Wade Davis Deserves Better Than Some Footnote

On August 24, 2013, the most popular movie at the box office was Iron Man 3. The troublesome pop song Blurred Lines was all over our radios. The Boston Red Sox had the best record in the American League, and the Atlanta Professional Baseball Club led the National League. Were we ever so young?

Also on that date, Wade Davis had a start against the Washington Nationals. He ended up losing the game, giving up seven earned runs in six innings. He struck out four and gave up a home run. Remember that last part for a minute.

Wade Davis’ start on August 24, 2013 was, as of this writing, the last start he’d ever have. This was not insignificant, as he was the other half of the James Shields trade — a trade that saw a somewhat-significant package of prospects being sent to Tampa Bay. The Royals thought they were getting a top-notch starter and another with some potential. Through most of 2013, they got a top-notch starter and whatever Wade Davis was. Shields would go on to have two productive seasons for Kansas City, as Davis continued to struggle in the starter’s role and be moved to the bullpen.

A “demotion” to the bullpen is rarely a high point for a pitcher, but for Davis, it could not have been more advantageous. After being sent to the pen, Davis would go on to dominate in the relief role (more on that later). As it happens, August 24, 2013 was a positive turning point for Davis. It would also be the beginning of an impressive — if not quirky — streak. August 24, 2013 was the last time Davis would give up a home run for almost two years.

That streak was broken on Saturday, August 1. It wasn’t a cheap one, but, in fairness, the homer was surrendered to Jose Bautista, who tends to hit a fair amount of them. Davis’ homerless streak would span 707 days or 123 games or 125.2 innings. Based on innings, it would be the third-longest streak of its kind over the past 30 years. It would also be part of one of the more dominant relief stretches the game has seen in some time.

The idea of bullpen strength still revolves around the closer role for the general audience. For some reason, fans still obsess about a guy who only works two or three times a week, and only clocks about 15 minutes per shift. The core relievers are the unsung heroes. They are barely recognized by their home fans, let alone the national press. While Davis may make some headlines with the end of his current streak, it’s not like people were giving him the time of day when he was systematically mowing hitters down.

To wit, here’s a graphic from Google Trends, gauging “General Interest” since 2014 — the year Wade Davis started becoming a dominant reliever.

suamicovswadedavis

The blue line represents Wade Davis. The orange line represents my home town of Suamico, Wisconsin — population 11,731. Suamico is so insignificant, spellcheck thinks I made a mistake. My cell phone autocorrects Suamico to Suarez. It’s still more popular than Wade Davis. This is sad on many levels.

So while the end of his home run streak is certainly something worth mentioning, it’s also worth mentioning that Wade Davis has been a bananas reliever in the past year and a half. And I mean bananas in the good, Gwen Stefani-type way. He deserves better than a footnote or a “Did You Know?” article that everyone will forget in a day. I hereby declare [day you are reading this] as Wade Davis Appreciation Day.

If we round up and say that Davis’ relief career started in 2014, so far — in about a season and a half — he’s been worth 4.5 wins. Going by RA9-WAR, he’s been worth 6.4 wins. He’s been worth more wins than 40 qualified starters in that span. Number forty on that list? James Shields.

The only relievers worth more wins than Wade Davis have been Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman, and Chapman and Davis are basically tied. Going off RA9-WAR, Davis is at the top. He’s had the lowest ERA, the second-lowest FIP, and the third highest LOB%. Davis’ ERA+ this season has been 674, a number so stupid I had to check again four more times to make sure I wasn’t looking at the wrong column. Though what other column would have 674 in it? I digress.

And then there’s the home runs, or lack thereof. Out of all the relievers who logged 100 innings since 2014, Wade Davis leads them all in HR/9 at 0.08. In 2014, that number was 0.00. Up until Saturday, that number in 2015 was 0.00. The leader in HR/FB% over that span might actually surprise you, however. Just kidding, it’s Wade Davis again (1.2%).

Since Davis isn’t a closer, we can’t look at saves as a measure of success, even if we wanted to (we don’t want to). However, we can look at his Shutdown and Meltdown numbers. Again, since 2014, here are the top ten relievers in Shutdown performances. I’ve also subtracted the Meltdowns in the last field for your reference.

Name SD MD SD-MD
Mark Melancon 70 9 61
Wade Davis 63 7 56
Tony Watson 69 13 56
Jonathan Papelbon 61 6 55
Joe Smith 64 11 53
Zach Britton 59 7 52
Huston Street 59 8 51
Cody Allen 60 12 48
Dellin Betances 60 13 47
Koji Uehara 59 14 45

Davis is second on a list of pitchers that increased their team’s chances to win behind a guy whose roll sets him up to always increase his team’s chance to win.

Look, the story of a middling starter turned good reliever is not a new one. The story of totally crappy starter turned relief ace is less common, however. Yes, Davis’ HR streak was a cool story. But those kinds of tidbits are usually meant as trivia fodder, a nice anecdote announcers can tell in between pitches or ESPN anchors can use as dumb inside jokes. For some time now, Wade Davis has been the most elite member of an elite bullpen. His penchant for limiting home runs — whether a sign of skill, luck, or both — played a role in his success. But it’s not the whole story.

When the Royals make it to the postseason this year, Davis’ streak will almost certainly be brought up in his first or second appearance in the series. The announcers will probably not mention that he’s been untouchable for almost two years, that he’s making about one third of the salary he deserves. But, I guess that’s to be expected when you get less traction on the Internet than the 74th most populous city in Wisconsin. God speed, Wade Davis. May you some day get all the credit that you deserve.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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Nathan Nathan
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Nathan Nathan

In honor of Wade Davis Appreciation day, let’s rename a major sporting venue after him. Well, almost.