After a pretty tame off-season, the MLB Hot Stove as heated up exponentially over the last week. Here’s a list of everything that has gone on in the baseball world since Monday:
- On January 15th, the White Sox announced the signing of former Oakland A’s closer Liam Hendriks to a massive four-year, $54 million deal. The deal solidifies the White Sox’s closer situation and perhaps puts them over the Twins as the favorites in the AL Central.
- On January 18th, the Padres acquired Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Joe Musgrove in a three-team deal with the Mets the sent Joey Lucchesi to New York. Musgrove is one of the more underrated pitchers in the game and was a hot target for many teams looking to bolster the middle of their rotation.
- Looking for a closer, the Toronto Blue Jays signed former Padres closer Kirby Yates to a one-year $8.25 million deal. Though Yates struggled with injury a year ago, he was the Padres’ go-to guy in the ninth inning in 2019.
- Not too long after, the Jays made an even bigger splash by signing former Houston Astros outfielder George Springer to a six-yar $150 million deal, a franchise record.
- Not too long after, the Los Angeles Angels signed former Cub and White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana to a one-year $8-million deal.
- Today, it appeared like the Jays were on the verge of adding two former Astros outfielders to their club in 2021, as a deal for Michael Brantley appeared to be finalized during the Presidential Inauguration. However, the deal was refuted by the club shortly after it was announced, and Brantley ended up re-signing with the Astros on a two-year, $32 million deal.
And today, also during the Inauguration, the Royals announced this deal on their Twitter account:
The deal is a surprising, but not totally unexpected move by Royals general manager Dayton Moore. Not too long ago, the Royals signed former Royals starter Ervin Santana to a Minor League contract as well. Thus, after the Rockies released Davis last September, it seemed like a possibility that the Royals could bring Davis back this Winter in a similar fashion to how they brought back Greg Holland and signed former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal on Minor League contracts last off season.
For Royals fans, it is easy to get caught up in nostalgia and automatically recall Davis’ highlights with the club from 2014-2016, when he was one of the most effective relievers in the game. After all, it’s hard to watch the highlights below and NOT get goosebumps:
However, Davis is coming off a 2020 season in which he posted a 20.77 ERA and -0.4 fWAR in in 5 appearances and 4.1 IP with the Rockies, and he’s been on the decline the past couple of seasons, as he posted only a 0.8 fWAR in 2018, and a -0.2 fWAR in 2019, according to Fangraphs. Hence, now that Davis will officially be in Surprise, Arizona for Royals Spring Camp in about a month, what can Royals fans expect from Davis, and can he experience a bounce-back campaign in 2021, similar to Holland and Rosenthal in 2020?
The fact that the Royals were able to sign Davis on a Minor League deal shows the depressed market for the former Royals, Cubs, and Rockies closer. While Davis was one of the best closers in the game with the Royals from 2015-2016 and Cubs in 2017, he failed to live up to the hype of the three-year deal $52 million deal he signed with the Rockies prior to the 2018 season. Though Davis did save 43 games in 69 appearances in his first season Denver, he still posted a 4.13 ERA and struggled to handle Coors Field’s “homer run friendly” confines. Despite posting a .238 BABIP in his first season, he sported a HR/FB rate of 12.9 percent, and hitters posted an exit velocity of 87.8 MPH, a 2.8 MPH increase from his 2017 season in Chicago.
Even though Davis’ debut in Denver demonstrated some potential warning signs, Davis did transition his solid command from the Cubs to the Rockies in year one. In 2018, he posted a 10.74 K/9 rate and a K/BB ratio of 3.00, which was his highest ratio since 2015 with the Royals. However, things took a turn for the worse in 2019, as his ERA and FIP skyrocketed to 8.65 and 5.56, respectively. Additionally, his K/9 and K/BB ratio dropped to 8.86 and 1.45, respectively. Davis also struggled to stay healthy, as he only pitched 42.2 innings in 50 appearances, and was eventually relieved of his closer’s duties by season’s end (despite saving 15 games). While Davis hoped to bounce back in 2020 after a rough sophomore season, his struggles in Colorado continued, highlighted by a eye-popping drop in fastball velocity, as it went from 93.2 MPH to 91.4 MPH from 2019 to 2020.
Overall, Davis’ tenure with the Rockies was pretty disastrous and those struggles are only amplified when looking at the data. Let’s take a look at his wOBA Zone Chart from 2015-2017 with the Royals (2015-2016) and Cubs (2017), when he was one of the most feared pitchers in the ninth inning.
As one can see, Davis was pretty elite, as there were only two zones where hitters really had any kind of success against him. Furthermore, his ability to induce sub .200 wOBA numbers on the corners and a sub. 300 mark right in the middle of the zone, demonstrated how effective his pitches and command were during that three-year time span in Kansas City and Chicago.
