There’s no question that Wade Davis has a special spot in the hearts of Kansas City Royals fans. From 2014-2016, no reliever was more important to the Kansas City Royals bullpen. Over that three-year span, Davis accumulated a 6.5 fWAR, which led all Royals relievers, according to Fangraphs. While Davis will probably miss out on Royals Hall of Fame consideration (he just doesn’t have enough accumulated time as a Royals pitcher), he will forever be remembered for not only his dominant tenure as a Royals reliever, but also for getting the last three outs in the clinching win over the New York Mets, which brought Kansas City their second World Series championship in franchise history.
Unfortunately, Davis’ second go-around in Kansas City has been a far cry from his dominant first run with the Royals. In 19 appearances and 21.2 IP, Davis is posting a 6.65 ERA, 5.23 FIP, and -0.2 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, when looking at Davis’ percentiles on Baseball Savant, he ranks in the lower percentiles in most major categories, not a good sign for a reliever who is currently 35-years-old and in the twilight of his career.
Thus, the Royals are in a bit of a dilemma. It’s hard to see him contributing in a major way to this Royals bullpen over the remainder of 2021. In fact, it seems like manager Mike Matheny is using Davis less and less over the past month, reserving him for pretty much mop up duty, when the game is out of reach on both a winning or losing end. Hence, the question for GM Dayton Moore is this: should the Royals part ways with Davis sooner rather than later, in order to open up the door for a reliever in Omaha? Or should Moore and Matheny continue to keep Davis in his current role, even if it may not be as impactful as the role he held from 2014-2016 in Kansas City.
Let’s take a look at the benefits and drawbacks of keeping Davis in the Royals bullpen for the remainder of the season.
Benefits of keeping Davis in the bullpen
While Davis has gone through his fair share of struggles in 2021, Davis has shown some minor improvements from rough and injury-plagued campaigns in 2019 and 2020. One of his biggest improvements has been limiting the walks and improving his control, which wasn’t the case for him in his last two years in Colorado.
With the Rockies, he posted a walk rate of 14.1 percent in 2019 and 12 percent in 2020, and saw his K rates hover around 20.4 percent and 12 percent in 2019 and 2020, respectively. These number produced K/BB ratios of 1.45 and 1.00 in 2019 and 2020, respectively, which were career lows for him as a reliever. This year, Davis has improved his K rate to 21.3 percent, lowered his walk rate to 9.6 percent, and improved his K/BB ratio to 2.22. Those are not great overall marks by any measure. However, when it comes to control, Davis is showing that he can at least throw strikes, which hasn’t been easy for many Royals relievers this year.
On a BB/9 basis, according to Fangraphs, Davis has the fourth-lowest BB/9, which is further demonstrated in the table below:
In addition, Royals fans have also seen Davis find some success again on his cutter and curveball in Kansas City. After only generating a 25 percent whiff rate on the cutter last year, and an 11 percent whiff rate on the curve in his final season with the Rockies, Davis has seen his whiff rate increase to 31.1 percent on the cutter and 35.7 percent on the cutter. Davis’ curve has been getting better by the month, as it generated a whiff rate of 45.5 percent in May and is currently producing a whiff rate of 50 percent in June, as evidenced on this Swing and Miss percentage chart from Baseball Savant:
On his curve and cutter, Davis is posting xBA (expected batting average) numbers of .196 and .197, respectively. His xBA on his curve is 54 points lower than the batting average on that pitch, and his cutter has a 25 point difference as well (with the batting average being higher). Therefore, it’s not out of the question to think that Davis, who didn’t really pitch a whole year last season, is simply adjusting, and may be due for some improvement, especially if he can continue to see gains on that curveball and cutter in his coming appearances.
When Davis keeps the curveball down in the zone, it can be an effective swing and miss pitch, as evidenced below, when he made Andres Gimenez of the Indians whiff easily:
That being said, even if Davis doesn’t make a huge improvement over the next month, a lot of his value is tied to the leadership and veteran presence he brings to the Royals bullpen.
The Royals have a core of young relievers who need mentorship. Kyle Zimmer is starting to really embrace his role in the bullpen. Josh Staumont is going through some ups and downs, which Davis experienced himself, and could probably give perspective on to the younger Staumont. Ronald Bolanos and Carlos Hernandez are former starters with electric stuff, but need to harness their control and command. Davis could help them grow, as Davis too struggled as a starter before finding his role in the Royals bullpen in 2014.
