The question of the day seems to be "Why has Dayton Moore stuck with Kyle Davies so long?" especially considering Davies's consistently poor major league results? "Tools" is often the answer, but we haven't seen major-league results from these supposed tools in quite some time, possibly even ever. Let's trace Davies's history and see if we can figure what Dayton saw in Davies, and more importantly, what he still sees in Davies.
(Luckily, John Sickels has done a lot of the work for us, over at his site minorleagueball.com: http://www.minorleagueball.com/2009/4/16/840553/not-a-rookie-kyle-davies His recap and analysis runs through preseason 2009.)
Davies was selected with the 29th pick of the 4th round, 135th overall. Not exactly a prized pick - Atlanta chose 6 other players before Davies (due to supplemental/compensation picks), but not a bad spot to be drafted, either. One of the ATL picks before Davies was 2nd round pick, JP Howell; first round pick, Macay McBride (you'll never guess: he's from Georgia), pitched a grand total of 103 ML innings.
Sickels, on Davies: ...out of high school in Stockbridge, Georgia. He was a classic Atlanta draft pick: a high school pitcher from the Deep South with a live arm, projectability, athleticism, but the need for patient development.
Sickels noted a "need for patient development". Nonetheless, Davies sprinted out of the gates (b-ref link) after signing in 2001: 8.8 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, and an ERA of 2.03 in Rookie Ball (and one game in A-ball) - and this was as a 17-year-old! In 2002, things slowed down a little bit - still back in Rookie Ball for the majority (6 IP at A-Ball) of the season (don't know why, maybe b/c he's only 18, maybe b/c they wanted him to repeat the previous success before progressing to A-ball full-time), he posted a 3.70 ERA with 7.9 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9 - not great, but also not bad considering he's still 18.
Things really seemed to click for him in 2003, though...
(Please note that for any of these minor league numbers the specific hitting/pitching environments of the stadium/league are not accounted for. Also using Fangraphs FIP/xFIP/WAR, though b-ref's WAR can tell a somewhat different story.)
At A-ball for the full season, Davies posted 9.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.89 ERA. So with this good showing in 2003, we had two good seasons and one "just OK". To start 2004, Davies was in High-A, continuing his success for 14 starts with 11.3 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 2.63 ERA - but note again that the increase in BB/9 is still there, oddly increasing in each season so far. Still, he's 20 years old and tearing through hitters at High-A, so people weren't surprised when he was promoted to AA midseason. For 10 starts, Davies again showed good results even at the "testing ground" AA: 10.6 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 2.32 ERA. (Davies then pitched 5 innings at AAA, with 5 K's and 3 BB's.) Sickels upgraded him to a B+ after the 2004 season.
The Atlanta front office, though, had their sights set on Davies moving to the ML roster in 2005, and rather than giving him a full season at AA, they started him in AAA. Davies put up middling numbers in his 2005 AAA season, in 13 starts: 7.6 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 3.44 ERA. This is for the full AAA season - he was up and down between AAA and ML because of injuries to their staff, but was already scuffling some prior to the initial ML callup, from what I could find:
Davies has had good K rates and K/BB numbers up through AA, but he was getting knocked around a little in AAA before his call up to Atlanta (1.65 K/BB in Richmond). http://www.deweyshouse.com/archives/2005/05/21/red-sox-4-braves-3/
But it looks like Moore and/or the ATL front office trusted the superior tools more than the inferior AAA numbers. In his 2005 ML season, the problem with walks magnified, and his K numbers look more like his so-so AAA numbers than his great A and AA numbers: 6.4 K/9, 5.0 BB/9, 5.14 xFIP in 87 IP. Still high on Davies's prospects, despite his blah 2005, ATL put him in the starting rotation for 2006. This could have been potentially his best ML season (faint praise) because of his career high 7.25 K/9, but he still walked too many, 4.7 BB/9, and his xFIP was again high, 5.13, and he was sent between AA/AAA/ML due to poor results and injuries. The rest you know...Davies stays at about this level, never quite striking out enough and never quite walking few enough.
