Judging the Royals

How did Wade Davis become the Royals pitcher of the year?

Royals reliever Wade Davis
Royals reliever Wade Davis The Kansas City Star

In 2013 Royals pitcher Wade Davis was 8-11 and had an ERA of 5.32; in 2014 Davis was 9-2 with an ERA of 1.00. He had a great season and Davis just received the Royals’ Bruce Rice Pitcher of the Year award—so what changed?

In 2013 Wade Davis was a starter; in 2014 Wade Davis became a reliever—but there’s a lot more to the story.

I once asked Luke Hochevar—another former starting pitcher who found success in the bullpen—if the difference between starting and relieving was the same difference between running a marathon and a sprint. Luke thought it was a pretty good comparison; a marathoner and sprinter are both runners, but they require very different skill sets.

Relief pitchers know they won’t be out on the mound for long, so they don’t have to pace themselves; if they’re throwing 20 pitches or less they can cut loose with their best stuff. Guys like Davis and Hochevar can go from working with a fastball in the low nineties to working with a fastball in the mid-to-upper nineties. An additional three-to-five miles an hour might not seem like much, but it might be just enough to make a hitter swing and miss, foul a ball off or allow a fastball to get in on his hands—and when Davis needed it he could step on the gas and throw a fastball in the high nineties.

A reliever also needs fewer types of pitches; a starter might need three ways to get a hitter out, a reliever needs one. (Although a reliever might see the same hitter three times in a series and need a different approach on three different days.) In 2014 Davis dropped his changeup and went with three pitches: a fastball, curve and cutter.

A fastball that can be thrown at 98 MPH gets a lot of attention, but Royals bullpen coach Doug Henry thought the key to Wade’s success was his curve. Davis throws a hard, tight curve and that makes it difficult for a hitter to identify; wait to see if the pitch breaks and the fastball’s on you. Try to swing sooner to catch up to the heat and the curve can make you look foolish. Try to cover both pitches and Davis has got you caught in-between: ahead of his curve and behind his fastball. Wade will tell you a hitter with a plan—the kind of guy who picks one of those pitches and waits for it—is the toughest kind of hitter. Pitchers thrive on hitters who try to hit everything.

And that brings us to an important point: anyone can look up Wade’s numbers, but those numbers don’t include Baseball I.Q.—and Wade Davis is a very smart pitcher.

When James Shields and Wade Davis came over from the Tampa Bay Rays I was told that Shields was a talker and a good interview. I was also told Davis was quiet and didn’t have much to say. It was spring training so I went by to introduce myself to both of them; I spent five minutes with Shields and talked to Davis for twenty. If you ask him about the thought process involved in pitching, Wade Davis has plenty to say.

Approach a ballplayer for an interview and if you can get five minutes of his attention you’ve done pretty well. I once asked Wade if he’d go over the pitches he threw in a start against the Chicago White Sox and he gave me almost two hours and the best article I wrote that year.

After that Wade would come find me to talk. Pitchers shag fly balls during batting practice and when BP is over they’re generally pretty eager to leave the field. They might sign a few autographs on their way to the clubhouse, but Wade would occasionally throw his glove down next to where I was sitting in the dugout and join me for a long talk about pitching. After one practice we talked so long that players started showing up in game uniforms; the ballgame was about to start.

The information exchanged during those conversations was pretty one sided; I learned whole lot about pitching from Wade Davis. For instance:

* If a pitcher gets strike one in early, some hitters are done. They don’t have a good two-strike approach so they start hacking after only one strike. Get a pitch over and then go to the edges of the zone or off the plate—a hitter with a weak two-strike approach will chase.

*You can get that first strike in by throwing a pitch the hitter doesn’t expect; hitters look for first-pitch fastballs, throw something else.

*But you might also get away with first-pitch fastballs by going right at a hitter’s hot zone. Lesser pitchers try to avoid the parts of the strike zone a hitter handles well; but if you’ve got the stuff and the guts, go right at the hitter’s hot zone early in the count and you can sneak a fastball in there—the hitter didn’t think you’d do that and can be late on the swing once he recognizes the pitch.

*Try to go to hitter’s cold zones too often and you’ll be behind in the count. Cold zones aren’t in the middle of the plate; try to hit a corner down and away with three pitches and you’re likely to be 2-1 or 3-0. Now the hitter knows you’re coming to that hot zone; he’ll be ready and won’t miss the pitch.

See what I mean? Talking to Wade Davis made me smarter about pitching—I’ve got no idea what I did for him.

If a reliever throws well, someone is sure to say the reliever should be a starter; pitching is pitching. But the people who believe that tend to be people who have never stood on a pitching mound. There is a difference between starting and relieving.

Just ask Wade Davis—the Royals pitcher of the year.