Solving The Rays’ Rotation Crunch

Alternate post title: Wade Davis, The Reliever

I’ll admit it: when Andrew Friedman said at the beginning of the off-season that the Rays didn’t need to trade a starter, I called bull. It’s no secret that the Rays have a glut of major-league-ready starting pitching, with seven starters who could theoretically be in the opening day rotation*, so I wrote off Friedman’s comments as positioning. You don’t want to announce to the world that you desperately need to trade a starter, thereby jettisoning your leverage. Friedman was playing his hand, but there’s no chance the Rays would actually enter the 2012 season without dealing a starter…right?

*In case you’re having a brain fart: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Alex Cobb.

As it turns out, wrong. The market ended up being flooded with starters, and there was never a surplus of demand that would have pushed up offers for either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Who saw Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Guthrie being traded? Or Roy Oswalt staying on the market this late? It was a poor off-season to be stuck trying to deal a mediocre starter, so now the Rays are faced with the task of making all their pitchers fit their roster without decreasing anyone’s trade value.

But the solution to this glut of pitching is simpler than it seems: keep Alex Cobb in Triple-A, and move Wade Davis to the bullpen. That may not seem ideal, but based on his pitch repertoire and success, Davis may be destined to move to the bullpen anyway.

Considering he was once one of the top pitching prospects in the Rays system, Wade Davis has been somewhat of a disappointment. After striking out over 20 percent of hitters at every step in the minors (outside one poor year in Double-A), he initially burst into the majors at the tail end of 2009 with such promise; he struck out 24 percent of the batters he faced, helping Rays fans forget that he was replacing Scott Kazmir in the rotation.

This success should have come with a minor warning bell, though. Despite the strikeouts, Davis only generated a league-average amount of swinging strikes (8.8 percent), suggesting that his strikeout rate was potentially too good to be true. Some regression was expected in 2010, and Davis did struggle that season; his strikeout rate dropped to below league average (16 percent), and batters rarely swung and missed at his pitches (6 percent). But instead of rebounding in 2011 and adjusting in a positive way, Davis continued to backtrack in 2011 (13 percent strikeout rate) and raised some serious concerns about his ability to be a viable major-league starter.

If you break down Davis’ results by pitch, the data doesn’t look any more encouraging. Davis has been able to fool hitters with his pitches less and less often each season:

Pitch classifications and data from Brooks Baseball.

To place these numbers in some context, Jeff Niemann posted a league-average strikeout rate last season (18 percent) with the following breakdown: 12-14 percent swinging strikes on his fastballs; 27 percent whiffs on his curveball and slider. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hellickson posted a meger 15 percent strikeout rate, but managed to get hitters to whiff at his curveball and changeup 30+ percent of the time.

In general, if you want to post a decent strikeout rate in the majors, you need to have at least one or two out-pitches that can consistently make hitters miss. Davis’ best out-pitch was only getting a swinging strike once every five times a hitter swung at it last season, while Hellickson and Niemann had pitches they could drop in for a whiff once every three or four times.

Is this to say that Davis is doomed and can never improve? No, certainly not. He obviously had swing-and-miss stuff at one point, and it’s not unheard of for young pitchers to improve their whiff and strikeout rates from one year to another. Doug Fister had a horrendous whiff rate in 2010 — four percent — but he boosted that up to nearly 7 percent in 2011 and increased his strikeout rate as a result. Also, Joe Blanton increased both his strikeout and swinging strike rates dramatically after moving to Philadelphia.

In general, though, these pitchers appear to be the exception to the rule. If you look at the leaderboard of pitchers who have posted swinging strike rates below 6 percent over the course of a season (since 2005, at least), you won’t find many pitchers who dramatically changed their career. In fact, it’s difficult to find a single pitcher who ever got their strikeout rate to league average. Joe Saunders. Chris Volstad. Trevor Cahill. Brian Bannister. Zach Duke. Kyle Lohse. Jeremy Guthrie. Mike Pelfrey. It’s a mediocre list, at best, and it goes on and on.

Maybe Wade Davis can turn things around, but from this perspective, his upside in the rotation appears limited. If he may only ever develop into a +1 to +2 win pitcher, why not try him in the bullpen and see what he can do? The Rays certainly have the pitching depth to give it a shot, and they only owe him a guaranteed $12 million over the next three seasons. He would be an expensive reliever for the Rays, but if he turned into a bullpen ace, he’d be a relatively good value.

The Rays pitching coach, Jim Hickey, has already hinted that Davis could move to the ‘pen to start the season. If he does well out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if this move became more than just a temporary fix.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

18 Responses to “Solving The Rays’ Rotation Crunch”

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  1. Gregory says:

    Hellickson really surprised me with both his K and BB numbers last season. I expected him to be quite a bit better. Instead he benefited greatly from an unusually low BABIP.

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    • td32 says:

      He was squeezed as much as any pitcher in baseball. Also, look at his swinging strike %, and it was an abnormally low amount that occurred with 2 strikes. His K rate will go up this season, and having Molina framing pitches for him should help out both his K and BB rates.
      BTW, he had a phenomenal infield popup rate, which if he can continue, helps with the low BABIP.

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  2. Scott says:

    Considering only 19 pitchers threw more than 200 innings last year, the real answer is pretty much always to stand pat, and let your pitching surplus dissolve as the season progresses

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    • Andrew says:

      Correct. Doesn’t every major league team end up using at least 8 starters over the course of a full season anyway, in many cases more? Caveat: I am completely going off the top of my head, so I could be very wrong. 7 above average starters is definitely something all teams want though.

