This feature will appear Sunday in a special section about the All-Star Game.
On winter nights in New York’s Hudson Valley, Wade Davis climbs into his 2010 Ford F-150 and uses his headlights to illuminate the snow-covered roads. He packs a Cytosport Fast Twitch energy drink in his console.
Then he points his truck toward a gym on State Route 17K in Montgomery, N.Y., the space where he transformed his body en route to becoming baseball’s most reliable reliever.
During the day, the gym hosts CrossFit classes. The room empties at night. Davis makes a 20-minute drive from his home in Ulster County for workouts that start around 9 p.m. He spends the rest of the night absorbing challenges from his trainer, stepping through ladder drills, leaping hurdles and straining himself with Olympic lifts.
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“He wants to come in and dominate things,” said Davis’ trainer, Niyan Oladipo. “He wants to do it. He’s going to put in the work to get it right and be the best at it.”
The journey from also-ran starter to All-Star reliever began here. Davis never worked with a personal trainer before he met Oladipo after the 2012 season. In their second winter together, months before Kansas City shifted him into the bullpen for 2014, Davis revamped his physique. He added about 20 pounds, most of it muscle, building a base that set the stage for the devastation Davis has wrought upon the American League these past two seasons.
“That’s the nastiest guy alive,” Minnesota pitcher Mike Pelfrey said. “No one wants to face him. Guys are like, ‘Gulp.’”
Davis combines a vicious, three-pitch arsenal with a pristine delivery and a keen intellect, say coaches, teammates, opponents and rival evaluators. He cuts a menacing figure on the mound. His teammates sometimes wonder if he toys with hitters. “I’ve never seen somebody absolutely dominate hitters the way Wade did last year, and the way he’s doing this year,” fellow Royal Luke Hochever said.
One teammate said Davis operated with a “forget you” mentality, except with an expletive serving as the verb. Davis does not disagree.
“Obviously, that (forget) you mentality is big,” Davis said. “But I think also understanding what you are, and what you’re capable of, is just as big.”
Davis credits his success to a combination of aggression, confidence and self-awareness. He does not abide delusion. He has failed enough in his career to know that.
As he sees it, each outing offers a referendum. The hitters tell you who you are, he says. The hitters have only told him one thing over these past two seasons. “I don’t think anyone can beat me,” Davis said.
The statistics support his case. In 2014, Davis authored one of the most impressive relief seasons in baseball history: Never before had a reliever posted an ERA as low as his 1.00 across more than 70 innings (Davis threw 72) with more than 100 strikeouts (He set a franchise record for relief strikeouts with 109).
A year later, he had allowed only one run in 37 innings heading into Friday’s game. His ERA+, an advanced metric that sets 100 as the league average, surpassed 1,600. He trails only Dellin Betances, the Yankees’ relief ace and a fellow All-Star, in wins above replacement for relievers these past two seasons.
“What he’s doing is absurd,” said Jim Hickey, Davis’ former pitching coach in Tampa Bay. “It defies logic. But he’s sustained it. It’s not like this is a nice six-week run.”
“His stuff is so nasty. His delivery is so repeatable. It all comes out of the same slot with good command and ridiculous velocity. That’s a recipe for disaster for any hitter.” — Luke Hochevar
The sight causes confusion among the unfamiliar. When Davis gets loose, he winds into his delivery and lobs the baseball. There is little noticeable velocity. The coaches in Tampa Bay used to joke that Davis warmed up like he was under water. The switch does not flip until the game begins.
“What’s tripped out is he’s throwing cutters and curveballs and stuff like that, and he’s throwing it at a nice speed, with a nice break,” Twins outfielder Torii Hunter said. “His cutter and his fastball have great velocity. It’s tough to hit those guys square. You never hit the ball the right way.”
Davis possesses three quality pitches. His fastball sits at nearly 96 mph and can approach triple digits. His cut fastball carries enough velocity to tempt hitters and exhibits enough lateral movement to fool them. His curveball knuckles as it approaches the plate.
Yet these weapons become useless if the firing mechanism does not function. His delivery is the gun. His teammates believe the ease and consistency of his mechanics is what separates him from his peers.
“He repeats his delivery every single time,” said former teammate Jason Frasor.
Added pitcher Danny Duffy, “Everything looks the same. Everything is nasty. It’s almost like it’s just easy for him.”
Davis repairs the machinery each winter with Oladipo, and spends the rest of the season trying to maintain. He believes the added musculature fortifies him. He warms up lightly because he wants to pinpoint his landing spot with his legs. He believes if his lower half functions, his arm will respond.
Tampa Bay tried Davis as a reliever in 2012. The results were impressive: Davis struck out 11.1 batters per nine innings with a 2.43 ERA. But there were complications. The Rays had groomed Davis to be a front-line starter, and he had never pitched out of the bullpen in either the majors or the minors before that season. His arm did not always respond.
“That was a big transition for him, just simply the ability to bounce back, the ability to recovery,” Hickey said. ‘I don’t know if you ‘learn’ how to be resilient. But it takes some time to become resilient.”
That winter, Davis approached a crossroads. He was losing fastball velocity. His legs exhibited fatigue earlier and earlier during outings. He had pitched professionally for nine years and his body felt the strain. He resolved to alter his offseason regimen for 2013, especially after the Royals acquired him along with James Shields.
Davis grew up in Florida, but he met his wife while playing for the Hudson Valley Renegades in Class A ball and decided to stay in the area. During the winter, he threw at a baseball complex near a gym called CrossFit One Love. A friend put him in touch with Oladipo, who was a trainer there.
The duo teamed for only about six weeks before Davis reported to Royals camp. Oladipo helped Davis conquer a fear of heavy lifting. For years Davis worried he would damage his joints. Oladipo convinced him otherwise.
