Wade Davis, you will never start another baseball game.
You might want to be a starting pitcher. You might long for the days when you were a starter – for a couple of seasons in Tampa Bay and in 2013 for Kansas City.
But, son, starting doesn’t agree with you. Relief pitching is where you belong, where you thrive. You’re probably the best eighth-inning guy in baseball and the Royals aren’t in first place unless you’re locking down that important inning and getting the game to Greg Holland in the ninth.
Davis has been ridiculously good all season. You know that. In 53 games covering 55.1 innings, he has allowed only 28 hits, walked 20 and struck out 85. He’s 6-2 with a 0.81 ERA. He has blown two save opportunities, but that’s the only thing on his stat line that doesn’t glow.
As mostly a starter for the Royals in 2013 – only seven of his 31 appearances were in relief – Davis was 8-11 with a 5.32 ERA. He allowed 169 hits in 135.1 innings. When he came into a game last season, Royals fans squirmed in their seats. Now they sit quietly, almost bored with the expectation that nobody is going to do much of anything against the hard-throwing right-hander.
It’s difficult to know what clicks with Davis as a reliever as opposed to when he starts, but the numbers are irrefutable.
In 513.2 innings as a starting pitcher in his career, the 28-year-old Davis has a 4.57 ERA. Opposing batters have hit .272 against him with a .779 OPS (combined on-base and slugging percentage). He has faced 2,249 batters and given up 186 extra-base hits (8.3 percent).
But in 135.2 as a reliever, Davis has a 1.66 ERA. He’s held opposing hitters to a .165 average and given up only 21 extra-base hits to the 536 batters he’s faced (3.9 percent).
In his 55-plus innings this season, Davis has given up only two extra-base hits. Before the All-Star break, he faced 154 batters and only 15 of them got hits. All singles.
So what’s different? It has to be about pitch selection, right. Surely Davis is just powering up as a one-inning reliever and blowing fastballs by opposing hitters.
Nope, that’s not it.
In fact, Davis is throwing fewer fastballs now (61.6 percent of the time) than he did when he was a starter. However, his velocity is at an all-time high, averaging 95.5 miles per hour. That’s more than three mph more than last season, when he struggled mightily as a starter.
Davis has eliminated his slider and change-up, going exclusively with a cutter and curve. The cutter has been a huge weapon for Davis, who obviously has improved his command. His strikeout rate has increased to 13.83 per nine innings in 2014 as compared to 7.58 last season.
Still, as much as the numbers can explain Davis’ turnaround to some degree, it’s mostly a matter of confidence. When Davis takes the mound, he knows he’s going to be successful. He has limited opposing batters to a .139 average with the bases empty, a .154 mark with men on and a .130 average with runners in scoring position.
Right-handers are batting a miniscule .093 against him. Left-handers (.198) aren’t doing all that much better.
Davis had success with Tampa Bay in 2012, when the Rays put him in the pen after two tough seasons as a starter. In 54 games as a reliever, Davis had a 2.43 ERA and struck out 87 in 70.1 innings.
That’s good. What Davis has done in 2014 for the Royals is remarkable. His presence has greatly lessened if not eliminated the blow felt by Luke Hochevar’s season-ending injury. The guy has belonged in the bullpen all along. It just took some time to figure it out.