Wade Davis: Starting to Relieving to Starting Again

Were you to read FanGraphs, and only FanGraphs, you might be led to believe there’s only one opinion one might have on Sunday’s trade between the Rays and the Royals. And that one opinion would be “that’s a bad trade, for the Royals.” Indeed, many feel that way, but many also do not feel that way, for reasons I won’t bother to get into. Those people don’t write here. While there’s a spectrum of thought on the deal, though, there’s one thing all opinions have in common: Wade Davis is kind of the forgotten guy. James Shields is the rotation ace the Royals were after. Wil Myers is maybe the top hitting prospect in baseball, and the other prospects are other prospects. But Davis is in there, and the Royals have plans for him. Big plans. Starting plans!

In 2012, Davis lost a spring-training rotation battle to Jeff Niemann, and shifted to relief. As a reliever, Davis came to excel, but all along there was talk the Rays still saw him as a starter long-term. Now Royals property, it appears as if Davis will be looked at as a starter. The Royals’ press release announcing the trade, at least, referred to Davis as a starter. This is a re-conversion that’s probably worth exploring.

Here are the easy details: Davis is 27 and right-handed. All 138 of his appearances in the minors were starts. As a starter, he was considered a top prospect. He never relieved as a professional until September 30, 2011, in the ALDS. He would only relieve in 2012, 54 times. He was great! From October:

Davis will likely be given a chance to return to the Rays’ rotation next season.

“He is what I would consider an above-average relief pitcher right now,” [coach Jim] Hickey said. “A guy you would trust at any point in the game to help you win a ballgame. He’s a guy I still view as a productive solid starting pitcher down the road, too.”

As a starter, between 2009-2011, Davis allowed a .330 wOBA. As a reliever, in 2012, Davis allowed a .254 wOBA. Opponents didn’t break a .200 batting average or a .300 slugging percentage. The whole thing was very successful, and now the Royals are hoping Davis took something out of that experience that will make him better for more innings.

On the one hand, it’s somewhat simple to project Davis as a starter, because he’s already been a starter in the major leagues 64 times. This isn’t like a C.J. Wilson situation, or a Daniel Bard situation, where it’s almost a complete mystery. Davis has an established starting baseline. Between 2009-2011, 163 different starters threw at least 200 innings. Here is where Davis ranked among them in certain categories:

Strikeout rate: 112
ERA-: 102
FIP-: 142
xFIP-: 140

By strikeout rate, Davis’ peers were guys like Bruce Chen and Kevin Millwood. By ERA, they were guys like Jason Marquis and Aaron Harang, and Davis pitched in a run-suppressing ballpark in front of terrific team defenses. By FIP and xFIP, Davis comes out looking relatively poor. He also comes out looking like Jeremy Hellickson, but there’s a reason Hellickson is considered such a mystery. Hellickson seems to be able to outpitch his peripherals. As a starter, Davis didn’t do that. He was mediocre.

So that’s Wade Davis as a starter, before. Even in the high minors, his strikeouts weren’t outstanding. They were outstanding in 2012 in relief, and one wonders: how did that come to be?

Well, you all know that most pitchers perform better out of the bullpen than they do out of the rotation. In relief, pitchers gain velocity, they get more of a margin of error with regard to their command, and they can ditch ineffective pitches if they want to. Davis, interestingly, didn’t change his repertoire in any meaningful way. His fastball, his slider, his curveball, his change — they were all thrown with more or less the same frequency as they were in 2011. Davis threw the same rate of strikes, and he generated the same rate of groundballs. But as a starter, Davis allowed about 86% contact. As a reliever, he allowed about 74% contact. That’s where the strikeouts came from. Davis got harder to hit!

Presumably because of this:

Fastball: 2+ mph gain
Slider: 3+ mph gain (or cutter, if you prefer)
Curveball: 2+ mph gain
Changeup: no gain (rarely thrown)

Davis started throwing harder, and the strikeouts followed. It’s all very intuitive. What’s even more interesting is that this didn’t happen immediately. Check out Davis’ fastball-velocity breakdown by month:

Month FB Velo.
April 91.7
May 92.3
June 94.0
July 94.3
August 94.1
Sep/Oct 94.9

Things took off in June. Let’s refer to this, somewhat arbitrarily and poetically, as The Watershed. Certain statistics of note:

Pre-Watershed: 20% strikeouts, 81% contact
Post-Watershed: 36% strikeouts, 71% contact

As Davis gained velocity, he nearly doubled his strikeout rate. We can’t prove a relationship from here but it seems pretty damn likely the two were connected. And it seems likely that what we’re seeing is Davis becoming comfortable in what had been an unfamiliar role out of spring training. Here you can read about Davis’ adjustments. Relieving is very different from starting, and Davis had to establish new routines. Once he did that, he became the most unhittable he’d ever been in his career.

So Davis came to flourish as a reliever. Now it seems he’s going to be asked to go back to being a starter. Davis claims to prefer starting over relieving, so he’ll welcome this opportunity, but there’s reason for skepticism. In the past, Davis wasn’t a particularly effective starter. His success in relief seems strongly tied to velocity gains, which he’ll give back in the rotation. It’s not like he developed a better changeup in relief. It’s unlikely his fastball command is suddenly a strength. The same things that caused Davis to struggle before presumably still exist. He got good, probably, because he threw hard. Now he’s going to throw less hard.

I’m not saying it isn’t worth trying, and I’m not saying it’s doomed to failure. Davis was a top prospect not long ago, and he has a broad-enough repertoire. It’s possible he gained valuable experience in the bullpen and better understands now how to put hitters away. He always struggled with that part of his game before. Maybe now he’ll be better able to reach back for something extra when he’s counting on a swing and miss. Maybe Davis won’t give back all of his strikeouts. Maybe Davis will be better.

But the two things we know about Wade Davis as a major leaguer are that he’s been a mediocre starter and an excellent reliever. Davis hasn’t started for a year, but the issues that were hidden under a blanket are probably still there, under the blanket. Now the Royals intend to pull the blanket. This’ll make for an interesting case study, but “interesting” and “successful” aren’t really synonyms.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Seems like they have to use him as a starter in order to find a way to justify this trade. Bad as it is, it will look even worse if the return is a good starter for two years and a reliever they did not need.


You’ve got the cart before the horse here. The Royals wanted Davis because they believe (or at least hope) he’s a starter. They didn’t just find him in the trade and then decide what to do with him.