely reliant on his defense behind him, either. He is striking out 8.32 batters per 9 innings, which is the highest rate of any starter in Kansas City, and is good for 28th best in baseball, out of 91 qualified starters. The more a pitcher can keep the ball from being put in play, the better his results should be, generally speaking. Of the 27 pitchers above Davis in K/9, only 4 have an ERA above 4.00.

So the ball isn’t being put in play terribly often against Davis, but when it is, the defense isn’t getting to it. This is reflected by his BABIP of .388, which is the highest in the league, 37 points above the 2nd highest average. Since pitchers typically have less control over their BABIP than hitters do, it’s nice to use the league average as a comparison. That league average BABIP is .293, meaning that there is almost a 100 point difference between what Davis should theoretically be allowing, and what he is actually allowing. That’s what a lot of people refer to as “bad luck.”

To give you an idea of how infrequently a BABIP that high happens, I went through Fangraphs’ database and found the list of all the qualified starting pitchers since 1920 who have allowed a BABIP of at least .360, and here it is:

2013: Wade Davis

That’s it. That’s the list. The only other pitcher with a BABIP over .360 since 1900 is Happy Finneran, who I’m sure would enjoy Davis’ company in this exclusive club. Even if I drop the innings requirement to 100 – a barrier Davis should pass in his next start – only 4 more players who pitched after the Great Depression could be added to the list. As you can see, Davis is in rare air.

Granted, not all of Davis’ BABIP struggles can be attributed completely to pure luck. Part of the reason is Davis’ propensity for giving up so many line drives this season. His current LD% is 29.7, which, you guessed it, is the highest in baseball. A high LD% combined with a high BABIP makes sense, of course: when you let batters hit the ball hard, it is tougher for the defense to field it. However, having a LD% that high is a bit unlucky, in and of itself. It’s basically like facing a team full of Joe Mauers every start.

Pitchers who have higher strikeout rates usually are not prone to giving up so many line drives. As I stated earlier, Davis has a K/9 of 8.32, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.05. Since 2002, no other qualified starting pitcher with a K/9 of at least 8 and K/BB of at least 2 has allowed a LD% over 28, let alone anything close to 30. Giving up that many hard hit balls just isn’t something that happens very often to guys who miss bats like Davis does. Only seven starters meeting those criteria since 2002 have pitched a minimum of 90 innings while also allowing a LD% of at least 25:

Season Name IP K/9 BABIP ERA FIP xFIP LD%

2013

Wade Davis

97.1

8.32

.388

5.92

4.38

4.08

29.7%

2003

Randy Johnson

114

9.87

.348

4.26

3.58

3.04

28.8%

2012

Mike Fiers

126.2

9.45

.320

3.77

3.13

3.51

28.2%

2005

Rich Harden

123

8.34

.252

2.63

2.98

3.39

26.1%

2013

Tim Lincecum

120

9.53

.316

4.73

3.64

3.31

25.8%

2013

Anibal Sanchez

98

10.47

.319

2.85

2.42

2.89

25.6%

2008

Josh Beckett

174.1

8.88

.315

4.03

3.24

3.19

25.2%

The pitcher with the closest K/9 rate to Davis, Harden, was likely helped by playing in a pitcher’s park in Oakland, which probably explains his ridiculously low BABIP. The others are all somewhat close in BABIP, with the only exceptions being the top two, and Davis’ BABIP is 40 points higher than Johnson’s. Again, Davis seems to be stranded alone on an island of crazy stats. The two other current pitchers in the chart have better strikeout rates and lower BABIPs (despite Sanchez pitching in front of a below average, at best, defense), which makes it easy to see why their overall numbers are better than Davis’.

When I add it all together, I see a pitcher in Davis who has had a pretty nasty bout with bad luck, and should be seeing some progression to the mean at some point.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have some doubts about Davis’ future in the rotation. He’s walking too many batters (over 4 per 9 innings), doesn’t get enough groundballs (38.6 GB%), and that can lead to giving up too many home runs (1.20 per 9 innings). Davis very well could end up in the bullpen, possibly sometime this season. I fully realize that even though it seems like Davis has been incredibly unlucky, at some point this team will need better results, and if Davis isn’t getting them, a move will need to be made. (As an added bonus, if his numbers don’t improve, but his peripherals stay the same, this will likely be one of the more statistically fascinating seasons in the last decade. Depressing, but very fascinating.) It’s also possible that Davis’ peripherals begin to slide back, so he won’t seem to be as unlucky. He could start missing fewer bats, at which point his usefulness will take yet another hit, and his FIP and xFIP will likely climb up toward his ERA.

However, based on historical trends, I do think the more likely scenario is Davis’ LD% and BABIP begin to normalize, which will, in turn, drop his ERA to a more respectable level. I’m not expecting him to turn into Matt Harvey, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Davis end the season with an ERA closer to 4.60, and something even lower in 2014. Obviously that’s not going to win any Cy Young Awards, but it certainly would be a nice step above what his results have shown thus far. Surely the Royals would take whatever improvement they can get to make sure this “key to the trade” does more than open an empty safe.

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Tags: Kansas City Royals Wade Davis

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