Royals’ Wade Davis emerges as league’s pre-eminent strikeout reliever

05/25/2014 12:48 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

The evidence of Wade Davis’ relief dominance can be found in his statistics, in the confidence he inspires in Royals manager Ned Yost, and, Davis has begun to notice, in the body language of his opponents.

All pitchers read swings. Davis has started to also read faces. He can sense the dejection when a hitter fouls back one of his pitches, and the subsequent expression reveals a missed opportunity. Even better is when a hitter looks down at the ground, confused by the ferocity of Davis’ mid-90s fastball or the snap of his curveball, conveying to Davis “something’s not right.”

“And you’re like, ‘Man, I think I’ve probably got him right here,’” Davis said. “I don’t know. It’s weird. I’ve had games like that before. But not for such a long period of time.”

During the first eight weeks of the season, Davis has emerged as both an overpowering eighth-inning man for the Royals and the American League’s pre-eminent strikeout reliever. Davis led all qualified A.L. relievers with a 45.8 percent strikeout rate and 16.82 strikeouts per nine, heading into Saturday’s game against the Angels. Only Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel topped him in those categories.

And Davis has been, according to at least one advanced metric, one of the best relievers in baseball. On Saturday, he trailed only Minnesota closer Glen Perkins in FanGraphs.com’s version of wins above replacement, a catch-all metric that measures a player’s value over a minor-league player.

Davis adds to an intriguing issue for the club in 2015. His contract features a $7 million team option for next season. Through arbitration, closer Greg Holland could receive a deal worth as much as $8 million. Their combined price tag appears steep, especially after general manager Dayton Moore referred to this year’s payroll, more than $90 million for the first time in franchise history, as “a gamble.”

The success of Davis gives them options. The team could pursue dealing either pitcher in the winter. For now, they appear content to ride both. Holland was an All Star in 2013. Davis is a revelation in 2014.

“Did we go in thinking he was going to have almost two strikeouts per inning? No,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said. “But we knew he was going to be a very solid set-up guy for us.”

Davis took the initial decision hard. He prepared for this season to operate as a starter. But when Luke Hochevar tore his ulnar collateral ligament, the team decided to remove the pretense. The final spot in the rotation belonged to Yordano Ventura. Davis would return to the bullpen, a role he excelled in previously.

James Shields watched Davis’ first season as a reliever, with Tampa Bay in 2012. He fanned 87 batters in 70 1/3 innings, an impressive 11.1 strikeouts per nine. “He was just blowing guys away,” Shields said, and now, he is more experienced.

“He knows what to do, how to prep himself,” Shields said. “He knows what it takes to be an eighth-inning guy, a back of the bullpen guy.”

Infante plays in Omaha

Second baseman Omar Infante (lower back inflammation) played the field for the first time in the second day of his rehabilitation assignment for his balky back with Class AAA Omaha. He went two for four at the plate.

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to rmccullough@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/McCulloughStar.

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