However, let’s take a look at the same wOBA Zone Chart from his three-year tenure with the Rockies:
Notice the difference in wOBA in the middle of the zone (.254 with Royals and Cubs vs. .579 with the Rockies) and on the corners (.125 and .166 vs. .498 and .396). It’s a massive increase, and explains Davis’s struggles against hitters partially. If Davis wants to rekindle those glory days from Kansas City, he is going to have to be more effective in those three zones in 2021 (though getting back to those marks from 2015-2017 may be difficult).
Another interesting development for Davis in 2021 will be the usage of his cutter, which was his most effective pitch as a Royal and Cub. According to Baseball Savant data, the wOBA on his cutter was .231 and .233 in 2016 and 2017. Furthermore, the cutter was also amplified by whiff rates of 30.7 and 35.7 percent during those two years, respectively, as well. That being said, while he did maintain a 37.8 percent whiff rate on the cutter in his first year with the Rockies, the wOBA rose to .274. In 2019, the wOBA increased .341 and the whiff rate dropped to 31.3 percent. And last year, those wOBA and whiff rates were .618 and 25 percent, respectively, in a limited sample.
Furthermore, what’s stands out about Davis’ cutter is how he started going away from it last year. If one looks at the pitch percentage graph over his career (courtesy of Savant), he jumped in his usage of the cutter from 2018 to 2019, but it took a sharp drop from 2019 to 2020.
Of course, his lack of effectiveness on his fastball probably was the stimulus in the spike in his usage of the cutter. In 2019, his fastball garnered a +3 run value, a nearly four run increase in run value from the previous year, according to Baseball Savant. Thus, in order to for Davis to be effective again with his cutter, he may need to also see a gain with his four-seam fastball in 2021 in terms of effectiveness. However, considering his four-seamer averaged under 92 MPH last year and only generated a whiff rate of 14.3 percent (the lowest whiff rate on the pitch in his career), it seems unlikely that Davis will experience any positive gain on the pitch unless the Royals see a tick up in velocity this Spring Training.
Unfortunately, with his age (35) and injury history the past two years, it is more likely that his fastball velocity will either continue to regress or stagnate in 2021. I’m not trying to be a downer on Davis, and I’m rooting like hell for him to succeed in his return to Kansas City. However, considering he’s been a fastball-cutter dependent pitcher for so long, the massive decline in fastball velocity should make Royals fans hold off in thinking that he’s an automatic addition to the Royals’ 26-man roster next Spring.
That being said, Davis is a reasonable pick up by the Royals front office. It’s a classic low-risk signing, especially as a Minor League deal. If Davis’ velocity doesn’t return, and he continues to get barreled like he did during his brief stint in 2020 (though even if he’s bad, it seems unlikely that he will give up a barrel rate of 21.1 percent again), then the Royals can cut him, and it won’t cost the club much in terms of money as well as roster flexibility. However, if Davis bounces back in Kansas City, he could be another success story next season much like Holland and Rosenthal a year ago.
However, while Davis is the latest of a string of moves from the Royals front office, it probably is not the last. With Brantley off the market, it seems likely that a left-handed bat signing will happen soon for the Royals. Brantley seemed like the biggest reach for the Royals in terms of price range, and now that he is no longer available, it seems like the Royals can focus on other free agent talents who will come at a much cheaper price than Brantley.
Who will that be? That’s tough to say. Jurickson Profar continues to be high on the wish list for most Royals fans, but Profar still seems to be generating serious interest from the Padres, as evidenced by this Ken Rosenthal Tweet below:
Unfortunately, it’s reports like these that don’t bode well for a Royals and Profar union. Obviously, Kansas City is the best fit for the Padres utility player: they offer the most financial flexibility, and strongest guarantee of playing time in 2021. However, if Profar is still “in talks,” then it seems like Profar’s preference is to stay in San Diego if the money is right. And considering the Padres have not shied away from handing out deals this off-season, it seems likely that Profar will see a reasonable enough offer from San Diego to stay in Brown and Gold in 2021 and maybe beyond.
Thus, if Profar slips through the Royals’ grasp, who will Moore target next? Will it be Brad Miller, the former Cardinal who may be a cheaper, albeit older, version of Profar? Will it be Marwin Gonzalez or Kevin Pillar? Or will Moore surprise Royals fans, much like he surprised us early this Winter with the Michael A. Taylor signing?
The Royals are not done this off-season, and a move could be coming soon, especially with pitchers and catchers expected to report on time for Spring Training. That being said, if Royals fans want to project a future position player signing, the recent Davis signing may actually be a good and prudent model for projection:
Ergo, Royals fans should expect someone cheap and short-term.