The New Wade Davis | The Process Report

The New Wade Davis

The last time The Process Report covered Wade Davis was July 7, 2011. On the date, Davis headed to the disabled list with a strained forearm and a slew of mediocre results. More than a year removed, Davis is a new pitcher in role, results, and approach.

Explaining Davis’ success out of the bullpen starts by explaining his failure in the rotation. Any examination of Davis last season will lead one to list three main flaws: his wavering fastball command, inconsistent stuff, and nonexistent outpitch. Davis had to rely on his fastball heavily while starting and that proved problematic. It makes sense. Trouble is bound to arise if a pitcher sits around the same speed throughout the game without outstanding placement or velocity. At times, Davis was missing his spots with below-average velocity.

Three boosts typically accompany a pitcher to the bullpen. One, the pitcher gains velocity; two, the pitcher’s command becomes less important; and three, the pitcher’s secondary offerings strengthen. This is because the pitcher is throwing fewer pitches, allowing him to use more effort and discard show-me offerings. True to form, Davis did gain velocity (albeit just 0.4 mph), and his command is a negative less often this season. Where Davis’ transformation becomes interesting is his usage of secondary pitches.

If you had to bet on whether Davis would pitch backward more often as a starter or reliever then the smart money would be on starter. It makes sense. After all, Davis would be facing the lineup three times, so providing different looks is crucial to survival. But Davis does not seem to operate by reason. He started plate appearances with a non-fastball (not including cutters) 22 percent of the time in 2010 and 27 percent of the time in 2011. In 2012 Davis is throwing 33 percent first-pitch secondary stuff. The biggest change arises from an increased amount of first-pitch curveballs, as Davis is tossing his bender 27 percent of the time to start at-bats. Not only that, but his ability to throw the pitch for strike has seemingly improved:

Season: First-Pitch Curve Called Strike Percentage
2010: 39.5%
2011: 43%
2012: 46.8%

For comparison’s sake, James Shields throws 29 percent first-pitch curves, with 43 percent of those called strikes. Davis isn’t Shields, but he is closer now than he was in seasons past. It should come as no surprise then that Davis is throwing a career-low percentage of fastballs overall. When Davis is locating and mixing pitches, the results can be a thing of beauty. Consider Davis’ third inning of work on April 13 as proof.

Dustin Pedroia leads off the inning for the Red Sox. Davis starts the elfish second baseman with a cutter away for a strike. Pedroia fouls off back-to-back secondary pitches down in the zone before ducking at a high and tight fastball. Whether this is a purpose pitch is impossible to know, but it does seem like Davis intended to use it as a set-up pitch. His next offering is a slider low and away that Pedroia stares in. Davis then over-rotates on a fastball that he wanted on the outside corner. Now faced with a full count, Davis comes up and inside with another heater. On raw velocity alone, the pitch is nothing special. But it seems to grade out well in effective velocity. Look at the images below and at how late the ball travels before Pedroia activates his hands. Then, in the third frame, look at the swing plane. Pedroia’s uppercut attempt is well beneath the ball.

An Adrian Gonzalez single tasks Davis with pitching to Kevin Youkilis from the stretch. Davis chooses a fastball low and in to start the at-bat, and Youkilis complies by fouling it. Ahead 0-1, Davis goes back to the slider he tried using on Pedroia. Unlike before, Davis is able to coax a half-hearted effort from Youkilis, running the count to 0-2. Again it appears that Davis uses the next few pitches to set the batter up. He comes inside with a fastball then a changeup. Youkilis is probably thinking about one of two pitches: another fastball inside, or another slider away. Davis combines those scenarios and throws a fastball off the outside corner. Youkilis takes a top-heavy swing and misses:

Gonzalez remains on first base and David Ortiz strides to the plate with two out. Davis again opts for his fastball to start the at-bat and Ortiz fouls it off. A fastball inside makes it an even count. Sometimes, the best sequencing is to throw the same pitch again. Davis does, and this time Ortiz swings through the pitch. Now in an 0-2 hole, Ortiz could be thinking that Davis will test his hands inside. But Davis chooses to test his hands by throwing a breaking ball instead. The result is a golf swing from Ortiz:

Granted, the inning looked more impressive before Youkilis’ season-long struggles, but it’s worth noting anytime a pitcher can strike out Pedroia, Youkilis, and Ortiz in one inning. What makes the inning memorable is how it highlights the best qualities of Davis. From his bulldoggish tenacity and fearlessness—apparent in how he goes after the game’s best hitters—to his ability to make those batters chase their own tails. The key through it all is the interplay between Davis’ pitches. If Davis keeps with his new approach then he should continue his evolution from mediocre starter to shutdown reliever.

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