Is Wade Davis’ Arsenal Maximized Out of the Bullpen?

By Robbie Knopf

It was a much publicized move for the Rays to move Wade Davis to the bullpen and then keep him there even after Jeff Niemann went down, calling up Alex Cobb instead. Has Davis performed better? The answer to that question is clearly yes. He has posted a 3.12 ERA and 3.86 FIP in 2012 in the bullpen compared to a 4.45 ERA and a 4.67 FIP in 2011 as a starter. But we know that good starting pitchers are much more valuable than good middle relievers. Is he doing better because coming out of the bullpen maximizes the potential of his arsenal?

What exactly am I asking here? We’re not talking about performance. We are talking about just how much his arsenal plays up out of the bullpen. If his repertoire plays up enough, then it makes sense for him to remain a reliever because it’s a better role for him. If it doesn’t, then we can ask we he has done so much better and whether it makes more sense for him to be transitioned back to a starter. What’s enough? Well, we’ll deal with that when we get to it. Here is a graph comparing the movement on Davis’ pitches between 2011 and 2012. The data is courtesy of Brooks Baseball while the graph is my own.

The graph here is cool (if I don’t say so myself), but we’re really looking at the key here first and foremost. The big thing across the board is an increase in velocity, which is to be expected since Davis is now pitching in shorter stints. We see that Davis throws his fastball a little more in 2012 with the expected velocity increase, nothing out of the ordinary. What’s more interesting is looking at his breaking pitches, his curveball, his slider, and we’ll lump in his cutter. We know that the two usual combinations for pitchers are fastball-curveball or sinker-slider. The Rays are in the fastball-curveball camp primarily. So was Davis in 2011- primarily. He was primarily fastball-curveball, three-quarters of the time, but in the other quarter, he was sinker-slider. The problem was (now you can glare at the graph) that his sinker wasn’t so great because of the lack of the velocity and the fact that it had so much more movement compared to his fastball that he never really got used to it and couldn’t control very well. And looking at his slider, it wasn’t very impressive either. Davis has rectified that in 2012 by throwing his best breaking ball, his curveball, more often, throwing his sinker less and getting more velocity on it when he has thrown it, and then by mostly scrapping his slider in favor of a much faster cutter.

You may wonder, why the combinations of fastball-curveball and sinker-slider? The fastball and curveball go together because they feature huge contrasts in velocity and move in opposite directions with big differences in the magnitude of the movement as well. The sinker-slider combination is much closer in velocity, but the slider still moves the opposite way and the additional downward movement leads to even more balls on the ground and its sharp action will force more swings-and-misses than the sinker. Fastball-slider can certainly work but you have less margin for error because the velocity is similar and there isn’t as much movement on a slider compared to a curveball, but sinker-curveball can be an utter disaster because they move so sharply in opposite directions that the hitter could be able to read more quickly which pitch is coming after the pitcher releases the ball.

The Rays’ preferred repertoire for the pitchers in their system is fastball-curveball-changeup, maybe adding in a cutter. That is the pitch selection for James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb in the big league rotation alone with plenty of others following suit in the minors. Davis’ problem as a starter was that he never took to a changeup, struggling to control it and never getting the same arm slot as either of his fastballs, removing deception. To compensate for that, Davis has needed to keep his slider as he has advanced through the pro ranks. He never could really throw a cutter because his slider and fastball were so close in velocity already and a cutter would just bridge the gap and potentially make everything more hittable. As a reliever with his fastball velocity reaching the mid-90’s, a high-80’s cutter touching 90 MPH made more sense. Oh, and by the way, Davis’ newfound cutter has basically the same movement as his 2011 slider but with more velocity, making it a nasty pitch for him this season. Now Davis can attack hitters with his fastball-curveball combination, build off his fastball with his cutter for swings-and-misses and his sinker for groundballs, and keep his changeup and slider in his back pocket waiting to surprise a hitter. (Davis has used his slider only 14 times in 2012, but hitters have yet to put it into play and he has gotten several whiffs off of it.) But here’s the critical question: has Davis been so much better in 2012 more because he has found a great cutter or because his stuff has played up?

Davis’ cutter will be a big pitch for him whether he continues as a starter or a reliever. But it isn’t enough. Wade Davis’ problem is that he has a straight fastball without great velocity. As a reliever, Davis has gotten some more velocity and his fastball has been a good pitch. That won’t be the case if he returns to a starting role. If Davis is going to be a starting pitcher, he has to find some way to get a better combination of velocity and movement on his fastball like he tried and failed to do at the beginning of 2011, and he has to continue working on his changeup. Davis’ fastball is an average pitch as a starter with its lower velocity. His curveball is above-average but not plus. His cutter has looked great, but he has just started throwing it this season and it won’t be as effective if he’s a starter. And right now his changeup is decidedly below-average. You’re not going to be starting games for the team with the best starting depth in baseball with a repertoire like that. Maybe he gets traded and gets another chance as a starter. With some improvement he still has number two or number three starter upside. But the Rays are done waiting. Davis is unhappy in the bullpen, but it doesn’t matter. With his current arsenal of pitches, Wade Davis is best served as a reliever.