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Finding Wade Davis

Can Wade Davis transition back to the rotation? Or is he doomed to remain in the bullpen?

Rick Yeatts

As we cruise through the January doldrums and the endless countdowns to equipment trucks leaving stadia across the country, Pitchers and Catchers reporting, the first game of spring and Opening Day, let's turn our focus back to Dayton's Bounty.

I wrote about Wade Davis at the time of the trade and went so far as to call him the "key" to the deal. It takes a bit of a leap of faith to think he can return to the rotation. His performance as a starter has been underwhelming. While the party line in Tampa held that with a deep rotation, Davis was better served in the bullpen, although he would be starting for just about any other team in the majors. Lucky us... We are the test case for that hypothesis.

We know that things happen when a pitcher moves from the rotation to the bullpen: A bump in fastball velocity, a potential change in arsenal, etc. And we know that Davis was no different from other pitchers in his situation. He added a couple mph to his fastball and enjoyed his best season as a major leaguer working in relief for the Rays.

From Brooks Baseball, here are his pitch types as a starter in 2011 for the Rays:


Contrast that to his pitch types as a reliever in 2012:


A few things to glean from this data.

  • Davis utilized his fastball in a more consistent manner in 2012. As a starter, a left-handed batter was more likely to see a fastball from Davis. Last summer, he featured it almost equally to both lefties and right-handed hitters.
  • He was more likely to start a hitter off with a curve ball than he was as a starter.
  • His curve became his go-to secondary pitch when seeking to finish off left-handed batters.
  • There seems to be some confusion as to whether he abandoned his slider in 2012. Fangraphs data has him continuing to throw his slider and rated it as his most effective pitch at 3.68 wSL/c. They don't have him throwing a cutter. Meanwhile, Brooks Baseball has him favoring the cutter. Either way, it was a helluva pitch. I'm a fan of Brooks Baseball, so I will adhere to their data and refer to him as throwing a cutter. (At least until I hear from the man himself and gain some clarity.)
From Brooks Baseball, here are the outcomes from each pitch type Davis threw as a starter:


Again, contrast that to his outcomes as a reliever:


Davis' whiff rate exploded on his cutter/slider and the residual effect seems to be a boost across the board. Almost every pitch saw double the rate of swings and misses. Conversely, the percentage of balls in play decreased.

He threw his sinking fastball less when coming out of the bullpen, instead featuring his curveball with greater frequency. It was a smart decision as his curve was his second most effective pitch according to FanGraphs, scoring 2.55 wCU/c. His sinker has always been his least effective pitch because it's been difficult for him to control. He still features it more to the right-handed batters, but wisely avoids it (for the most part) when he falls behind in the count. It was simply smarter pitching for Davis when it came to pitch selection out of the bullpen.

I view this as a recipe - or a template - for success. It's likely with the increased pitch counts that come from starting, Davis will see his velocity drop a bit. However, if he continues to mix in his curve and cutter it may be enough to keep the hitters off balance to the point where he will be able to recapture some of his success of 2012.

In my mind, Davis is one of the larger question marks heading into the new season. I can't say one way or another if he can successfully move back to the rotation, but we can follow along with his pitch selection to see if he's following the road map he established last year.