Wade Davis's New Approach: A Good or Bad Thing?

ST PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 15: : Pitcher Wade Davis #40 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Minnesota Twins during the game at Tropicana Field on April 15, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

If you've watched Wade Davis pitch in any of his starts this season, you've likely noticed that he's trying something new this year. While last year Davis' fastball averaged around 92 MPH, this season Davis has dialed it down a notch (90 MPH average) and is instead relying more on his off speed pitches. He's mixing in his slider and change up more, and his fastball use has decreased by around 7-8%. The results have been mixed: he's locating his pitches better and walking fewer batters (2.7 BB/9), but he's also striking out batters at a much lower rate (3.4 K/9, as compared with last year's 6.1 K/9). Overall he's posted a very shiny 2.73 ERA, but his peripheral statistics - 3.81 FIP, 5.12 xFIP - scream that his success so far has been unsustainable.

But when you're trying to evaluate a pitcher, looking at only two statistics can be misleading; you have to look at the whole picture. As Tommy Rancel pointed out on Twitter last night, Davis did throw 65% strikes last night and had exceptional command of his fastball (74% strikes). He dialed up his velocity when men got on base, striking out batters when needed, and generally limited the amount of hard hits against him. Despite what his peripheral statistics would suggest, this doesn't sound like someone pitching over their head; it sounds like a pitcher in control of their repertoire.

Of course, this begs raises the question: how many pitchers have been able to succeed with this kind of skill set? Is it possible for a pitcher to be successful with such a low strikeout rate? Let's take a look.

Since 2005, there have been 90 starting pitchers that have posted a strikeout rate under 5 K/9 over a full, qualified season. Of those 90 pitchers, 68 of them finished the season with an ERA greater than 4.00, and half of them finished with an ERA greater than 4.40. The numbers are similar when you look at the peripheral statistics too: 77 starters finished with a FIP higher than 4.00, and half of them had a FIP greater than 4.50.  

In and of themselves, these statistics don't mean much. It looks at first glance like the deck is stacked against Davis, but pitchers that post low strikeout numbers also are normally bad pitchers. If we think Davis is an above average pitcher that is using increased command to keep batters from making solid contact, then we would expect him to fit in with the group of pitchers that has succeeded with a low strikeout rate. So how do his numbers compare to that group?

Here's a comparison of Wade Davis' 2011 stats against an aggregate of the 22 pitchers with an ERA below 4.00: 

K/9

BB/9

BABIP

GB%

HR/FB

ERA

FIP

Sub-4 ERA Starters

4.4

2.2

0.284

49.3%

9.0%

3.66

4.14

2011 Wade Davis

3.4

2.7

0.247

37.1%

2.4%

2.73

3.81

It doesn't look like Davis' peripherals this season put him in this same category of starter. He's walking more batters, getting less groundballs, and his homerun rate and BABIP still look like they should increase going forward. Many of these low strikeout pitchers that posted a below-4.00 ERA ended up regressing the next year (e.g. Joe Saunders, Paul Byrd, Livan Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, and Aaron Cook), and the few that maintained their success posted ground ball rates in the 55-65% range (e.g. Chien-Ming Wang, Mark Mulder, Joel Pineiro). No matter how I look at it, I can't see Davis maintaining success with his current pitching profile.

Maybe, just maybe, Wade Davis can luck his way into posting one good season with his current low strikeout rate, but he's going to need to dramatically increase his ground ball rate if he wants to be able to maintain this sort of success in the future. I'd certainly be pleased if he turns into the next Mark Mulder, but the odds of this happening are rather slim. Davis has high upside as a starter, but his upside isn't as a pitch-to-contact, Andy-Sonnanstine-ish pitcher; his pitches are too good for us to settle for that.

My current theory - and hope - is that this is a phase in Davis' development. Davis should learn how to pitch rather than just throw, and hopefully this experience will help him have better command and trust his off speed pitches more whenever he decides to ratchet his velocity up again. If this experience will help make him a better pitcher in the long haul, then I'm all for it; I just don't want Davis to fall in love with his new self and begin pitching to contact on a regular basis. His upside has always been tied in with the swing-and-miss ability of his pitches, so it'd be a shame for him to settle for less.

If you're interested, here's the full Google Doc of the data listed in this article.

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