But looking at his minor-league stats and progression, does it seem Davies was moved rather quickly through AA and AAA?
This has been discussed before, such as when sabernomics.com took a quick look at this halfway through 2007:
Was Davies rushed? If so, how can we know if he was rushed? These are difficult questions to answer, but they are important. While some favor letting the kids play as soon as possible, I wonder what is lost when a player is forced to play when he is not ready. And there is also the possibility that playing above your true talent level early on can harm development.
If Davies had stayed in the minors, he would be working on getting to the majors. The downside of playing in the minors playing baseball against inferior talent, but the upside is working on potential problems to aid is future performance. In the minors, a pitcher can work on developing new pitches, painting corners, and experiment with new mechanics in game conditions without risking damage to the major league club. At 23 Davies is far too young to give up on, but I wonder where he would be if he hadn’t been called into duty so early. We can never know, but I don’t see he’s gained much from pitching at the big league level. http://www.sabernomics.com/sabernomics/index.php/2007/07/how-long-in-the-oven/
What this blurb doesn't mention is that Davies's promotion to the ML team was absolutely done for the sake of the ML team (won the NL East), not for the sake of Davies. They had a hole to fill, and they used Davies to fill it. At the time it probably seemed like the right thing to do, but in hindsight, it looks rash and short-sighted.
Remember Sickels's comment about being patient with Davies? The Braves were true to their philosophy in the low minors - Davies repeated Rookie Ball and A-Ball. But then at High-A, and more importantly AA, Davies was given about a half-season at each level. The biggest question to me, is were the 60 IP at AA for real? The strikeouts were there, and the control seemed to have improved (down to 3.2 BB/9 from 3.8 earlier in the year at High-A). But it was only 60 innings, and the control worries manifested as soon as he hit AAA - 4.2 BB/9 in 2005.
Was it just the AAA competition in 2004/5 that caught Davies? That seems a little odd - we don't expect pitchers to have such a drastic drop from AA to AAA just because of competition. I hoped Sickels would have some scouting insight into what the ATL org was thinking with Davies, and luckily he did - looking back at Davies out of high school, Davies was throwing 87-91, but getting by with a good changeup and curve, according to Sickels (and this guy:
Posted by ramadon101:
05-20-2005 09:34 AM
From everything I've gathered (articles, interviews with coaches, Bill's notes, and getting a chance to actually see him pitch), Kyle has one of the filthiest change-ups in our system ,if not the entire minor leagues. He and Stevens have the two best change-ups in our system. Kyle throws the basic other pitches - fastball and curve, but its his change that keeps hitters off-balanced....He may not be as polished a pitcher as Meyer was (not yet at least), but he's got the higher ceiling. The Braves know pitching, and if they were unwilling to deal Davies in the transaction for Hudson, that should tell you something.
...take "random message board comment" with a grain of salt, of course.) I can't really remember any ML stories on Davies mentioning his changeup as "his best pitch" or anything like that, I wonder what happened to that? Anyway, Davies was apparently getting by with minus velocity but plus change and curve. Then, in 2004 when Davies went through High-A and AA, Sickels tells us something I haven't seen mentioned anywhere but by Sickels (thanks again to him):
...in 2004...his velocity increased into the 90-94 MPH range, thanks to more physical strength and improved mechanics. He retained his breaking ball, changeup, and sound command. He posted a 2.63 ERA with a 95/32 K/BB in 75 innings for Class A Myrtle Beach, and maintained his progress with a fine showing for Double-A Greenville in the second half....
Sickels agrees with Moore (assumedly) that, as of 2004, Davies is a really good looking prospect, writing that "if he avoids injury, he will be a very good pitcher, perhaps even an excellent one". But now, maybe the excitement got to be too much for the ATL front office. A local kid, drafted and developed in the Bravest Way, was panning out. They needed help in the ML rotation, so (hypothetically) they followed their scouting gut that Davies had shown what he needed to. So they called him up to fill a hole in the rotation.