Thus, maybe Davis ends up being a replacement level or barely above or below, depending on how things fare with his pitches and command. However, Davis’ value goes beyond his metrics. That is why Moore acquired him in the first place, and I have to imagine that’s why Matheny keeps him in the bullpen as well, despite his rough performance this year.
For a team looking to compete for a postseason spot, the Royals need guys with playoff chops and expertise, and Davis fits that bill, leadership-wise.
The drawbacks of keeping Davis in the bullpen
Unfortunately, while Davis’ experience and improvements with his cutter and curveball may be a positive in Davis’ favor, the rest of his profile looks bleak. The average exit velocity on batted balls against Davis is 91.5 MPH, and the hard hit rate on batted balls is 46 percent as well. Both are career high marks, which is not a good sign, especially with the deflated ball and offense down across the board in Major League Baseball. Additionally, Davis’ HR/FB rate is high at 15.5 percent, which is the third-highest rate for Royals relievers (only Jakob Junis and Greg Holland have higher rates).
A big issue with Davis is that he still remains a four-seam fastball guy, as he throws the pitch 42.6 percent of the time, according to Savant. However, he hasn’t really been effective with it, as he is only generating a whiff rate of 16 percent on the pitch, and is giving up an xBA of .370 and a xSLG of .626.
A key reason for his lack of success with the fastball is that he leaves it in the middle far too much. Considering he only averages 92.5 MPH on the pitch, hitters are going to feast on it, especially when it hits the spots as it has, as seen in the heatmap below:
In the GIF below, Davis actually locates the ball more down in the zone than usual. However, while it clocks for him at 94 MPH, higher than his average on the pitch, Miguel Sano of the Twins feasts on the fastball, especially on a 3-1 count, and launches a bomb to right centerfield at Kauffman Stadium:
Davis’ fastball just doesn’t have the life that it once had, and unfortunately, hitters have been making him pay whenever he’s been on the mound. Back when Davis was throwing up 90’s, he could rear back and dart it by hitters. Now? His four-seam fastball has been quite hittable, and that’s not a good thing for a pitcher who relies so heavily on the fastball like Davis.
As a result, Matheny has pretty much regulated Davis to low leverage situations this season. GmLI is a Win Probability metrics that rates the pressure of a situation when a pitcher comes into the game. Anything one or over means that it’s a high pressure situation. This year, Davis’ gmLI is 0.60, which is third-lowest for Royals relievers with 10 or more innings. In fact, it’s only above Ervin Santana and Kris Bubic, who have both started games this year, which further shows how pressure-less the situations have been for Davis when he has entered games this year.
And that is what makes Davis’ spot in the bullpen challenging. Yes, Davis could probably handle being a clean up guy in games where the result is already determined (or at least nearly determined). However, is a 35-year-old pitcher, well past his prime, the guy to do that?
Last year, Matheny put Zimmer in low leverage situations to help him adjust to his role in the bullpen. His gmLI was 0.47, which demonstrated that he did not see a lot of high leverage situations in 2020. That being said, Zimmer thrived, as he posted a 1.57 ERA in 23 innings of work.
This year, Zimmer has thrown exactly 23 innings and his ERA is 1.96. Thus, Zimmer must be thriving in the same role, right? Actually not. His gmLI is 1.34, which is the third highest gmLI on the team (behind only Barlow and Holland). Zimmer is thriving now in high leverage and critical situations, and that work in low leverage situations a year ago undoubtedly help him adjust to his current role in the Royals bullpen.
The Royals may be better off trying a similar strategy with another young reliever, especially one who may have struggled with control or command issues. Perhaps Bolanos or Hernandez could follow this “Zimmer” progression, which may be better for the Royals not just in the short-term, but long-term as well. Furthermore, there are other pitchers in Omaha who could satisfy the role as well. Gabe Speier has been the Storm Chasers’ best reliever with a 0.59 ERA in 15.1 IP. And Grant Gavin, a local KC product who graduated from St. Pius X, is posting a 2.08 ERA in 21.2 IP in Triple-A this year and has looked absolutely filthy as of late:
With the Royals 30-31 going into Thursday’s evening’s game, the playoff chances are slim, as they currently sit at five percent, according to Fangraphs. Is Davis staying around worth it with such slim odds? Or would the Royals be better off investing that “mop up” spot in the bullpen on a young reliever who could have a bigger long-term impact in Kansas City?
There are pluses and minuses to Davis staying around in the Royals bullpen…
But right now, the minuses are clearly outweighing the pluses…
It will be interesting to see what tipping point will be for the Royals brass when it comes to making a decision on Davis and his future in Kansas City.
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