Once upon a time, in a not too distant sitcom, there was a young man named Ben Wyatt. Wyatt, only 18-years-old at the time, was elected mayor of his hometown, Partridge, Minnesota because of his impressive political talent.
While he had a natural ability to sway or manipulate voters into electing him, his inexperience governing anything at all would soon lead to his impeachment. Wyatt poured most of the town’s money into a winter sport’s complex called “Ice Town,” which led the town into financial ruin and caused Wyatt’s impeachment after two months.
You can’t blame him really. A winter sport’s complex sounds pretty appealing to an 18-year-old growing up in Minnesota. In a similar situation, 18-year-old me would have considered dropping some serious tax payer cash on less useful ideas.
Wyatt would re-enter politics as a campaign adviser/strategist about 15-20 years later to great success. His talent was always there, but he needed to cultivate those skills through experience and proper mentoring. If he had that mentoring in the first place, he may have succeeded in office, though probably at a later date.
In 2015, the Reds pushed a 23-year-old starting pitcher to the Major Leagues after only 43 innings in AAA. While he had a 1.88 ERA at the time and immense ability, his strikeout rate was alarmingly low at 11.5%.
In the Majors, he immediately struggled to put away hitters, walked way too many of them (11.1%), and finished the year with a 5.40 ERA. That young starter was Michael Lorenzen.
Lorenzen was inefficient and had trouble getting outs even when he got ahead in the count. That out pitch he lacked would come at the very end of 2015 when he began throwing his devastating cutter, a pitch he may have developed earlier if he spent the entire year in the minors. Without the cutter, Lorenzen was just like a teenager trying to run a town’s finances: ill-equipped.
It’s too early to conclude anything, but I fear the Reds are doing it again. When they broke camp in early April, they surprisingly put Rookie Davis into the Major League rotation. Davis, the key piece in the Aroldis Chapman trade, has plenty of talent, which he displayed in Spring Training this year. Bryan Price raved about his improved slider to the Enquirer beat writers, and Davis posted 17 strikeouts in 15.2 innings. Overall, he was quite impressive.
But there’s a big difference between Spring Training/the minors and the Major Leagues. Reds management can’t rely on a tried and true formula to decide when to call up a prospect because we have no such information. However, Davis’ minor league numbers from last season and the early returns from his first two MLB starts suggest he could use some more development time in the minors.
2016 Minor League Numbers
In 2016 in AA, Davis struggled mightily to miss bats, striking out only 15% of batters. The ERA was kept low (2.94) because of an extremely low BABIP of .254, but Davis had never limited hitters to anything less than a .324 BABIP since his professional career began in 2012 so that number was an extreme outlier.
Davis dealt with injuries that reduced his velocity from 93-96 to 90-92, which may have played a role is his declining strikeout rate. In spite of the red flags, the Reds promoted him to AAA to finish the year. International League hitters roughed him up pretty good in 24 innings, giving Davis a 7.50 ERA and a .352 AVG against. His FIP of 4.42 was the same as he had in 101 innings at AA.
Having started only four games in AAA, Davis seemed likely to return there in 2017 and try and recapture some of his lost velocity and bat miss ability. The velocity ticked back up in Spring Training, he pitched fairly well, and the Reds started him in the third game of the season.
Some pitchers have successfully made the leap from AA to the Majors, but those guys tend to have elite stuff, like Jose Fernandez, who actually went from high A to the Marlins. Those pitchers also dominate the minor leagues before they make the leap.
Johnny Cueto threw only four games in AAA, and he pitched poorly his first two years in Cincinnati. Still, he overpowered hitters in AA, posting a 30.6% strikeout rate and walking only 4.4% of batters. Davis’ 15% K% and 7.7 BB% don’t nearly compare to that. Hitters weren’t overmatched as they were with Cueto.
I would prefer to see Davis impress in the high minors before throwing him on a Major League mound. If he can’t fool AA hitters, should we expect him to pitch quality innings against the best players in the world?
Early MLB Returns
While Davis has only made two starts, the data suggests he needs some more development time before he can effectively attack Major League hitters. First, it’s no secret that Davis has labored to put away hitters. In 2016, an average MLB pitcher got swings and misses on 10.1% of pitches. Thus far, hitters have swung and missed at only 6.2% of Davis’ pitches.
The new slider, a pitch Bryan Price hoped would be a “put away” pitch, has garnered one swing and miss out of the 17 times Davis has thrown it. Amir Garrett, another first-time MLB starter, has collected eights swing and misses on his 29 sliders. Instead of working on this new pitch at the Major League level, Davis may benefit from refining it against minor league hitters when the stakes aren’t so high.
Some talent evaluators think his curveball is his best pitch. In spite of the praise for the curve, Davis does not seem to view it as a possible out pitch because he hasn’t thrown it once this season. Maybe, he believe the slider can replace his curveball, but it seems strange that Davis would give up what some view as his best pitch.
Because of his inability to put away hitters, Davis has walked six batters in seven innings and thrown 162 pitches. His inefficiency has not been extreme wildness as much as hitters taking him deep into counts. Until he can establish a strikeout pitch, Davis will not consistently pitch deep into games.
Perhaps the seven innings of work don’t mean anything, and Davis would quickly improve if given the chance. Based on his track record, I doubt that’s the case. As Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs (now of the Atlanta Braves I believe) said of Lorenzen before his MLB debut, Davis needs more refining in setting up hitters and putting them away.
Rookie Davis possesses good stuff that will be useful at some point soon. Because the Reds have other starting options who have less to prove in the minor leagues, they should consider sending Davis to AAA when he returns from the disabled list.
Let Davis develop an out pitch that sets him up to succeed in the big leagues. If the Reds don’t, he may have his own Ice Town experience, which would set his development back and keep more ready starters from pitching his innings.