At the end of spring training, Jeff Niemann was named the Rays’ 5th starter with Wade Davis heading to the bullpen. Since then, Davis has had ample opportunity to return to the Rays’ rotation. Niemann got hurt and the Rays instead called up Alex Cobb. Jeremy Hellickson had to miss a couple of starts and the Rays chose to bring up Chris Archer. Why have the Rays been so adamant about keeping Davis a reliever? The easy answer is that he has pitched so well, and that answer is partially right. But more than that, Davis gives Joe Maddon the type of weapon out of the bullpen that the Rays haven’t seen in years.
So far in 2012, Davis has gone 2-0 with a 2.29 ERA, a 10.1 K/9, a 3.7 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 44 relief appearances and 59 IP. He has been outstanding all season and it doesn’t look like much of a fluke as his stuff has really played up out of the bullpen. His fastball has been consistently in the mid-90’s and he has complemented it with a big-breaking curveball that has become a weapon out of the bullpen and a sharp cutter that Davis just began throwing this season. But tons of relievers even in the Rays bullpen alone have electric stuff. Four Rays relievers including Davis have struck out at least a batter per inning and both Joel Peralta and Jake McGee have struck out more batters than him per 9 innings. What distinguishes Davis is his ability to go multiple innings consistently.
Not since 2008 have the Rays had a pitcher who struck out at least a batter per inning while averaging more than an inning per appearance with a minimum of 20 appearances. That year, they had two: J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour. Over the course of Rays history, a pitcher has met these criteria just 8 times: Doug Creek in 1999, Esteban Yan in 2000, Scott Kazmir three times (2006-2008), Howell, Balfour, and now Davis. When you up the innings per appearance requirement to what Davis has managed so far this season (1.34 innings pitched per appearance), only Creek, Kazmir, and Howell join Davis. Across the entire major leagues, only Davis has managed a K/9 of 9.0 or higher while averaging over 1.34 innings per appearance as a full-time reliever. Granted, there a whole bunch of at least part-time starters who fit the criteria. Here’s the full list.
Looking at this list, these pitchers don’t perform as well as you may think on a whole. The average ERA is 3.79 with a standard deviation of 0.88 runs per 9 innings as these pitchers are all over the place. Striking out so many batters as a starting pitcher isn’t necessarily a good thing as you end up throwing a lot of pitches and pitchers who strike out so many batters often tend to walk quite a few as well as their mean BB/9 is 3.4 compared to the MLB average of 3.0. We do see some excellent pitchers on this list, specifically Stephen Strasburg, Justin Verlander, and Clayton Kershaw, but unless you can pair the explosive stuff basically all these guys have with incredible control and command, it’s hard to be consistently successful as a starting pitcher who depends on getting so many strikeouts every time on the mound. With Davis, his control and command have not been great, but that’s not as big of a deal out of the bullpen. As a reliever, pitch counts aren’t much of a concern either. However, the difference between Davis and your usual fireballing reliever is that he can go out there for 30 or 40 pitches over a couple of innings without batting an eye and you also know that he’s not going to start tiring out at 30 pitches or even be unable to pitch for more than a day after a longer appearance. We know how much the Rays love versatility, and Davis’ ability to pitch effectively as a short or long reliever has made him very valuable for the Rays this season.
Is Wade Davis the Rays most valuable reliever? Almost certainly not. You could legitimately rank him as low as 5th behind Fernando Rodney, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, and J.P. Howell. But his ability to come in for one, two, or even three innings and blow away hitters has made him an important part of this team. He has delivered in big spots and spares other relievers when games are out of hand, helping to make the entire bullpen as great as it has been all season. Happy 27th birthday, Wade, and know that although you’re not starting games anymore you’re still an integral part of the Rays’ success this season.