The giant red flag to me is the issue of his increased velocity. From what I can gather, the first time he was throwing as hard as 90-94 was in 2004, so he only had one season of learning to control and use the higher-velocity FB. So not only did he only get fewer than 200 IP in AA and AAA to transition from High-A to MLB, he was still developing physically. He was still 20 in 2004, and in 2005 when he had a so-so start to the AAA season, he was 21 and called up to MLB. The CW seems to be leaning more and more toward favoring the callup of pitchers sooner rather than later, but this had to have been too soon. The initial callup to ML in 2005 was sort of "wishful thinking", and not a terrible idea - maybe he'll stick and maybe he won't; he didn't stick. So, you'd think he'd get much more time at AAA to develop and/or prove that he really was/wasn't ready for an ML rotation, but instead he was stuck right back into the 2006 starting rotation. In 2006, he still didn't cut it (though he got injured, right in the middle of his biggest pass-fail test, which provides yet another unknown in his inability to reach his ceiling), and the Moore-less Braves would move him to Moore's KC team in 2007.
That was a long way to get to looking at what Moore still sees in Davies. Yes, Davies had his great 2004, but that was a long way in the past, and nothing since then suggested he could be any more than a back of the rotation ML starter - Moore must have still had higher expectations than that, or else he wouldn't have acquired him for the Royals, and those higher expectations could only have been based on what Dayton saw in Davies's time in the minors (I hope it wasn't based off his time in the majors) and, yes, the "tools". To Moore's credit, if he thinks something is there, giving Davies a chance to show it is the right kind of move for the Royals to make - low risk, high reward, even if it's unlikely.
Just when he was being traded to the Royals, Davies threw 10 innings with 12 strikeouts in AAA Richmond, setting the hook for Dayton; arriving in KC, Davies recorded 7.2 K/9 for the remaining portion of the ML season (50 innings), which was as high a K/9 as Davies had had in his career (especially considering the league change, now pitching in the AL, not the NL) - enough strikeouts to succeed at the ML level, and Dayton surely was being reeled in. The walks were still high, but 4.7 BB/9 were as low as Davies had thrown so far in the ML.
Then in 2008, Davies seemed to turn a corner, at least slightly. He started at AAA, and his control numbers were better, 3.3 BB/9, even though the strikeouts were down, 5.9 K/9; his K/BB ratio was the same as his 2005 AAA partial season 1.8 K/BB. When he came up to the Royals, he posted his best season: 5.6 K/9, 3.4 BB/9, 4.22 FIP (slightly better than league average), and 4.76 xFIP, all of that leaving him with 1.9 WAR for about 2/3 of a season. With this, Dayton's faith in Davies looks reasonable, maybe even smart.
But the progress stalled in 2009 as the walks came back (4.83 BB/9), for a 5.05 xFIP. Though just when Moore might have been able to shake loose, Davies posted a midseason AAA stint of 8.5 K/9 and 2.7 BB/9, which was pretty solid and more or less representative of the low-4 FIP Davies got at the ML level the season before.
In 2010, the walks dipped, and Davies looked decent again, 3.9 BB/9, 4.73 xFIP, with 2.0 WAR over the full season, and his 4.42 FIP was just worse than average (tERA thinks this was Davies's best season - 4.46, still not great). While we don't think Dayton evaluates pitchers the same way Fangraphs does, he doesn't seem totally crazy to think Davies could have at least be an asset. Now in 2011, any hope of Davies's promise and Moore's hope seems to be slipping away. Davies is not the 21-year-old prospect trying to prove himself at AAA (aka, "2005" for those who understand the significance of that), he's 27, firmly entrenched as a #4 starter on a good day, and a starter who is not worth the raise he is lined up for in 2012.
But, Moore notices, he did strikeout 21 in 20 innings while walking none during his AA/AAA rehab assignment.... Just when we thought Moore might be able to kick the habit, Davies's tools and Moore's hope live on.