As the 2011 season got under way, Tampa Bay locked up Wade Davis with long-term deal that could potentially keep him in a Rays uniform through 2017 while putting a total of over $36 million in the right-hander’s pockets. So far, Davis has rewarded Tampa’s aggressive move to cost-control his arbitration years and potentially buy out a pair of free agent seasons. In 44 innings pitched, Davis sports a 3.07 ERA that places among the top 20 in the American League.
Davis was, health permitting, supposed to become a prominent piece of Tampa’s starting rotation. On the strength of what Baseball America called “a heavy 93-94 mph fastball with above-average sink” and a “plus” curveball, Davis punched out 8.3 batters per nine frames at the Triple-A level. BA ranked him between number 17 and 34 on its Top 100 prospects list from 2008-2010. Given his stature amongst scouts, Davis’ hot start to the 2011 season makes him appear to be a talented starter converting potential into major league production.
The problem is the current version of Wade Davis pitches nothing like that glowing scouting report. He’s fooling just about no one, while also lacking the fine control and ground ball tendencies to compensate.
Among qualified starters, Davis’ 5.1 swinging strike percentage places ahead of only Brad Penny, Ivan Nova, Kyle McClellan and Dustin Moseley. For reference, the big league average is around 8.5% While Davis’ 6.7% swinging strike rate from 2009-2010 was rather disappointing for a guy touted as a power pitcher, that looks robust compared to this year’s clip. Davis has struck out 10.6% of batters faced this year, down from 17.1% from ’09 to ’10. That explains why his K/9 mark is just 4.09. He K’d around 6.6 per nine from ’09 to 10 (7-7.1 MLB average in recent years).
Davis’ average fastball velocity is down from 92.3 MPH last season to 90 in 2011. While over 40% of Davis’ pitches classified by Pitch F/X as four-seamers were thrown at 93 MPH or higher in 2010, about four percent have reached that velocity this year. Davis suggested to Marc Topkin of the St. Petersburg Times that the lack of mid-to-upper 90s gas is at least partially intentional:
Part by design, part by the way he typically builds arm strength into a season, Davis is throwing with less velocity and getting more outs.
“Every year I come in after spring training and I’ve always been a little down, and toward the second half I always pick it up,” Davis said. “And this year’s a little different just because I’m trying to pitch a little more instead of just relying on stuff. My command’s a lot better of the strike zone, I can attack hitters a lot easier being more relaxed.”
Unfortunately for Davis, it’s hard to find much evidence the “pitcher, not a thrower” mantra will pay long-term dividends. He’s certainly getting fewer K’s, with his fastball’s whiff rate down slightly compared to last year and his breaking stuff getting even fewer whiffs (just 2.6% for his curve and 7.2% with his slider; those rates were 5 and 13 percent, respectively, last year, and the MLB averages are 11.6% for the curve and 13.6% for the slider). But his declining punch out rate has come without better control or an uptick in ground ball rate.
His first-pitch strike percentage, which was 58.9 percent from 2009-2010, is a shade under 53% in 2011 (58-59% MLB average). Opposing batters are drawing a walk in 10% of their plate appearances against Davis, compared to 8.6% from ’09-’10. Consequently, he’s issuing about 3.9 walks per nine innings this season after allowing 3.3 free passes per nine in ’09 and ’10 (3.3 MLB average).
Davis was already a flyball-slanted pitcher coming into this year, posting a 39.2 GB% from ’09 to ’10, but he’s getting even fewer worm burners in 2011 (36.3%). So far, all those pitches lifted skyward haven’t been an issue — he has surrendered just two homers. However, Davis has a 2.9% home run per fly ball rate that’s bound to increase. If he had given up homers on fly balls (which isn’t something a pitcher has much control over) at a rate close to the AL average, he’d have a HR/9 mark of 1.2-1.3 instead of his actual 0.41.
While Davis is flirting with a sub-three ERA, his peripherals suggest that he has actually been over 30 percent worse than the average MLB pitcher (134 xFIP-). Maybe you feel that Davis’ .260 BABIP won’t climb quite as much as usual due to Tampa’s skilled fielders, and maybe he won’t have severe home run problems pitching in the power-suppressing Trop. But even so, Davis just isn’t showing the requisite control and earth-scorching style to survive with such a low strikeout rate. Either he’s going to find a way to miss more lumber, or he’s going to get beat with the regression stick.