Wade Davis, the Ultimate Deadline Gamble

The Royals are apparently listening to offers for Wade Davis. The Royals would be stupid if they didn’t listen to offers for Wade Davis. Any team would be stupid if it didn’t listen to offers for anyone. Listening comes at basically zero cost! There seems to be a real chance here, though, a chance of something happening. The Royals haven’t been very good, and while Davis has another year of control, you know where the reliever market is. If nothing else, you have to find out. You have to see what a guy like Davis could pull.

Davis could represent a proven, dominant addition. There’s no questioning his track record, and he was fantastic in last year’s playoffs. Davis is right there in the argument for the best reliever in the game, and relievers are being valued more highly than ever. It’s easy to see why Davis could command a huge trade return. It’s also easy to see how he could bust. These negotiations might well be complicated, because Davis looks like one massive gamble.

Do I really need to sell you on Wade Davis? The answer is, no, probably not, because we’ve all been over this, but let me just get something out of the way. According to our leaderboards, there are 1,209 relievers in history to have thrown at least 200 innings. Davis leads them all with a career 37 ERA-. Mariano Rivera is in second, at 46. Obviously, there’s a difference between the two — Davis isn’t finished, and Rivera is. Davis will probably have a decline period. But he has been historically great. He’s been, probably, the best. The best predictor of the future is the recent past, right?

Two years ago, among relievers, Davis ranked third in OPS allowed. Last year, he ranked second. This year, he ranks sixth. Davis, factually speaking, just hasn’t been hit. And yet, there are those question marks. Another team wouldn’t be trading for 2014-2015 Wade Davis. The team would be trading for 2016-2017 Wade Davis. The 2016 Wade Davis has already spent a little time on the disabled list with a forearm strain. And beyond that, observe this table. I think this captures the nature of Davis’ stock.

Wade Davis Year-to-Year
Pitcher Season K-BB% Zone% Contact% FA mph Exit Velo Rank Hard-Soft Rank
Wade Davis 2015 23% 50% 75% 95.9 94% 96%
Wade Davis 2016 13% 46% 73% 94.9 96% 99%
Exit velocity and hard-soft% shown as percentile rankings. Exit-velocity information comes via Baseball Savant.

It’s easy to see what makes him perplexing. Why wouldn’t a team want to trade for Davis? Just a few weeks ago, he was sidelined with arm discomfort. That’s a clear worry. He’s had some issues throwing his cutter for strikes, his velocity is down a tick, and as strikeouts and walks go, the trend is ugly. Look at that K-BB% column. There are 273 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings in each of the last two years. Davis’ drop in K-BB% is sixth-greatest. Some names around him: Mark Lowe, Drew Storen, Mat Latos, Clay Buchholz. I wouldn’t say we worship at the feet of strikeouts and walks, but they’re extremely important statistics, and this doesn’t look good.

But…there’s…the rest. Sure, maybe Davis hasn’t had his pinpoint command. By swings and misses, he actually hasn’t been easier to hit. He’s gotten more swings out of the zone. The strikeout rate and the contact rate don’t quite match up. And as a fun fact, Davis has allowed one extra-base hit. Opponents have a batting average of .186, and a slugging percentage of .195. Good contact hasn’t been there, and that’s reflected in a few columns.

By exit velocity, recorded by Statcast, Davis has been elite in each of the last couple seasons. And by the difference between hard-hit rate and soft-hit rate, recorded not by Statcast, Davis has also been elite in each of the last couple seasons. This year he’s almost at the very top. He’s in the 99th percentile, so while he hasn’t quite been Zach Britton, most other pitchers haven’t quite been Wade Davis. We’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out the significance of weak contact allowed, but Davis stands out in the category, even as other numbers have gotten worse.

One more related note of support: No pitcher has allowed a lower average exit velocity on balls hit at least 10 degrees above the horizontal. That’s basically flies and liners. Davis limits that force, because his pitches have avoided the sweet spots.

This is where it gets really hard. Davis has a tiny ERA, and a history of dominance. The Royals aren’t going to sell him short, not even with Kelvin Herrera further emerging. So if you want Davis, it’s going to be costly, and the hope is that you’ll end up with one of the best high-leverage relievers in the game. But what is a team to make of the condition of his arm? Most teams want to avoid pitchers who have so recently been on the DL. And then there are the declining strikeouts and the increasing walks. Those are known to be bad indicators. To what extent can a team believe in the weak contact, if the strikeouts are decreasingly present? How much faith does another front office want to put in exit velocity? With worse peripherals, a pitcher’s margin of error is slim. Maybe Davis is worse than he looks.

Or maybe the strikeouts will regress in the direction of the contact rate, and not the other way around. There’s nothing easy about this, as one could very reasonably conclude that Davis is great, or that Davis is worrisome. The Royals are going to lean more toward the great side, but they’re also the team that knows the most about what’s going on in his arm. You could say it might benefit them to wait to move Davis until the winter, figuring he could have a strong second half. Yet they might not want to take that chance, if they think Davis could come apart. These are complicated times. For everyone involved.

The fact of the matter is that I don’t know what’s going on with Wade Davis. I doubt anyone has a full understanding, and that’s what makes him such a gamble. There’s the potential here for a contending team to land the latter-day Mariano Rivera. Pitchers don’t get much more valuable than that. But there are some cracks that’ve formed, and with enough cracks, any structure will collapse. Wade Davis can’t and won’t be great forever. This season has another two months.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago

“Wade Davis can’t and won’t be great forever.”

Cyborgs have no expiration date

7 years ago
Reply to  rauce1

You know, Bartolo Colon’s probably the last person I’ll associate with the word “cyborg”…

7 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

Shorten it to just “borg” though….