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  3. Tom says:

    The easiest way to solve the rotation crunch is to realize Wade Davis is not a good starting pitcher. He’s had two sub 1 WAR seasons and a FIP, XFIP over 4.50; yet people still seem to think this guy is a credible starting option.

    There are just 2 pitchers in baseball with 300innings over the last 2 years who have a lower WAR… Nick Blackburn and Bronson Arroyo. Davis is dead last in xFIP.

    The Rays have some tremendous starting pitching but they don’t really have seven viable starters…. they have six (and I think Cobb is the odd man out)

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    • LuckyStrikes says:

      Isn’t this the exact reason why the Rays should’ve moved Davis, before the bottom really drops out?

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      • Tom says:

        Too late I think… should’ve dealt him last year where maybe they get a decent prospect for him. Not sure how much trade value he has now.

        He’s cheap so at this point he probably has more value to them in the pen. This will also limit the arbitration raises; if he continues to start he’ll probably get bigger raises even if he’s putting out <1 WAR seasons.

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      • Sandy Kazmir says:

        4 years/$12.6M (2011-14), plus 2015-17 club options

        signed extension with Tampa Bay 3/31/11, replacing 1-year deal signed 2/26/11
        11:$1M, 12:$1.5M, 13:$2.8M, 14:$4.8M, 15:$7M club option, 16:$8M club option, 17:$10M club option ($2.5M buyout)

        His contract is his only value at this point. If a team thinks they can get him figured out then you could have a decent pitcher for a locked in figure that isn’t cumbersome.

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  4. billybob says:

    Blanton’s K-rate went up in Philly because all of sudden he got to pitch to pitchers, which didn’t happen a whole lot out in Oakland.

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  5. Brian says:

    What does the thread think Matt Moore’s final stat line for 2012 will be?

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  6. nyyfaninlaaland says:

    There are are plenty of organizations that wouldn’t consider having 7 starters, 2 of which have a total of 10 regular season majors starts between them, a surplus. And I’m not trying to denigrate the promise of Cobb nor Moore.

    The Rays operate in a different arena, not having the financial luxury of other contending clubs, so it likely seems like a surplus. And to be fair they have a couple of other guys pitching at AAA that a number of orgs would be contemplating promoting to the bigs, so there’s added insurance there. But I also think for Rays fans who have enjoyed a few years of incredible health among their starting pitchers the perception of surplus is enhanced.

    Some would likely argue that somehow that’s the result of their training methods, or their more youthful inventory. To some extent they may be true – the Rays org is somewhat more deliberate than many orgs in moving pitchers up the ladder, building their IP in a more steady way. Of course, some of that patience has also been a byproduct of the fairly remarkable health they’ve enjoyed. And youth likely plays a part, but we’ve seen plenty of under 30 pitchers suffer significant injuries.

    The fact is if they could have made a deal they felt bettered what they did in free agency to fill short term holes (which remain long term holes, and maybe at C even short term ones), they probably would have. Or they asked too much for too little in the minds of their potential trade partners.

    It seemed they lined up with the Reds, but got scooped by the Padres. In turn it appeared they may have matched up with the Pads to at least get a young 1B, but the Cubs scooped them. Or the Rays FO just didn’t like Rizzo (or the Pads didn’t like Niemann or Davis), or Alonzo and Grandal, that much. They were likely unwilling to take on much salary in either deal, which in both cases the Padres did. Since the Rays are contenders, perhaps Rizzo or Alonso at 1B were too much a shprt term risk. Apparently they would have had to give more than they were willing to for young players fitting at least their near term needs. I’m sure they spoke to both clubs – apparently the perception of trade chip value didn’t mesh.

    At any rate, should the worm turn on their pitchers’ health, I’m sure Rays fans will be congratulating their GM on his genius for holding steady.

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    • Mike says:

      The Rays have had their share of pitching injuries, both to prospects and at the major league level, Kazmir being the most notable in the big leagues. Niemann has also had a history of injury problems both in the minors and the past few years in St. Pete. Jake McGee is probably the most notable prospect who suffered from the injury bug, but there are others that come to mind, like Wade Townsend . I don’t know if pitchers in the Rays organization suffer less injuries than players of the same age with other teams, but it would be interesting to find out.

      Although the Rays certainly recognize the value of starting pitching and try to do everything possible to protect their young arms, pretty much every other team does too. The reason the Rays have a surplus of young major league ready starting pitching is because they simply have successfully developed more pitchers now aged between 20-30 than any other team in baseball. Think about it- Shields, Price, Hellickson, Moore, Niemann, Davis, Jason Hammel, Cobb, Torres, Mitch Talbot, Jake McGee, Andy Sonnenstine and Chad Gaudin are the ones that I can think of off the top of my head. I am sure there are many more. Starting pitching is the most valuable commodity in baseball and is the primary reason behind the Rays success. That said, if the Rays are going to go all the way they need a few more big bats in the lineup. Hopefully they can flip some of their arms to make that happen.

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  7. Rick Reusch-Roll says:

    I appreciate your look into the Ray’s staff construction. Yet, looking at most ML staffs here in February, it’s a pretty simple roster debate in context. By comparison, the Rockies’ or Red Sox’ staffs are both undefined in breadth and precariously pivotal to their team’s success. They would be far more compelling a subject for rotation-crunching.

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