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.

37 Responses to “Wade Davis: Starting to Relieving to Starting Again”

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  1. Bruce says:

    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.

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    • Baltar says:

      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.

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  2. J6takish says:

    All of the parks in the AL central are run suppressing except the cell. Not saying he’s going to be great, but for a team that gave starts to Bruce Chen and Hochever, how good does he really have to be in order to be a valuable starter?

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  3. Jerry says:

    May we all be missing something here. Since WD40 was so dominant in relief last season, could the Royals possibly try him in the closer roll?

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  4. Pogue009 says:

    Just an anecdote that may or may not play out here. In 2011 Jason Hammel was a starter in Colorado and his falling apart was a big part of that team going from 16-8 in April to finishing 4th. Hammel had a 5.24ERA as a starter when he was sent to the Pen in late August. Hammel said his time with Jim Wright in the pen helped him develop his approach and clear his head. He had a 15K/3BB over his final four games including two starts. Davis may very well have made that same step forward in the pen that Hammel appears to have.

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    • Travis L says:

      I don’t think any conclusions can be drawn from Hammel’s last 4 appearances, only 2 of which were starts.

      Further, it’s a stretch to compare Hammel’s experience to Davis’.

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  5. twinchilifrog says:

    Greinke was a starter for a couple yrs and was ok, then he went on his hiatus, came back, went to the pen, threw 2-3 mph harder, struck more guys out, returned to the rotation, still struck out a lot of guys…won the Cy Young.

    Relevant? or Irrelevant?

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  6. tz says:

    The two most important guys in that trade are Wade Davis and Ervin Santana. Even though Santana wasn’t part of the trade, he and Davis both need to take a big jump up to justify DM’s win-now philosophy.

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  7. Pete says:

    What is the Royals rotation heading into the season? Looks like they have Shields and then 9 guys who could start at some point during the season.

    Do Guthrie, Chen, Santana, and Hochevar break camp in the rotation with Felipe Paulino, Luis Mendoza, Danny Duffy, and Will Smith in AAA? Their AAA rotation seems just as good as their MLB rotation minus Shields. They should at least be able to weather an injury without much drop off.

    They could have a bullpen consisting of Holland, Crow, Herrera, Davis, and Collins. They just need to get to the 6th inning.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Shields/Guthrie/Santana/Hochevar/Mendoza or Chen sounds about right.

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    • Rich Starnes says:

      Duffy and Paulino both break camp on the DL, as both are recovering from Tommy John surgery. Neither will return before the All-Star break.

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    • Trevor says:

      Since they brought in Davis to try as a starter, there’s a good chance he breaks camp as a starter.

      Shields, Guthrie, Santana are probably locks. The last 2 spots are a camp battle between Davis, Hochevar, Mendoza, and Chen (if they don’t trade him… I’ve heard that they would like to, but I’m not sure who else would want Bruce Chen in their rotation).

      I’m thinking Davis and Mendoza won’t both make the rotation at the same time, because the Royals will probably be inclined to use one of those guys as reliever / spot starter flex option out of the bullpen, while Chen and Hochevar don’t quite fit the bill for that role.

      So my guess is Shields/Guthrie/Santana/(Hochevar or Chen)/(Davis or Mendoza)

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  8. walt526 says:

    I agree with the general theme that this trade isn’t as bad as David Cameron made it sound last night, mostly because I think a lot of people are overvaluing Myers and undervaluing Davis.

    I don’t know whether this trade will be enough to make them contenders for the AL Central–fully agree that it depends as much on the development of their young hitters like Hosmer. But with the additions of Shields and Davis, they probably enter the season with the best chance to be relatively good that they have had in about 20 years given that no other team than the Tigers seems likely to win more than 85 games. As such, rolling the dice for 2013 seems like a defensible move.

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    • Bip says:

      I don’t know whether this trade will be enough to make them contenders for the AL Central

      That’s kind of the point though. Cameron acknowledged the uncertainty around Meyers, as well as the fact that none of the prospects the Royals traded look to be certain stars. He hardly even touched on the value of Shields and Davis because it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that the Shields is not the last piece the Royals needed to be a contending team, he was one of the first. Davis might be better than most are giving him credit for, but either way, the Royals still have a long way to go before being considered good, so trading players that will help them when they are good for players that will before the Royals need them is a bad trade.

