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The Rays 5th Starter: Niemann, Davis, or Cobb?

Over the winter the Rays were either unable or unwilling to move any of their starting pitchers; therefore, the Rays are one of the very few fortunate teams to have at least 7 quality candidates to fill 5 spots in their starting rotation. James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore occupy the first four slots and Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, and Alex Cobb will battle for the final spot.

Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times asked Niemann and Davis both about the prospect of pitching out of the bullpen.

Wade Davis touched off a small controversy as he was quite adamant against a transition to the bullpen:

"I'm a starter," he said. "I don't see any reason for me to be in the bullpen. I understand they've got to do certain things, but we'll see. … I definitely want to be a starter and stay a starter forever. And that'll be my mentality."

Davis said there haven't been any conversations — yet, anyway — with anyone from the Rays about possibly ending up in the bullpen. And if he is sent that way, he might end up approaching them, though he wouldn't have much leverage to force a trade.

"If it ever did come to that, it's something we'd talk about then," he said. - Tampa Bay Times

Jeff Niemann was more diplomatic in his response:

"Right now, I think we'll just deal with that when we have to," he said. "I'm just looking forward to going out there and building up (innings) the way we normally do it and see how things play out. It's just an unknown, a definite unknown." -Tampa Bay Times

Alex Cobb is coming off a season ending blood cot (blockage to subclavian vein) injury which required season ending surgery (thoracic outlet decompression) reported to spring training and is throwing off the mound with no problems or restrictions. He said that he is 100 percent and feel better than he did last year.

As the competition begins it is fair to wonder what variables are going to come into play the most? A Rays fan only has to look back at the 2011 season to realize that each and every game, or in this context, each and every start from Game 1 to Game 162 matters. Jim Hickey's answer to that question was refreshing to read:

"[it's] not going to be contract-driven or ego-driven or nice-guy driven or even necessarily performance-in-spring-training driven. It will be, in our estimation, what gives the Tampa Bay Rays a chance to win as many games as they can." - Ken Rosenthal Fox Sports

Jeff Niemann's 2011 season did not end on a high note. His last outing was delayed by 2 days due to upper back stiffness and when he finally took the mound he lacked velocity and control. He was promptly removed from the game after needing 38 pitches to get through the first inning and surrendering a 2-run home run to Jose Bautista. When the playoffs started it was Niemann who was left off the post season roster and Wade Davis who moved to the bullpen.

On the season, Niemann made 23 starts tallying 135.1 innings and went 11-7 with a 4.06 ERA/4.13 FIP. Bradley Woodrum examined Niemann's season in a story titled The Jeff Niemann-Wade Davis Conundrum. In the story he separated Jeff Niemann's season into two time periods. The first was from April through July and the second covers only August and September:

Split FIP xFIP BB% K% HR%
April thru July 3.79 4.12 6.0% 18.2% 2.2%
Aug. to present 4.89 3.88 7.1% 18.5% 4.3%

NOTE: calculated xFIP using Niemann's career HR/FB rate and a 3.2 constant.

One question the Rays have to ask themselves is if Jeff Niemann's struggles from August to the end of hte year are indicative of a physical or mechanical problem. Woodrum also points out that hitters fare better the 3rd and 4th time through the lineup suggesting that Niemann may be better suited for the bullpen: Niemann's career splits suggest he could make a rather strong two- or three-inning reliever:

1st PA in G, as SP 757 21 58 141 2.43 .239 .308 .397 .704 11 .272 93
2nd PA in G, as SP 719 13 64 108 1.69 .241 .314 .354 .667 5 .271 84
3rd PA in G, as SP 538 26 33 97 2.94 .274 .323 .502 .825 5 .291 123
4th+ PA in G, as SP 88 3 7 17 2.43 .333 .386 .506 .893 0 .393 144
Generated 9/30/2011.

Wade Davis

Wade Davis made 29 starts in 2011 working 184 innings and went 11-10 with a 4.45 ERA and a 4.67 FIP. In early December Steve Slowinski examined Davis' season in a story titled What's Up With Wade Davis? Slowinski did not give a glowing review of Davis' career body of work:

Consider: Wade Davis has now thrown nearly 400 innings in the majors and he's entering his age 26 season, yet he has a career 4.55 FIP and 4.61 SIERA. His strikeout rate has declined each of the past three seasons, and he's an extreme flyball pitcher (42%) that has benefited from playing in the pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. His peripheral statistics stunk in 2010, and he only got worse in 2011.

