The Blue Jays bullpen and the Wade Davis Effect


In the wake of the exciting march the Kansas City Royals are making on their way to the 2014 World Series there is a lot of attention being placed on the team’s bullpen and their ability to shorten games by dominating the final three innings and beyond. Most notably, that talk has centered on the impeccable work being done by set-up man Wade Davis.

Miscast as a starter for years, Davis struggled to find his footing in the Majors with the Tampa Bay Rays. It wasn’t until he was converted to the bullpen in 2012, when he posted a 2.43 ERA, 2.78 FIP, and an 11.13 K/9 ratio did things seem to click.

However, Davis was then included in the big trade between the Rays and the Royals, sending James Shields and Davis to Kansas City on exchange for Wil Myers, Jake Odirizzi, Patrick Leonard, and Mike Montgomery. Upon his arrival in Kansas City, the Royals decided they wanted to see Davis start again, and he again struggled, putting up a 5.32 ERA, 4.18 FIP, and watched his K rate fall to a still respectable 7.58. Needless to say, that experiment ended immediately.

That brings us to today, where Wade Davis is again in the bullpen, and his historically good season is at the forefront of the Royals run. No more questions of identity, no more playing around with roles. When a guy puts together a 1.00 ERA, a 1.19 FIP, and is worth 3.1 wins above replacement in a strictly set-up role, you’ve found the winning formula. There is no more need to mess with a good thing.

That kind of success always seems to trigger a copy-cat effect, and there is no doubt that many teams will look at starters who have great stuff but have thus far enjoyed just middling results and see if there is a possible Wade Davis in the bunch.  In that regard, the Toronto Blue Jays are already a bit ahead of the curve.

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Prior to the 2013 season, the Blue Jays decided to shift starter Brett Cecil, who had won 15 games in 2010 but struggled afterwards, into a set-up role in the bullpen. Initially thought to be the Blue Jays mop-up man, Cecil flourished instead, posting a 2.82 ERA, a 288 FIP, and a 10.38 K/9 ratio. That earned Cecil an All-Star nod and saw him finish the season as one of the primary set-up men for closer Casey Janssen. A year later, Cecil was even better, posting a 2.70 ERA, 2.34 FIP, and a 12.83 K/9 ratio.

The Blue Jays will face an interesting decision this winter with someone that could arguably make the same jump. The team holds a $4 million team option on fellow reliever Dustin McGowan and must decide this winter if they can get McGowan to channel his vast potential and become a shut-down reliever, or cut their losses and spend that money elsewhere.

At 32-years-old, McGowan is no spring chicken, but the arm and potential are still there. Now that he has admitted his starting days are behind him, something that Davis himself struggled to admit to, McGowan could be primed for success along the same lines as Cecil. After struggling as a starter in 2014 (5.08 ERA), McGowan slid back into the bullpen and saw a marked difference, posting a 3.35 ERA and stranding 82.5% of base-runners against him (Davis stranded 87.5%).

Now, this is not to say that Dustin McGowan, who is a full three years older, can make the same level of transition as Wade Davis. Very few relievers will ever enjoy the same success over the course of a season. However, perhaps by sticking with him for his last contract year, Dustin McGowan could at least see success on par with what Cecil did.

If that were to happen, $4 million might be a relative bargain.