If one were to review the data for pitchers with the highest strikeout rates in baseball (at start of play Thursday), they would rightly expect to see names like Kenley Jansen, Jose Fernandez, and Max Scherzer near the top. All three are in the top 15, but a surprising name owns the top spot on that leaderboard – Wade Davis.
Davis leads all pitchers with a 43.8% strikeout rate as he has struck out 32 of the 73 batters he has faced in 2014. That rate is even higher than the 30.6% rate he had while working exclusively out of the Tampa Bay bullpen in 2012 and much higher than the 18.5% rate he had last season working mostly as a starting pitcher for Kansas City.
Davis’s return to the pen was one driven mostly by need once Luke Hochevar was lost for the season with a torn UCL before it became en vogue this season. Davis has said in the past he sees himself as a starting pitcher, and was more adamant about it prior to the first time he was sent to the bullpen in 2012 by Tampa Bay:
“I’m a starter,” he said. “I don’t see any reason for me to be in the bullpen. I understand they’ve got to do certain things, but we’ll see. … I definitely want to be a starter and stay a starter forever. And that’ll be my mentality.”
He later erased that hard line in the sand and embraced the role after a conversation with the team’s beloved senior adviser Don Zimmer. While he may still maintain the bulldog mentality he displayed as a starter, the reality is that his numbers show he is much more effective pitching in relief.
His numbers are more dominant in a relief role because he works with more primal approach in that role. The relief role allows him to attack batters with more velocity without needing to conserve himself over six to seven innings and also allows him to forego using a changeup, a pitch he has struggled with for quite some time. Compare his velocities in the years he has worked as a starter (2009, 2010, 2011, most of 2013) to his years as a reliever (2012, end of 2013, 2014):
Davis gets a higher percentage of whiffs on his pitches when using them as a reliever and batters have a tougher time safely putting his pitches into play when he works out of relief. His whiff rate on his fastball in 2012 and 2014 each were at least double what they were the previous season when he worked out of the rotation. Simply put, his stuff plays up better in the pen and he has once again become one of the more dominating high leverage/non-closing relievers in the game.
Davis has three more years remaining on the deal he signed with Tampa Bay with each year being a team option. If Kansas City wants Davis in 2015, they can exercise his $7M option to do so and can bring him back in 2016 for another $8M. Given that most closers were being inked for two-year deals for anywhere from $12M to $20M, Davis is very fairly priced as a reliever for the next two seasons. His final option is a $10M option with a $2.5M buyout. While Davis’s costs over the next two seasons are controlled, Greg Holland’s are not.
Holland has two more years of arbitration before becoming a free agent after the 2016 season and is currently making $4.68M as a closer. The arbitration process will likely reward Holland well enough to make him more costly than Davis over the next two seasons. It is unlikely a budget-minded team like Kansas City will spend that much money at the back end of their bullpen that will also likely have to allocate resources to replace James Shields in its rotation after this season.
Kansas City is blessed with two dominant relievers at the back end of their bullpen that are quite capable of excelling in high-leverage situations. The contrast in the structures of each pitcher’s contract gives Kansas City a decision to make in the near future. The Royals could decide to roll the dice in the arbitration process and/or work with Holland’s agent who will undoubtedly use Craig Kimbrel’s new deal as a blueprint. Another choice would be to trade Holland to address other needs on the roster and move forward with the cost-controlled Davis, or use that as a marketing tool to trade Davis to another team to address a team need.
It is a nice problem for a franchise to have, but it is a situation that will need to be addressed some time in 2014.