“He pounded me,” Davis said. “It was tough. And I wasn’t sure if it was any good for me, because he did some upper body stuff that I hadn’t done in a long time.”
When they reconvened after the 2013 season, when Davis spent an unsuccessful year in the rotation, Oladipo created a program to prepare Davis for a bullpen role.
Oladipo developed a workout that mirrored a pitcher’s outing: Max effort. A few moments of rest. Then max effort again. Davis reshaped himself with dead lifts, squats, the snatch, the clean and jerk. He asked Oladipo to set goals for him in drills, so he could test himself.
“We just keep challenging him, because he’s going to be challenged on the mound,” Oladipo said. “And sometimes he’s going to get into jams, and he’s got to have the confidence to get out of those jams.”
Davis visited the gym four or five days a week. He spread his newfound bulk across his 6-foot-5 frame. When he reported to Arizona, his fastball already sat in the mid-90s; most years, he opened the spring in the upper 80s. He maintained that power throughout the year, mowing down hitters at a historic pace all the way to October.
“I definitely found something that has kept me stronger and healthier,” Davis said.
“His creativity is as good as any pitcher I’ve ever seen.” — Chris Young.
When the Royals signed Young this spring, Davis found a kindred spirit. Davis admires how Young behaves like a power pitcher, even though his fastball resides in the 80s. Young marvels at Davis’ willingness to experiment, even in the heat of competition.
In the eighth inning of a game in Oakland on June 27, Davis lacked his command. He walked the first two hitters he faced. He fell behind the third, All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt, in a 3-0 count. Davis found a piece of the zone for a strike. The 3-1 pitch would have been ball four, but Vogt fouled it off. The count ran full.
Davis processed the situation. He eliminated the inner half of the plate, because Vogt ruled that zone. He knew Vogt knew his fastball was inaccurate. So he decided to throw a cutter over the middle — the sort of offering that does not appear hittable until it’s too late. Vogt would be expecting a pitch on the outer half, but perhaps not this one.
“You’re always taking chances, challenging hitters,” Davis said.
The cutter resembled a ball until the last moment, when it nicked the outside edge of the plate. Umpire Fieldin Culbreth pumped his fist and Vogt, defeated, shook his head as he shuffled to his dugout. Davis induced a double play one pitch later.
“He can do so many things with the baseball that he can, while he’s out there, improvise or create things with his cutter or his curveball or his four-seam fastball,” Young said. “It’s remarkable. It really is.”
When Davis studies video, he targets how batters fare on the first pitch and how they handle two-strike counts. He identifies a hitter’s power zone, so “I know where not to go,” he said.
All of this classifies as routine research, if perhaps a larger workload than the average reliever. Davis also delves into mind games. He will find out what pitch a hitter excels on — like a fastball over the middle or a breaking ball away. Then he’ll throw it, on purpose, on the first pitch.
“Then I think, they think to themselves, that I don’t know,” Davis said. “But I think they think to themselves, ‘That was the pitch that I wanted.’ And I think it kind of defeats them sometimes.”
In these situations, Davis traffics on the stereotypes of bullpen pitchers. Most relievers “try to out-stuff guys,” teammate Ryan Madson said. Madson throws a 93-mph fastball with a wicked change-up. He tries to keep the baseball low in the zone. He does not deviate from this formula, which has carried him through nine major-league seasons.
Hitting a baseball is a fool’s endeavor, and even a predictable pitcher can be difficult to solve. Mariano Rivera only threw variations of one pitch. But Davis, teammates explained, challenges the minds of his opponents as often as he challenges their bodies. He fixates on “moving eyes, as much as I can, and not giving them a consistent look at the same spot or the same pitch,” he said.
“He is very, very creative in the sequences,” Hochevar said. “And he’s so unpredictable.”
Inside the bullpen, watching Davis secure his eighth-inning outings, the other relievers try to guess what he’ll do next. The pitchers are often wrong. So are the hitters.
“We’re thinking, ‘If he throws a curveball here, that guy’s done,’” Madson said. “And then he throws an inside fastball — and the hitter’s done, anyway.”
“I think he likes to make them look stupid sometimes. I think he likes to embarrass them.” — Jason Frasor.
Standing near the mound at Kauffman Stadium, backup catcher Drew Butera asked Davis how they should proceed. There were two on and two out in the eighth against Tampa Bay on Tuesday afternoon. Up was Asdrubal Cabrera, and Davis had grown annoyed with the mounting rally.
“Success breeds confidence,” he said. “Whenever you have success, it helps you understand what you’re capable of.”
He added, “You know what you need to do. Sometimes you don’t know how to do it.”
As he approaches 30, Davis knows what he needs to do. Each winter he sharpens his body to handle the rigors of his role. His delivery allows him to unleash three cruel pitches with deception. His mind helps him solve the puzzles posed by his competition. And his will never bends.
“He’s just so calm,” Frasor said. “I’m jealous. Put that in: I’m jealous.”
Facing Cabrera, Davis ditched his curveball, because Cabrera had handled it in the past. Davis decided to hammer him inside. Davis fired a cutter on Cabrera’s hands. Cabrera fouled it off. Cabrera stared at a 98-mph fastball down the middle for strike two. The Kauffman Stadium radar gun registered 99 mph for the third pitch, a chest-high, inside fastball that Cabrera swung through.
The ballpark erupted. The Royals dugout clapped in appreciation. Davis straightened his shoulders and walked off the mound. There was no need to celebrate. It has happened before. Davis will make sure it happens again.
“He just makes hitters look like complete fools,” Hochevar said. “He can do whatever he wants.”