The Rays’ rotation looks a bit different than it did the last time Wade Davis pitched. Then, he was option number four, number three from the right side. Now, he appears to be the best right-handed power pitcher left standing. Davis appears unlikely to wilt given a trend established during the new era of Rays’ pitching prospects. Five others spent their first two full seasons of starting under Joe Maddon with the Rays and nearly all managed to improve their run average against in season number two. All saw their innings per game started increase or remain static in season two as well, yet their peripherals – as captured by SIERA – actually worsened in some cases.
The most recent example is David Price. After struggling through the 2009 season, Price managed to throw an additional 80 innings in 2010 while allowing one fewer run. James Shields dropped his run average by nearly a full run, as did Andy Sonnanstine and Edwin Jackson. The only pitcher to see his run average increase was Jeff Niemann, although injuries played a large role. If credit goes to Maddon and the Rays’ staff for those improvements, then all bodes well for Davis, however he remains an unusual entry, as he owns the best run average and the worst SIERA.
The eccentricity of Davis’ season notwithstanding, he certainly did look improved late in the season. Arbitrary endpoints and whatnot, but splitting Davis’ season into two portions reveals an improvement in walk rate came without a decline in strikeouts. Instead of walking 10.5% of the batters he faced, he walked roughly 7%. Davis walked as many batters over his final 92 innings (27) as he did over his first 49. However, playing this game as meaningful is dangerous. If the season played out in reverse, then the perception around Davis would dim.
Either Nate Silver or Bill James once wrote about how fast starters will receive less criticism than slow starters. Fans and media will recall when the player hit .400 through the first 20 games better than when the player hit .200 through the next 50 because the scoreboard will display the full season stats, giving the full glory of the .400, but taking the edge off the .200. That is not to write off any gains by Davis’ as irrelevant, but for every Price (who started slow and finished strong) there is a Shields (who started strong and finished slow), both of whom turned out just fine.
One of the reasons Davis’ outperformed his peripherals so easily is his performance with men on base. Batters only hit .210/.301/.370 with a man on base against Davis in 2010, as opposed to .285/.338/.476 with nobody on. Whether Davis repeated his delivery from the stretch more often or this is nothing more than a statistical aberration will not be determined years down the road, but it’s certainly an interesting dynamic to watch moving forward.
Davis is unlikely to mimic the leap Price took from average to elite. Even if Davis’ RA9 is higher in 2011, if he can improve his peripherals and performance without men on base, then perhaps he can throw more innings. Given the uncertainty around the Rays’ bullpen, having another 200-plus inning starter should be a huge boost.