Judging the Royals

Why did Wade Davis pitch to Joe Mauer?

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Wade Davis jsleezer@kcstar.com

Here’s the situation: the Twins and Royals are tied 2-2, it’s the eighth inning, and Ned Yost has decided to use his set-up man and closer — Wade Davis and Greg Holland — to keep the Twins from scoring. Ned believes that if the Twins don’t score in the next two innings, somehow the Royals will.

Davis is about to face Aaron Hicks, Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer. If anyone gets on, Torii Hunter and Trevor Plouffe are next in line. Hicks flies out to right field, and Davis is a third of the way there — but then Brian Dozier doubles. That brings Joe Mauer to the plate. The go-ahead run is in scoring position, first base is open, and Davis needs two outs.

Now let’s take a look at some matchup numbers:

Coming into this at-bat Joe Mauer had hit .429 off Wade Davis. The two hitters that follow Mauer — Torii Hunter and Trevor Plouffe — had each hit .167. The solution seems obvious: walk Mauer and go after Hunter and Plouffe.

So why did Wade Davis pitch to Joe Mauer?

Numbers within numbers

I got to ask Wade that question after the game in a nearly deserted Royals clubhouse, and the answer was enlightening. Mauer was 6-14 off Davis, but Wade asked me when Joe got those six hits — and I had no idea.

Wade said he’d had fairly good results off Mauer lately, and Wade’s not the same pitcher he was in those early encounters. So as always, the raw numbers didn’t tell the whole story; it’s not just what you hit off a pitcher, it’s when you hit it. Your career numbers might look good, but right now, you don’t hit that guy well.

And Wade also felt comfortable throwing to Mauer for what might seem like an odd reason: he’d given up enough hits to Mauer to know what not to do. Some other hitters — guys with fewer plate appearances against Wade — were still question marks.

Davis felt that if he gave Mauer a pitch on the outer half, Joe had a very good chance of hitting a line drive to left field — that’s his strength. Pitch Mauer inside, and the odds would be in Wade’s favor. Davis wanted to throw to Mauer because he knew what to throw. I asked Wade if Joe ever looked for an inside pitch and he said, yeah, but it’s not Mauer’s strength — especially if your fastball has a little pop.

And then there’s slugging percentage.

Wade used Jim Thome as an example: Say Thome hits you for a .250 average, but those hits are doubles and bombs — you don’t mess with that guy unless you have to. You know your odds of getting him out are good, but if he gets you, there’s a chance he will do some real damage. So once again the raw numbers don’t tell you everything; there are numbers within numbers, and a smart pitcher takes all that into account.

And Wade Davis is a smart pitcher.

(BTW: Davis struck Mauer out and the guy with the .167 matchup number — Torii Hunter — smoked a line drive; but a line drive that went right to Alcides Escobar.)

Is this the best Wade Davis has ever pitched?

The Royals won — Ned’s gamble paid off — and Davis finished the day with a ridiculous 0.25 ERA. I asked if this was the best he’s ever pitched, and Wade said he was getting the best results, but he thought his secondary stuff — the curve and cutter — were better last season at this time.

Davis also thought he’d had some luck; on Sunday if that Hunter line drive hadn’t been hit at Escobar, Wade would’ve given up a run and the lead.

I pointed out that in some ways he’d made his own luck: There have been some outings where Wade’s stuff wasn’t the best, but he made adjustments on the fly and still pitched well. Part of that is being a veteran and not panicking; part of that is having enough experience to know what adjustment to make.

Davis said watching Ryan Madson had been instructive; if a reliever goes out and something is wrong, they have to make adjustments very quickly, and Madson does that. A starter knows he’ll probably give up some runs — his job is to limit the damage. He can have a two-run first inning but still have a good outing if he makes an adjustment and throws five shutout innings after that.

A reliever knows giving up even one run might be the ball game — they’ve got to adjust right now. I asked if the adjustments Madson made were mechanical, and the answer is: not always. Sometimes it’s what pitches Ryan throws or the sequence he throws them in.

How failure breeds success

At one point Wade laughed about how many hits Joe Mauer had off him and said when a guy hits you that well, you better figure out why and make an adjustment. So the fact that Davis had failed against Mauer earlier in his career actually helped Davis succeed against Mauer on Sunday — he knew what to do and what to avoid.

Why did Wade Davis pitch to Joe Mauer?

Because Joe Mauer hit .429 off him — and now it’s down to .400.

Online chat at noon today

I’ll be doing my usual online chat at noon today. Go to KansasCity.com to join in.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.