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    • Bip says:

      Also, I agree that in 2013 they have the best chance to be good that they’ve had for 20 years. However, in 2014 they would have had an even better chance to be good, and possibly even better in 2015. With Shields gone after 2014, they’ll have him when the have a smaller chance to be good, and Meyers won’t be there in 2015 when he’d be most valuable to them.

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    • blahblahblah says:

      The money spent on Santana and Guthrie (nearly 40mil) could have completely paid for (at least) the first two years of Sanchez

      At that point there would have been no need to trade for Shields/Davis, and Frenchy could/(should) have been replaced nearly instantly with Myers. (who very well could produce Jay Bruce like production as soon as this year, or in a more worst-case maybe average-ish like production Bruce saw in his first couple seasons)

      Odorizzi being given a shot would have likely produced at least what Santana should be expected to do – maybe even much more (depending on how low you are on Santana and his mirage lines produced in Anaheim where he surrendered a .308 wOBA at home against a .343 wOBA on the road, leading to a LA ERA of 3.77 against 4.95 away)

      At that point you have the money saved from Shields/Davis (28.6MM guaranteed with 2013 option surely picked up) which can go to another starter (even Guthrie still) if you really feel the need. The result is your team is likely in a similar to better situation for 2013 and much, much, much better spot for 2014 and beyond.

      All of these questionable deals all go back to Santana in my mind. Individually you can try to excuse them away as an overpay but worth the gamble – but not as a whole as they are now making more and more questionable moves to compensate for the questionable moves they had just made.

      From a pure stats position, all of the expensive additions they just made have only increased the teams rotation by about 2.5 WAR ~ a 2.5 WAR increase which cost them, ironically, 66.6 Million commitments to obtain (seriously, add up the contracts plus the Shields 2013 option which is almost certainly picked up – its 66.6)

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    • CheeseWhiz says:

      Then you might be interested in reading Jeff’s opinion over at Lookout Landing, because I’m pretty sure he thinks this deal is even worse than Dave does.

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    • Baltar says:

      I might add that this doesn’t have to be a zero-sum trade.
      A good part of the Rays motivation is that they need a decent batter or two for COF, 1B and/or DH and can get them with the $10M they now presumably have left in their budget. The Royals, I guess, don’t have this need.
      A good part of the Royals motivation was to get a 5th starter in Davis. Davis was never going to start for the Rays.
      So both teams got some positive value that was not a negative for the other.
      The Rays probably gained more than the Royals, but the Royals may not have lost as badly as everyone says.

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  9. Mike says:

    Duffy and Paulino are on the DL till mid-season. They both factor into the rotation but possibly not till 2014 when Ervin and Chen are gone. Longer term KC is higher on Duffy, Paulino, Lamb, Zimmer and Venturra than Ordorizzi and Montgomery. The latter needed a change of scenery. KC has also shown they can’t develop their own pitching….at least for the past dozen or so years. They either underachieve or go under the knife. TB knows how to develop their pitching so KC should get something out of this trade. But they did give up alot for potential short term gains. Moore is now on the clock. 2 year window. Tic-toc.

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    • Gadwin says:

      Dozen years isn’t really fair. Allard Baird was one of the worst GMs in recent history and Moore wasn’t able to clean up that mess right away, but he looks to be clearing the farm for the next poor soul that ends up as KC’s GM. Also, Hochevar is probably going to be gone next year whether he makes it through this year or not.

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      • Cidron says:

        Might not be fair, but if you cant develop talent in a given area in a dozen years, I call it “you cant develop talent in a given area”. Especially after that “given area” has been an acknowledged weakness for YEARS. Aside from Grienke and Appier, who in that timeframe has been groomed by KC that has found success (current crop excepted, as its way to early to judge most of them).

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      • blahblahblah says:

        Clint Scoles said this in 2010 (regarding Moore & his ‘guys’):

        “I don’t trust their ability to develop pitchers. I don’t think the Royals have a clue about pitching. Guess what between the time the Braves developed Jason Schmidt and Kevin Millwood in the late 90’s and the time Dayton Moore left the farm system there is a gap between the late 90’s and 2000’s when the Braves didn’t develop any pitching. Basically, those guys get out… Tommy Hanson doop… Kris Medlen doop, Braves start developing pitching again. I don’t think it’s a coincidence the guys that were in Atlanta during that time and in Kansas City now don’t know how to develop pitching.”

