Back in March it was announced that Jeff Niemann would be named the Tampa Bay Rays' fifth starter over Wade Davis, a move that was not a real surprise to many thanks to Davis' lack of success as a starter of late. Davis may have taken it a little rough at first but also took it like a professional and complemented the Rays bullpen and the success the organization has had out of that position and how it has aided their postseason runs of late.
In Davis' regular season career prior to 2012 he had pitched in 64 games, each one as a starter and even started a 2010 playoff game. And throughout Davis' minor league career he pitched in 138 games and every single one was as a starter. It was not until the 2011 playoffs that Davis pitched his first game out of the bullpen. He pitched in 203 previous professional games nary a single one out of the pen.
In the 2011 postseason Davis pitched in two games out of the pen for a total of 2.1 innings and struck out one batter while also walking one and allowing no runs. Just a small sample but it marked the beginning of Davis' new role with the Tampa Bay Rays.
As a starter in the minors Davis had spectacular success with a 3.28 ERA and 745 strikeouts in 767.1 innings. He had an ideal frame for a starter and above-average stuff. He looked like a surefire mid-rotation starter for years to come.
He reached the Major Leagues in late 2009 and posted a 3.72 ERA but a 2.90 FIP in six starts to go with a 8.92 K/9. It looked like the Rays had their next great pitcher but 2010 and 2011 were different stories with Davis combining for a 4.27 ERA, good for an 87 ERA+, 4.72 FIP, 4.72 xFIP, and his K/9 dropped to 5.57 which was the 11th worst mark in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 350 innings. His 5.14 K/9 in 2011 was the ninth worst in all of baseball.
In those last two seasons as a starter Davis did not have a secondary pitch that was above average with his curveball being worth -11.1 runs, his change-up worth -14.9 runs, and his slider worth -1.1 runs.
But since his move to the pen he has seen great success with a 2.28 ERA, good for a 163 ERA+, 3.39 FIP, and 3.78 xFIP to go with 28 strikeouts in 27.1 innings, good for a 9.11 K.9 rate.
The success in the pen can be attributed to a slight change in approach and increased velocity in his pitches. Take a look at his velocity change as a starter versus a reliever:
The change is even more glaring when you realize that Davis has just begun to warm up. His four-seam fastball velocity has increased each month from 92.1 mph in April, to 92.7 mph in May, and now 93.9 mph in June.
When it was announced that Jeff Niemann would be replaced by Alex Cobb and not Wade Davis in the rotation I thought it was the right call. Davis's stuff has not only played up out of the pen but it has given manager Joe Maddon a weapon he can use for more than one batter or one inning. In fact, Davis has gone more than a complete inning in 12 of his 19 appearances and 8 out of his last 10 including last night when he struck out four Yankee batters in two complete innings.
Wade Davis still has the chance to be an above-average Major League starter with his stuff and frame but for now he will come out of the Rays bullpen and be a weapon that most teams wish they could deploy.