Until last night, Wade Davis hadn’t recorded an out in the eighth inning this season. In a few games he’s gone seven strong and probably could have come out for the eighth, but he’s always been at or over 100 pitches and the Rays don’t seem keen to extend him any further; he’s never thrown more than 115 pitches in a start. Last night he threw only 99, which might make it seem as though he performed his job well. But his line — 7.2 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 3 K, 2 HR — paints a drearier picture, one filled with overachievement and, if we’re to believe the peripherals, a thunderous crash to come.
After the game, Rays manager Joe Maddon tweeted, “Davis bettter.” The previous sentence mentioned Ricky Romero‘s efficiency, so his statement came off as a comparison. One look at this morning’s TMA should prove that false. Maddon later clarified his statement, saying that Davis was better than he’d been lately. While that’s a more accurate statement, I’m not sure it’s totally accurate. Davis did walk four and allow two homers, which is not the markings of a good outing. But was it better than his previous starts?
Again, the length alone makes it better, so Maddon’s statement was not false. Yet despite allowing only three runs, the outing wasn’t all that good. Of the 32 batters he faced, nine roamed the bases, and two hit homers. It’s quite lucky, really, that he allowed only three runs on those two homers. Without a real weapon to limit the damage caused by baserunners — that is, he’s neither a strikeout nor a ground-ball guy — he can get hurt more than others when he allows a long fly. It’s also the second straight game in which he has allowed two homers. So, again, I’m wondering how much better this really was.
Really, the game was a small representation of Davis’s entire season. For the game itself, Davis had a 3.52 ERA, 7.21 FIP, 1.43 WHIP, and a 3:4 K/BB ratio. On the season he has a 3.47 ERA, 4.83 FIP, 1.40 WHIP, and a 1:1 K/BB ratio. He’s been getting quality results, as the ERA shows, but his peripherals have been poor in every way. He might have good old cousin BABIP to thank for that; while his hit rate is consistent with his career mark, his BABIP is way down. From this we might expect a correction, but as with most issues BABIP, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
About a month a go our own Steve Slowinski, writing for DRays Bay, examined some changes Davis has undergone this season. At the time he had been walking fewer batters, so things have changed for the worse since then. Yet his fastball remains lower than it was last year, and there is less separation between it and his changeup — though he is throwing the former less often and the latter more, and the latter appears to have some different movement this year. Still, Steve found it difficult to believe that Davis could sustain his production amid this drop-off in peripherals.
Last week former FanGraphs contributor R.J. Anderson pointed to a reason why Davis has succeeded: the infield pop-up. At the time, Davis had 6.94 strikeouts and infield flies per nine innings. While an infield fly isn’t quite as good as a strikeout, in terms of results it’s very close. The question with infield flies is an issue of sustainability, of course, and we still don’t know how well Davis can maintain his rate. But could there be some interplay between the two? Anderson found that last year Davis had an infield fly plus strikeout rate of 7.71 per nine.
While ERA predictors do forecast a decline for Davis — he has a 5.28 xFIP and a 5.87 SIERA — there is precedent for his success. Since 1980 there have been eight instances where a pitcher qualified for the ERA title, had a K/BB ratio of 1 or less, and posted an ERA+ of 100 or greater. My favorite among these is Ricky Bones in 1995. He struck out 77 and walked 83, yet had a 4.63 ERA, good for a 107 ERA+. That’s just all sorts of craziness — especially considering that opponents hit .281 off him. In 1991 Philadelphia’s Jose DeJesus led the league with 128 walks while striking out just 119, yet he produced a 3.42 ERA, also a 107 ERA+. So it is possible that he maintains his current pace, it doesn’t seem all that likely.
Even with the short history of pitchers accomplishing what Davis has, it’s still difficult to forecast anything but regression for Davis. After all, he did have a 4.61 xFIP last season, which was quite a few ticks higher than his 4.07 ERA. This year it’s even worse, as his peripherals are in decline. It’s clear that Davis has changed things up this year, and maybe that allows him to do things we wouldn’t otherwise expect from a pitcher. But unless he can sustain his infield fly-ball rate, or he can start striking out more batters than he walks (and striking out more guys in general), he’ll be a guy waiting to blow up.
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