Appreciating Wade Davis

Wade Davis

As leaping Eric Hosmer (35) flung his first baseman’s mitt skyward, Wade Davis launched the Royals’ party after he froze the Mets’ Wilmer Flores on a 2015 World Series-ending called strikeout.

The H-D-H intials usually register in the public mind with the great Motown songwriting and production trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. For a few years in the middle of the previous decade, H-D-H stood for a very deadly Royals bullpen trio.

Wade Davis was the D. They had their own Holland (Greg) plus also-retired Kelvin Herrera. But Davis wasn’t just the best of the trio, he was one of the absolute deadliest relief pitchers in the solar system for four years, three with the Royals and one with the Cubs.

Perhaps his most indelible moments were getting the last five outs when the Royals clinched the 2015 American League pennant in Game Six of that American League Championship Series; and, freezing the Mets’ Wilmer Flores to secure a 2015 World Series the Mets’ porous defense all but handed the Royals on a platter.

He looked and acted stoic on the mound, the emotionless assassin, but his exuberance after catching Flores completely stiff with that third-strike cutter is as eternal an image of Royals baseball as Hall of Famer George Brett’s “Pine Tar Game” and Game Seven of the 1985 World Series.

Things began fading after Davis signed as a free agent with the Rockies. After year one in Colorado Davis’s shoulder began barking relentlessly enough. When he returned to the Royals for 2021, any nostalgia for those 2014-2015 runs to the World Series in which Davis loomed large dissipated under continuing shoulder plus forearm issues.

They reduced him to being a mentor to the Royals’ younger relievers while he came to see his former form was in an increasingly distant past. So at 36 Davis calls it a career. But how good was he, really, during that 2014-2017 run? Have a gander:

2014-2017 FIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP
Wade Davis, RP 2.23 3.60 11.7 3.2 0.3 0.95

His number-one flaw seemed a small propensity for walks. By far his deadliest of the four seasons was 2014, when he struck 109 batters out in 72 innings’ work, and though he surrendered 4.9 hits per nine innings that season nobody hit one out against him. Davis was also impossible to hit one out against in 2016 (zero); he surrendered three in 2015 and six in 2017.

If you were going to beat him, in other words, you had to either wait him out for the walk or wait for him to make a mistake you could plant some place in the outfield.

Davis pitched in nine postseason series over those four seasons. Except for 2017, when he pitched for the Cubs and got slapped around a bit in the division series and the National League Championship Series, Davis is a little different:

2014-2017 FIP K/BB K/9 BB/9 HR/9 WHIP
Wade Davis, Postseason 0.70 7.6 14.1 1.9 0.0 0.57

He was more deadly in those postseason series than in those regular seasons. And this is without discussing the four saves with which he was credited in the 2015 postseason. That’s because I’ve changed my mind about the save statistic. It’s as nebulous and deceptive as such analysts as Anthony Castrovince, Keith Law, and Brian Kenny have argued.

As a matter of fact, Castrovince—writing in his book, A Fan’s Guide to Baseball Analytics—mentioned Davis in his full chapter about the save, “Save Us From the Save.” Castrovince thinks the retired relievers giving Greg Holland the 2014 American Reliever of the Year Award had it dead wrong:

To be sure, Holland had a fantastic season—a 1.44 ERA in 62 1/3 innings across 65 appearances, with 90 strikeouts, 20 walks, and a .170 opponents’ average. And yes, he also had 46 saves.

But Holland wasn’t even the best reliever on his own team. That was Wade Davis, who had an even 1.00 ERA in 72 innings across 71 appearances with 109 strikeouts, 23 walks, and a .151 opponents’ average. As the setup man, Davis had only three saves. But he was the Royals’ most dominant bullpen force and should have won the award.

Think of it this way: How valuable are “saves” when Craig Kimbrel could—and did—pitch 10.2 postseason innings in 2018, allow nineteen baserunners, post a 5.90 ERA . . . and still show a perfect six-for-six in those “save” situations? Kimbrel was like the psychopathic teenage noodnik in Endless Love working his way back to his girlfriend’s family’s good graces by torching their house so he could save their lives heroically.

“The save . . . tells us nothing we couldn’t already glean from the box score,” wrote Law in Smart Baseball, “and gives people the illusion of meaning by its mere existance, which has contributed to overspecialised relief usage and a perverse system where teams often reserve their best relievers for the ninth inning even if those aren’t the toughest outs to get.”

Davis was made into a relief pitcher after starting didn’t suit him or his teams best. For four years he was as lights out as any reliever in the business. And I’m still willing to bet that Joe and Jane Fan think the season after that four-year run—2018, after he signed big with the Rockies—is his “best” season because, made their closer, he was credited with 43 “saves” while rolling a 4.13 ERA and a 3.65 fielding-independent pitchiing rate.

The Royals traded Davis to the Cubs after the 2016 season for Jorge Soler, before that Colorado deal that set a record for average annual value paid to a relief pitcher. All things considered, Davis was traded so Soler could end up being traded to the Braves last July—and end up their World Series MVP this year.

Nice delayed synergy in that, one World Series behemoth being traded for a World Series behemoth to be, six years removed. You could say, then, that Davis contributed to two world champions, one indirectly, but still. That’s as nice a baseball legacy as that four-year run when his name was synonymous with piledriving relief pitching.

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