Coming from someone that lived in the same house through his entire childhood, here's a realization I just recently made: moving sucks. It's a giant pain in the butt and sucks up way too much time, and then it distracts all the mental faculties from truly important things in life, like baseball. I've had to watch games on my phone, follow along on Twitter, listen on the radio at work...all sorts of things just to keep up with the Rays these past few weeks. It's been such the mess.
Anyway, enough about my life. The reason I bring that up is because I've had little opportunity to watch many Rays games recently, and I feel woefully knowledgeable about the team right now. I don't have my observations to help inspire a post idea or research topic, so instead, I want to spend some time today reviewing a couple pitchers that I've had my eye on. This isn't going to be anything hardcore, especially considering that the season is still so early, but hey, I find this stuff really interesting so you're going to have to deal (or, you know, just stop reading).
Without further ado, here are the two questions I've been keeping close tabs on...
- How has Jeremy Hellickson fared against left-handed hitters? Has his cutter helped at all?
- Has Wade Davis reinvented himself out in the bullpen? Is he back to being the power pitcher of old?
We all know that Hellickson has tried reinventing himself this season by adding in a new cutter, and that the early season results have been mixed. His ERA is a shiny 2.75, but Joe Maddon has expressed some frustration that Hellickson has over-relied on the new pitch at times. Hellickson has started to tail back on his cutter use, but in theory, the pitch should still be helping him with his biggest weak spot: left-handed hitters.
Last season, Hellickson had a very difficult time striking out left-handed hitters, and he actually walked more lefties than he struck out. He's seeing some modest improvements so far -- his strikeout rate is up to 12.5% (from 9%), while his walk rate has dropped from 11% to 10% -- although he's still below average against lefties. The cutter might be helping out somewhat, but if so, the gains have been minimal so far.
I'm hoping that Hellickson will continue to improve as the season goes on, if for no other reason than he'll hopefully improve his pitch selection. He's currently throwing his cutter 15% of the time, although that's come at the expense of extra change ups and curve balls. Those are two of Hellickson's best pitches, and if he learns to mix in his cutter in more judicious use rates, he could see some real success. As it is right now, Hellickson is essentially continuing his trend from last year: dominant ERA, but with questionable peripherals and struggles against lefties.
So the transition to the bullpen has obviously been a success -- or at least, so says his 2.57 ERA and 2.88 FIP -- but I'm curious about the process behind his results. What's making him a success? Has he rediscovered some of his old fireballin' self? Is there any reason to believe we've seeing a rejuvenation of Davis?
In short, yes. In an encouraging sign, Davis's strikeout rate is up considerably to 21% -- was 13% last season -- and he's walking the fewest percentage of hitters in his career. Not only that, but Davis is generating more swinging strikes than ever before (9%), so it seems like that gain in his strikeout rate isn't necessarily a fluke. He's been great in the early-going this season, and justifiably so.
Why is Davis all of a sudden having success? Throwing out of the bullpen certainly helps, but I think the main answer lies in his pitches and pitch use. While before Davis was a four-pitch pitcher -- four and two seam fastballs, slider, curveball -- he's now added a legit change up to his repertoire. He's throwing his changeup a considerable amount (13%), and he's using it mainly with his curveball against left-handed hitters. Against right-handed hitters he prefers to stick with his fastballs and slider, while the curveball and changeup dominate the lefties.
Davis has seen good results with his off-speed pitches so far, but the biggest change in success has come off his fastballs. He's generating more whiffs on his fastballs than he did last season, and a part of that could be because his average fastball velocity is up 2 MPH (92 MPH) from where it was at this time last season.
I don't know how well Davis would translate back in to the rotation after his success out in the bullpen, but he does seem to be pitching smart and to be really attacking hitters more than he did last season. It's a huge step in a positive direction, and it's the first step forward that Davis has taken over the past few years. Now here's hoping it sticks around...