In The Jeff Niemann-Wade Davis Conundrum story Woodrum examined Wade Davis' season by parsing it into the same two time periods as he did with Jeff Niemann:

Split FIP xFIP BB% K% HR%
April thru Jul 5.04 5.28 7.5% 11.0% 3.0%
Aug. to present 4.46 4.30 8.7% 17.0% 2.8%

NOTE: calculated his xFIP using his career 9.3% HR/FB rate.

Woodrum notes that the Davis was at his best over the final two months but these numbers still below league average.

After Wade Davis' appearance out of the bullpen Steve Slowinski wrote Wade Davis, The Reliever where he pointed out that :

"Davis cranked up the heat on all his pitches." Instead of averaging around 92-93 MPH with his four-seam fastball, he dialed it up to 94-95 MPH. He also threw his slider around 87-88 MPH, and even got his two-seam fastball up into the mid-90s (around 93 MPH).

Later Slowinski expanded on the idea in a story at Fangraphs titled Solving the Rays Rotation Crunch with an alternate title Wade Davis, The Reliever. As the alternate title suggests Slowinski believes that Wade Davis is much more suited for the bullpen than a spot in the starting rotation.

Slowinski points out that Davis has been able to generate less and less whiffs on his pitches in each of the last three seasons. In 2009 Davis struck out 24% of batters he faced but that number was tempered by a league average whiff rate of 8.8%, in 2010 the strikeout rate dropped to a below league average 16% and his whiff rate fell to 6.6%, and in 2011 the strikeout rate fell to 13% and his whiff rate fell to 5.9%.

Alex Cobb

Alex Cobb only made 9 starts totaling 52.2 innings pitched with a record of 3-2 with an ERA of 3.42 and a FIP of 3.61. His overall numbers include 2 starts where beyond any reasonable doubt there was something amiss with Cobb. In his major league debut on May 1st against the Angels it was discovered that Cobb was tipping his pitches and in his last start of the year he had numbness in the hand and arm resulting in a trip to the hospital where the blod clot was discovered and season ending surgery was performed.

In between tipping his pitches and the discovery of the blood clot he pitched an impressive 44 innings of work going 3-1 with a 2.25 ERA. He struck out 30 batters, walked 13, surrendered one HR and held the opposition to a .563 OPS. Cobb has the least amount of major league experience but has been impressive in the minor league and in his brief time in the big leagues. His lack of experience should not be the number one reason why he has to wait his turn to take a rotation spot.

There are many scenarios that can occur in spring training that may help settle the fifth starter battle. Here are some of the scenarios and possible outcomes to discuss:

  • Jeff Niemann gets traded. This should not automatically put Wade Davis into the rotation. As I read Slowinski and Woodrum's work detailed above and Whelks "Is There Hope For Wade Davis" article I am now convinced the Davis does not belong in the rotation. I'd put Alex Cobb in the rotation.
  • An injury to Jeff Niemann. My thoughts remain on the same outcome above. Cobb in the rotation.
  • An injury to Wade Davis. This would set up an interesting battle between Alex Cobb and Jeff Niemann. Based on the hittability of Jeff Niemann the 3rd and 4th time through the lineup and his injury history it may be time to take a look at Alex Cobb in the rotation.
  • Wade Davis gets traded. My thoughts remain the same as the outcome above. Take a look at Cobb in the rotation.
  • An injury to Alex Cobb. In this scenario I believe the Rays would best be suited to use Jeff Niemann in the rotation and Davis out of the bullpen.
  • If there isn't an injury or trade and none of the trio pitch particularly poor in spring training. In this scenario Alex Cobb goes into the rotation, Jeff Niemann who is out of options goes to the bullpen, and Wade Davis goes to Durham to continue to be stretched out as a starter.
I believe the Rays should give Alex Cobb a long look in spring training and give him heavy consideration as the fifth starter. Could it be that I am giving to much credit based on 9 starts in 2011 and weighing the negative seasons of Niemann and Davis too heavily? Possibly, but Cobb has come up through the Rays system and has had success at each and every level and has shown both command of the strike zone and the ability to keep the ball in the park.