Is Sonnanstine-Davis Really an Open Competition?

It was generally assumed Wade Davis would be named the fifth starter in the Rays rotation to start the 2010 season following his strong debut at the tail-end of last year. Andy Sonnanstine appeared destined to fill one of three roles: bullpen duty, trade bait, or the 6th man ready to be called up from Durham at a moment's notice in the event of injury to a starter or struggles similar to those experienced by Sonny in 2009. Yesterday, Joe Maddon revealed that the race between Davis and Sonnanstine was really close. Was this posturing to raise trade interest or do the Rays really feel they would be better off with Sonnanstine in the rotation?

 

As with all decisions by the shrewd Rays management team, the choice can't be simplified to who the Rays feel is a better starter. Nonetheless, a head-to-head comparison is a good place to start. Let's begin with Sonnanstine and take on the all-too-familiar role of Sonny apologist. The main criticisms of Andy Sonnanstine will always begin with his sub-90's velocity. To be fair at about 87 miles-per-hour, he's not exactly even knocking on 90's door. He also doesn't have what is deemed a true out or plus pitch. To counter that, Sonny throws five pitches (fastball, cutter, curve, slider, change) and when on his game consistently works quickly and ahead of opposing hitters. With five true offerings, he manages to keep batters on their toes guessing. The end result is a 87 MPH fastball that generates more whiffs than Jeff Niemann's 92 MPH offering.

 

Wade Davis comes with all the hype of a top prospect and rightfully so. Davis should be a workhorse front-to-middle of the rotation starter for a long time. Davis offers a fastball which he threw 72% of the time last year, accompanied by his plus curveball (78 MPH). His secondary offerings include a slider and changeup which are used a combined 13%. Davis has worked his way through the Rays system patiently, in a spot where many other teams may have called him up in 2008. After his successful late-season stint in 2009, its hard to argue against the fact that the Time is NOW for Wade Davis.

There is no argument to be made in defense of Andy Sonnanstine's 2009 season. His cutter use increased to 45% and no offering registered as above average according to linear weights. Sonny's walk rate per nine innings skyrocketed for the first time in his career to 3.07 despite big league walk rates of 1.79 1.72.  Below is a comparison of how Sonnanstine compares to Davis during their time in AAA prior to the big leagues:

 

AAA

Age

K/9

BB/9

FIP

Andy Sonnanstine

24

8.37

1.65

3.44

Wade Davis

23

7.94

3.4

3.83

 

At 6 months older, Sonnanstine not only walked fewer, but actually struck out more than Davis. In 2008, Sonnanstine registered the highest single-season WAR (3.6) of any Rays' starter in history not named James Shields or Scott Kazmir and made several great starts versus the Red Sox.  Sonny's metrics included a FIP of 3.91, a tERA of 3.68 and a xFIP of 4.36.  To dismiss Sonnanstine's success through the minors and his successful 2008 campaign because of a catastrophic 2009 is plain stupid.

 

So back to the original question, what should the Rays do with Sonnanstine and Davis? In a vacuum, I think Davis is the better pitcher but the margin is much closer than most fans think. Let's take a look at the FIP projections for the two pitchers:

 

FIP

Wade Davis

Andy Sonnanstine

Bill James

4.26

4.20

CHONE

4.71

4.53

Marcel

3.99

4.58

Fans

3.69

4.44

ZiPS

4.13

4.57

Average

4.16

4.46

 

Davis's projections are all over the board but the most telling to me is how far apart the Fan's perception is versus the traditional projections. The fans expect Davis to outperform his 2009 AAA performance. This is probably similar to what we'd have seen projected by the fans for David Price in 2009 when there was outrage that he began the season in Durham.  If you remove the fans from the average the gap narrows to less than 0.20.  This does nevertheless serve as evidence that in a vacuum the Rays are better off with Wade Davis pitching than Andy Sonnanstine.

 

Are there other factors that could perhaps offset the fan-neutral 0.20 FIP difference to the Rays? On the Andy Sonnanstine side of the equation a move to the bullpen most likely decreases his market value. As a starter his team-controlled salary makes him far more attractive to other teams.  If he goes to the minors, he provides an excellent 6th starter option, but again his 2008 campaign only becomes a more distant memory as the perception of a AAAA pitcher sets in. If he pitches any better in the rotation for the Rays over the first few months than he did in 2009, and let's face it, he can't perform worse, his reputation will be salvaged and his trade value increased.

 

But 2010 is the Rays' all-or-nothing year right? This is the year of the $7 million closer and the final year of the contracts of Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! Wait, maybe there's an advantage to having Wade Davis in Durham to start the year. The answer can be found in service time. 172 days of big league service is needed to qualify as a year of service. Per Cot's Contracts, Davis has 32 days of service time. If the Rays can limit Davis's big league season to less than 140 days, they save a year of cost control. As R.J. Anderson pointed out yesterday, there is a reason David Price has 164 days and Evan Longoria has one year and 170 days of service time.

 

Some are sure to cry foul, and accuse the front office of being cheap.  Most fans have come to grips with the fact the Rays need to trade players or let them walk at the end of their arbitration years. We will celebrate Crawford and Pena's likely final seasons with the club and move on. How nice would it be to get a full extra season out of these guys if the team could play without them for a month or so at the front end of their contracts? That's the advantage of leaving Davis in Durham for a month. You lose 0.20 in FIP over 5-8 starts, but get a full extra season out of Davis when he's further developed and when guys like Shields and Garza will be long gone. This is life in a successful small-market team. So in conclusion, is there a competition for the 5th spot in the rotation? Yes, it's just that Davis has to overcome a handicap of external factors that incentivize the Rays to choose Sonnanstine for a month or so. 

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