Wade Davis’ Lack of Whiffs

Heading into the 2010 season, Wade Davis looked poised to shoulder a full season’s workload and join the Tampa Bay Rays’ cavalcade of impressive young starting pitchers. Selected out of a Florida high school in the third round of the 2004 draft, Davis struck out 8.7 batters per nine innings and issued 3.3 BB/9 in the minors. According to Minor League Splits, the 6-foot-5, 220 pound right-hander posted a 3.52 FIP on the farm from 2005 to 2009, including a 3.81 FIP at the Triple-A level over the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Baseball America ranked Davis as the 17th-best prospect prior to ’08 and 32nd-best before ’09, and he was dominant during his first foray in the majors last September and early October. In six starts, spanning 36.1 innings, Davis owned an 8.92 K/9, 3.22 BB/9, and a 3.54 xFIP.

It’s surprising, then, that Davis currently sports a 4.90 ERA. And he hasn’t been unlucky — his xFIP sits at 5.10. Davis’ pre-season ZiPS projection called for 6.75 K/9, 3.01 BB/9, and a 4.13 FIP. CHONE’s forecast had 6.91 K/9, 4.08 BB/9, and a 4.71 FIP. With 6.21 K/9 and 4.18 BB/9 in 75.1 frames, Davis is falling short of those predicted whiff and walk totals. Home runs have been a problem as well, as he has surrendered 1.43 round-trippers per nine innings. The high number of home runs is not the product of an inflated home run per fly ball rate (Davis’ HR/FB% is 11.7), but rather a function of batters putting the ball in the air often (his ground ball rate is 40.3 percent).

In its 2009 Prospect Handbook, Baseball America dubbed Davis “one of the premier power pitching prospects in the game.” But he is having difficulty missing bats this season. His swinging strike rate is just 5.7 percent, well below the 8.3 percent MLB average. Opponents are connecting 91.2 percent of the time on pitches swung at within the strike zone, compared to the 88.1 percent MLB average.

Batters aren’t chasing many of Davis’ pitches off the plate (25.5 percent, 28.3 percent MLB average), either. When they do chase, they areputting the bat on the ball 76 percent of the time (66.5 percent MLB average). Davis’ overall contact rate is 86.8 percent (81 percent MLB average), which places him in the same company as Joe Saunders, Jamie Moyer, and Aaron Cook. Power pitchers they are not.

Davis is going to his fastball a little more than 72 percent in 2010, the fourth-highest rate among qualified MLB starters. According to Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com, Davis is doing a good job of throwing both his four-seamer and two-seamer for strikes — the four-seamer is inducing strikes 67.2 percent (64.4 percent MLB average) and the two-seamer 58.5 percent (57.2 percent MLB average). The two-seamer produces a decent whiff rate (5.4 percent, 5 percent MLB average), but the oft-utilized four-seamer producess a 5.1 percent whiff rate that ranks below the six percent big league average.

When Davis does break off a mid-80’s slider or an upper-70’s curveball, hitters are rarely fooled. The slider is yielding a swing and a miss 11.4 percent (13.6 percent MLB average), while the curve owns a paltry 4.2 percent whiff rate (11.6 percent MLB average). Davis’ curve has a strike rate (58.7 percent) close to the 58 percent MLB average, but the slider is missing the mark (57.6 percent, 63.4 percent MLB average). He also mixes in the occasional low-80’s changeup, but it’s a negligible part of his repertoire.

While he’s getting ahead in the count rather well, tossing a first pitch strike 60.1 percent (58.5 percent MLB average), Davis is having a hard time sealing the deal. When Davis is ahead in the count, opponents have managed a .237/.250/.381 line. For comparison, the AL average in such situations is .207/.214/.302. In two-strike counts, batters have a .205/.311/.291 triple-slash. The AL average is .184/.257/.278.

Save for 1-2 counts, Davis uses his fastball more than most in two-strike situations:

So, he goes to his heater (the pitch with the lowest whiff rate) quite often in situations where the K is in play, and when he does throw a breaking ball, hitters aren’t coming up empty.

All of this sounds very pessimistic, but it’s important to keep in mind that Davis has logged 111.2 innings at the major league level. He could certainly make adjustments to his game in the coming months that lead to improved results. But to earn back that power pitcher label, Davis needs to re-discover his breaking stuff.

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A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at david.golebiewski@gmail.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.

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