        Add Moore into a organization which was already poor at producing pitching anyway, and well…

        I would also note that KC is notoriously bad with kids and attempting to control their conditioning and workouts and such (even during the offseason) against their history and better judgement. They had a huge issue with Monty over his personal long-toss workout a couple years back – in fact, it bubbled over most about the same time he started to tank on the field really… Its really so bad that Dylan Bundy actually told the Royals not to draft him because he too uses a long-toss and worried about its loss having negative results on his velocity and endurance

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  10. blahblahblah says:

    “His success in relief seems strongly tied to velocity gains”

    I would add that it probably isnt solely the velocity gain but that rather drastic velocity gain on top of a possible 4/5-pitch arsenal from a reliever keeping hitters off balance as to what they will see.

    It isnt the Fastball that became his pitch; in fact his Fastball didnt see improvement in results. He instead saw rather drastic improvement on all of his Curve, Cutter and Change

    Hitters can better watch that days tendencies from starters with 4/5 pitches though, and a decrease in velocity makes them all easier to recognize and hit once again. Because of it, I dont see a move back to the rotation as an experiment that will work out as they hope.

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  11. Steve says:

    They should trade the rest of their prospects for Lester and Bard. Might as well empty the cupboard for a 2 yr run. After that, they’ll have YEARS of top draft picks.

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  12. derp says:

    At first I thought that Davis moving to the starting rotation would have been a good idea, but the trends aren’t that encouraging. Trends such as walk rate remaining rather consistent while strikeouts plummet, and Davis couldn’t find the zone consistently as a reliever either; he hasn’t at any point in his career, and I don’t expect him to suddenly start now. Sure, this could turn out like Samardzija where the conditioning caused by throwing max effort means that he holds onto all that velocity in the rotation, but it’s highly unlikely. What’s a more likely positive outcome is that he can locate better at his old starting velocity, but will that even be noticeable?

    Regardless, the Royal’s need to try and hope that something sticks for Davis, if they don’t want this trade to be a complete failure.

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  13. greenie says:

    So will Myers hit .400 first or will he go for the home run record instead? Guy must be an incredible talent reading all the reactions from this trade.

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    • Dave S says:

      last 10 BA minor league player of the year awards:

      2003 Joe Mauer Catcher AA Minnesota Twins
      2004 Jeff Francis Pitcher AAA Colorado Rockies
      2005 Delmon Young Outfielder AAA Tampa Bay Devil Rays
      2006 Alex Gordon Third baseman AA Kansas City Royals
      2007 Jay Bruce Outfielder AAA Cincinnati Reds
      2008 Matt Wieters Catcher AA Baltimore Orioles
      2009 Jason Heyward Outfielder AAA Atlanta Braves
      2010 Jeremy Hellickson Pitcher AAA Tampa Bay Rays
      2011 Mike Trout Outfielder AA Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
      2012 Wil Myers Outfielder AAA Kansas City Royals

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  14. spike says:

    I’ve been following the Rays for a few years, have a son in the organization. Wade Davis will be a good addition for the Royals and I can see him as a solid #3 guy. Don’t think you need to worry about him. The only reason he was in the pen with the Rays is there was just no room for him in the rotation. He will be fine. I think there’s more to worry about with Santana, and I would be willing to bet a cold pack that Davis has a far better season than Santana. Watched Santana a lot last year and there is a reason the Angels let him go. Now I’m hoping my son will be that player to be named later. Rays have way too much pitching!

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  15. Andy says:

    Another thing to consider if the fact he’s moving from the AL east to the central. The Twins and Indians and aren’t exactly the Red Sox and Yanks.

    Full disclosure, I don’t think the trade was as heavily slanted in the Rays favor as most here. If Davis returns to say a #3 or #4 level this trade gets a lot less lopsided. In my opinion, Davis has to live up to the value of the rest of the prospects and Shields needs to live up to Meyers for them to win the trade. I contend even if the Royals don’t play well next year that Shields can easily be dealt at the deadline for a 20-50 range prospect if not more. With 2 WC’s someone will be desperate for pitching and Shields is fairly cost controlled for a team getting him. That means you don’t have to trade him to say the Yankees. You can also trade him to a team like the Pirates if they make a run.

    Also as I’ve said else where, whether or not this is a “good trade” for the Royals sort of is missing an important point. I applaud the Royals for trying to win for a change. They’ve horded prospects for years only to be not good enough and then deal them(See: Beltran). With Moustakas and Hosmer this is likely the best shot the Royals are going to have for some time. Even if they fail, I think royal fans should be happy they are trying to compete. Meyers may be good but with crummy pitching they weren’t going anywhere fast.

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  16. Luke Hochevar says:

    Even the worst Wade Davis will probably do better than me.

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