The Royals officially released Kyle Davies earlier this week following poor performances in parts of five seasons. Acquired from the Braves in exchange for half of Octavio Dotel‘s 2007 season, Davies seemed like a solid return. He threw hard, complemented the heater with a decent yet underwhelming curve, and was not yet eligible for arbitration. In other words, he was exactly the type of project the Royals were looking for. While the trade itself was good for the team at the time, Davies has arguably been the worst regular starter in baseball over the last five seasons. His presence on the Royals roster this season, as well as his career numbers, invites discussion regarding tendering contracts, building rosters and large gaps between ERA and estimators.
Since debuting in 2005, Davies has thrown 768 innings with below average peripherals, poor controllable skill marks and abysmal run prevention rates. He has a career 6.4 K/9 and 4.3 BB/9, and a 39 percent groundball rate. He doesn’t miss many bats, exhibits poor control and struggles to keep the ball on the ground. The anti-Halladay, if you will. He stranded runners at a meager 67 percent clip, which hurt mightily given his 1.62 WHIP and .318 batting average on balls in play. Plenty got on and plenty came around to score, translating to a 5.59 ERA. Though his xFIP and SIERA were a bit kinder — they are identical at 4.91 — they didn’t exactly vouch for his performance.
Since 2007, the year he was traded to the Royals, there are 83 pitchers to throw 600+ innings. Davies has the sixth lowest WAR (5.6), the worst ERA (5.40), third worst SIERA (4.87), fifth highest BABIP (.313), second worst WHIP (1.58) and second worst strand rate (66.8 percent). No matter how one slices it, Davies has been the, or one of the, worst starting pitchers in baseball. His career, however, has been anomalous in the sense that most pitchers with numbers this bad don’t have the benefit of throwing almost 800 big league innings.
His release isn’t all that surprising, at least when compared to the shock accompanying his being tendered a contract this season in the first place. The Royals already had a crowded rotation and paying Davies $3.2 million was a complete and utter waste.
Dayton Moore has done wonders in rebuilding a barren farm system since taking over, but he has shown virtually no sign whatsoever that he can competently build around those prospects with major leaguers. Tendering Davies a contract of that ilk was just another negative feather in that cap.
Now, it’s easy to look at his WAR and estimators — 4.21 SIERA this season, 2 WAR last season — and conclude that he isn’t that bad. Generally, that argument would pass muster, but I would argue that Davies is a reverse-Zambrano, a Bondermanian disciple whose ERA will never match what the controllable skills suggest. Experiencing a large disconnect between ERA and FIP in a single season isn’t tremendously uncommon, but the number in our sample shrinks substantially when a single season extends to multiple ones.
Since 2005, Davies ERA is 70 points worse than his FIP, which is by far the largest gap among qualifying pitchers. Behind him are Mark Hendrickson, Jeremy Bonderman, Ricky Nolasco and Javier Vazquez. While Hendrickson isn’t noteworthy for anything other than his height and basketball skills, the other three are all infamous for posting ERAs in excess of their estimators. Pitchers in this mold, and those on the opposite end, tend to defy what estimators suggest as some portion of their skillset prevents the two sets of information from forming a consensus.
It is without question that, over a smaller sample, ERA estimators inform on more levels about a pitcher’s effectiveness than ERA itself. But over a longer period of time, and over multiple seasons, ERA tends to emerge as a more predictive source of information. In Davies case, I would argue that his 768 innings is a sufficient sample to determine that his run prevention skills are quite poor, and that his estimators don’t paint a more accurate portrait of his performance.
Of course, since WAR is contingent upon his controllable skills, it is likely that his value has been inflated, and that his career 5.9 WAR tally should be lower. On a non-guaranteed, one-year deal, perhaps he is worth a flier, but for a team like the Royals, he didn’t make sense last year and made even less sense this season. While he finds himself in the company of Bonderman, Vazquez and Nolasco, there is a clear difference between those three and Davies: their estimators suggest all-star level production.
Davies will undoubtedly latch on elsewhere whether it’s this year or next, and might even pitch another few seasons, but teams shouldn’t count on much from him. It’s more likely than not that his career ERA is closer to his true talent level than his estimators, even without having thrown 1000 total innings yet.