A veteran pitcher returned to the KC Royals, but is his future in jeopardy?
What the future holds for Wade Davis is now a bigger question than it was a month ago when, after pitching his way onto the KC Royals’ roster in spring training, his Opening Day save suggested success for the club’s latest pitching reclamation project.
Davis returned to the Royals, who gave him his biggest major league chance and made him famous during the 2014-2015 World Series seasons, via a predictable offseason reunion—in apparent decline, Davis was a perfect match for General Manager Dayton Moore’s fondness for attempting to salvage once-dominant-turned-rickety pitchers.
Especially in light of Greg Holland’s successful return last season, Davis’ January signing excited a nostalgic fan base eager for a revival of the club’s winning ways, but was questionable from the start.
Davis’ health was an obvious concern. An oblique issue hampered his 2019 season with the Rockies (he lost his closer’s job just a season after leading the National League with 43 saves), and his right shoulder hosted a pesky injury that drastically cut short his 2020 campaign, permitting him to pitch just five times. Discouraged, the Rockies released him with a week left in the season.
The Royals wouldn’t have signed Davis without some assurance his shoulder was sound, but that doesn’t resolve the troubles he started experiencing the second season after the winter 2017 traded that sent him to the Cubs for Jorge Soler. After pitching well for Chicago, he signed with Colorado and, despite saving 43 games, saw his ERA almost double to an uncharacteristic 4.13. The next year was worse: his ERA more than doubled this time, to 8.65, his control all but disappeared (6.1 BB9), and he was out as closer.
Then the eight runs he gave up in 8.2 innings last season ended his days with the Rockies.
Davis made the Royals’ roster after a 1-0, 1.29 ERA spring training performance convinced the Royals he could still be effective. For good measure, Davis saved the club’s Opening Day win by striking out both Texas batters he faced in the ninth inning.
Since then, though, Manager Mike Matheny hasn’t given Davis another save opportunity; in fact, the average run difference when he’s entered each of his post-Opening Day games is almost 3.5.
Davis’ absence from high-leverage situations may simply be a product of Matheny’s preference to use the reliever who best fits a particular situation in a given game. Or perhaps Matheny is hesitant to use Davis in such scenarios, which may be justified.
For example, Davis’ Friday night performance against Minnesota was his worst of the season. With the Royals trailing by four, he replaced Ervin Santana to begin the eighth; by the time the frame ended, the Twins led by eight. The first five hitters Davis faced reached base, three on walks and two on hits, and two runs scored before Davis recorded an out. Minnesota tagged him for another pair of runs via a wild pitch and sacrifice fly.
Suddenly, Davis has an 8.31 ERA and a dismal 54 ERA+. He’s given up at least one run in five of his nine appearances, not a good thing for a reliever. And he’s walked five in 8.2 innings, a sign the control problems he suffered in Colorado may not be resolved.
Some might find encouraging the slight uptick in his four-seam fastball velocity—it’s up to 92.5 mph from last season’s 91.4. But that increase may owe more to Davis’ improved health than any newly-discovered speed. The bigger picture is the four miles per hour he’s lost on the pitch since 2015.
Unfortunately, Davis’ 2021 season so far resembles the early stages of his troubles in Colorado more than it does the hopes his Cactus League effort generated. If that’s a trend, it must be corrected before long. The KC Royals are getting a fresh taste of winning and don’t want to lose it. Even players with a storied Royal history won’t be immune to roster adjustments.
Davis looked uncharacteristically frustrated and shaken Friday night; he seemed to be searching for a solution to whatever caused his difficulties, but never found it. If that quest doesn’t end successfully, and soon, Davis may be forced out, or into a far less meaningful role than he now occupies. Kansas City will need roster space for Jesse Hahn and Kyle Zimmer when they return from the Injured List, and an ineffective 35-year old reliever may have to provide some of that room.
There is time, of course, for Davis to get back on the beam. But he’ll have to avoid more of what he brought to the table Friday, and giving up runs in short appearances.
The KC Royals took a chance on Wade Davis. The road hasn’t been entirely smooth so far; hopefully, Davis recaptures his spring training form and sticks with the club.