Judging the Royals

The Tao of Wade Davis

With closer Wade Davis’ trade to the Cubs in December, Royals fans won’t get the chance to see the master at work this season.
With closer Wade Davis’ trade to the Cubs in December, Royals fans won’t get the chance to see the master at work this season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

I’ve got a long list of stuff I’d like to write about this season and this morning but I was trying to pick a subject when I read Rustin Dodd’s piece about the Royals bullpen and how his former teammates are going to miss Wade Davis.

It’s not just what Wade did on the mound, it’s also the tips and advice he offered his teammates. Now Wade won’t be around anymore, which is bad for them … and me.

No pitcher taught me more about the art of pitching in the big leagues than Wade Davis and now I don’t get to talk to him every day. But this is a chance to retell some of my favorite Wade Davis stories in one article and — if you haven’t heard these stories before — help you understand just what made Wade Davis the best in the business.

Meeting Wade

Wade Davis came to the Royals in what was then known as the James Shields trade. I was told I was going to love Shields and wouldn’t be able to get two words out of Davis. Big Game James and I never really clicked, but my first conversation with Wade lasted about 20 minutes.

Turned out he loved to talk if the subject was pitching. I asked him if we could sit down the day after one of his starts (this was before his move to the bullpen) and go over his outing pitch-by-pitch. A lot of players barely want to give the media a quote; that day Wade gave me a 90-minute conversation about one game. After that Wade and I would talk pitching on a regular basis and what follows are just a few of the things I learned.

So here you go; the Tao of Wade Davis.

Sometimes you concede runs.

If he had a runner on third and less than two outs in the early innings, Wade might concede that run. He said he could bear down and try to strike out the side and if he did the crowd would love it, but the energy Wade expended getting through the third inning might catch up to him in the fifth. A pitcher gets lit up in the sixth and we rarely think of the energy he burned up in the fourth.

Sometimes you don’t concede runs.

But if the same situation presented itself in the later innings — runner on third and less than two outs — then it was time to empty the tank and throw his best stuff. The outing is almost over anyway; don’t let those runs score.

The zone fills up on you.

Rookies come up to the big leagues and pitchers don’t know a lot about them; you can give up a homer finding out the rookie can handle the inside fastball. But as the rookie’s at-bats start to pile up, the hot and cold zones become apparent. Pitchers get charts showing where these zones are and the more at-bats a rookie has, the quicker pitchers learn how to get them out.

You can’t always attack their cold zones.

A hitter’s cold zone isn’t going to be in the middle of the plate, so if you’re constantly going after those cold zones you’re probably trying to hit a small target on the edge of the plate. And hitters know where their cold zones are as well, so they’re unlikely to chase a first-pitch, down-and-away fastball. Try to get that pitch to that zone and miss twice and now you have to come into the hitter’s hot zone, and the hitter knows it. So what’s the alternative?

Go right at the hot zone.

At times Wade would throw a first-pitch heater right at the hitter’s hot zone. When I asked how he got away with that, Wade said: “Because they don’t think you will.” The hitter assumed Davis was going to stay on the edges and he didn’t; he’d come right at them. That’s when you see a hitter look mad after taking a pitch; he got what he wanted, but didn’t really believe he’d get it.

Beginning to see the mind games being played?

End the at-bat in one pitch.

Throw a first-pitch strike and for a lot of hitters, the at-bat’s over. Hitters don’t like to strike out — it’s embarrassing — so if you get a first-pitch strike by the hitter, expand the zone and let the hitter chase pitches off the plate. In 2014, if Wade Davis got hitters 0-1 they hit .163 after that. In 2015, if Wade got hitters 0-1 they hit .101 after that.

The hitter might get one pitch to hit and if he doesn’t hit it; bury him.

Better the devil you know.

Wade pitched a game with first base open, a runner in scoring position and Joe Mauer at the plate. Mauer had good matchup numbers against Wade and the on-deck hitter hadn’t seen Wade much at all, so I figured Wade would walk Mauer and pitch to the guy on deck.

Shows how much I know: Wade pitched to Mauer and got him out. When I asked why, Wade said he’d faced Mauer enough to know what didn’t work. The on-deck guy was a mystery, so Wade preferred to pitch to Mauer because he knew what pitches he had to make to get him out.

Better one run than four.

This time Wade walked Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded. Miggy was hot as a firecracker and Wade didn’t want to risk a mistake and let Cabrera put a four-spot on the board. So Wade worked around him and walked in a run, but the Royals still had a lead. As Wade said afterwards: “Better one run than four.”

Aim left.

OK, time for one more story and then I gotta bolt. I’ve told this before, but I love it because it gets to the heart of why Wade Davis is Wade Davis.

Wade started an inning and his first two pitches were arm-side high; up-and-in to a right-handed hitter. This happens when a pitcher’s front shoulder opens too soon and it can be a bear to fix, especially in the middle of a game. The pitcher can try to keep his glove side closed or try to drive his front shoulder to the catcher or sacrifice a chicken on the mound and hope that helps, but once it starts happening a lot of pitchers are screwed.

Wade fixed it in two pitches.

When I asked how he kept the ball from flying off to the right, he looked at me with a straight face and said: “I aimed left.”

Man, I’m going to miss watching that guy pitch.