Solving The Rays’ Rotation Crunch

Alternate post title: Wade Davis, The Reliever

I’ll admit it: when Andrew Friedman said at the beginning of the off-season that the Rays didn’t need to trade a starter, I called bull. It’s no secret that the Rays have a glut of major-league-ready starting pitching, with seven starters who could theoretically be in the opening day rotation*, so I wrote off Friedman’s comments as positioning. You don’t want to announce to the world that you desperately need to trade a starter, thereby jettisoning your leverage. Friedman was playing his hand, but there’s no chance the Rays would actually enter the 2012 season without dealing a starter…right?

*In case you’re having a brain fart: David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Alex Cobb.

As it turns out, wrong. The market ended up being flooded with starters, and there was never a surplus of demand that would have pushed up offers for either Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis. Who saw Gio Gonzalez and Jeremy Guthrie being traded? Or Roy Oswalt staying on the market this late? It was a poor off-season to be stuck trying to deal a mediocre starter, so now the Rays are faced with the task of making all their pitchers fit their roster without decreasing anyone’s trade value.

But the solution to this glut of pitching is simpler than it seems: keep Alex Cobb in Triple-A, and move Wade Davis to the bullpen. That may not seem ideal, but based on his pitch repertoire and success, Davis may be destined to move to the bullpen anyway.

Considering he was once one of the top pitching prospects in the Rays system, Wade Davis has been somewhat of a disappointment. After striking out over 20 percent of hitters at every step in the minors (outside one poor year in Double-A), he initially burst into the majors at the tail end of 2009 with such promise; he struck out 24 percent of the batters he faced, helping Rays fans forget that he was replacing Scott Kazmir in the rotation.

This success should have come with a minor warning bell, though. Despite the strikeouts, Davis only generated a league-average amount of swinging strikes (8.8 percent), suggesting that his strikeout rate was potentially too good to be true. Some regression was expected in 2010, and Davis did struggle that season; his strikeout rate dropped to below league average (16 percent), and batters rarely swung and missed at his pitches (6 percent). But instead of rebounding in 2011 and adjusting in a positive way, Davis continued to backtrack in 2011 (13 percent strikeout rate) and raised some serious concerns about his ability to be a viable major-league starter.

If you break down Davis’ results by pitch, the data doesn’t look any more encouraging. Davis has been able to fool hitters with his pitches less and less often each season:

Pitch classifications and data from Brooks Baseball.

To place these numbers in some context, Jeff Niemann posted a league-average strikeout rate last season (18 percent) with the following breakdown: 12-14 percent swinging strikes on his fastballs; 27 percent whiffs on his curveball and slider. Meanwhile, Jeremy Hellickson posted a meger 15 percent strikeout rate, but managed to get hitters to whiff at his curveball and changeup 30+ percent of the time.

In general, if you want to post a decent strikeout rate in the majors, you need to have at least one or two out-pitches that can consistently make hitters miss. Davis’ best out-pitch was only getting a swinging strike once every five times a hitter swung at it last season, while Hellickson and Niemann had pitches they could drop in for a whiff once every three or four times.

Is this to say that Davis is doomed and can never improve? No, certainly not. He obviously had swing-and-miss stuff at one point, and it’s not unheard of for young pitchers to improve their whiff and strikeout rates from one year to another. Doug Fister had a horrendous whiff rate in 2010 — four percent — but he boosted that up to nearly 7 percent in 2011 and increased his strikeout rate as a result. Also, Joe Blanton increased both his strikeout and swinging strike rates dramatically after moving to Philadelphia.

In general, though, these pitchers appear to be the exception to the rule. If you look at the leaderboard of pitchers who have posted swinging strike rates below 6 percent over the course of a season (since 2005, at least), you won’t find many pitchers who dramatically changed their career. In fact, it’s difficult to find a single pitcher who ever got their strikeout rate to league average. Joe Saunders. Chris Volstad. Trevor Cahill. Brian Bannister. Zach Duke. Kyle Lohse. Jeremy Guthrie. Mike Pelfrey. It’s a mediocre list, at best, and it goes on and on.

Maybe Wade Davis can turn things around, but from this perspective, his upside in the rotation appears limited. If he may only ever develop into a +1 to +2 win pitcher, why not try him in the bullpen and see what he can do? The Rays certainly have the pitching depth to give it a shot, and they only owe him a guaranteed $12 million over the next three seasons. He would be an expensive reliever for the Rays, but if he turned into a bullpen ace, he’d be a relatively good value.

The Rays pitching coach, Jim Hickey, has already hinted that Davis could move to the ‘pen to start the season. If he does well out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if this move became more than just a temporary fix.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

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Hellickson really surprised me with both his K and BB numbers last season. I expected him to be quite a bit better. Instead he benefited greatly from an unusually low BABIP.


He was squeezed as much as any pitcher in baseball. Also, look at his swinging strike %, and it was an abnormally low amount that occurred with 2 strikes. His K rate will go up this season, and having Molina framing pitches for him should help out both his K and BB rates.
BTW, he had a phenomenal infield popup rate, which if he can continue, helps with the low BABIP.