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What went wrong with Wade Davis?

Can the Colorado closer recapture his past form?

Divisional Round - Milwaukee Brewers v Colorado Rockies - Game Three Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The tenure of Wade Davis as Colorado’s closer got off to a rocky start in 2018, as the shutdown reliever had his worst season since moving to the bullpen in 2014. With two years left on his contract, will Colorado get their money’s worth out of the closer?

Davis was coming off a very nice season with the Cubs in 2017, where he pitched to a 2.30 ERA, 3.38 FIP and saved 32 games for Chicago—all numbers that were in line with a typically dominant Wade Davis season. Colorado, however, was a different story.

Of course we can look at the park effects, which can quickly inflate the ERA of even the best pitchers, with Davis seeing a jump to 4.13, nearly doubling his 2017 mark. He did manage to lock down the ninth inning more often than not, notching 42 saves along the way, but Davis rarely quite seemed to be the dominant pitcher we’d grown accustomed to seeing almost automatically saving game after game.

The first red flag was a dip in his strikeout rate—it dropped from 12.12 in 2017 down to 10.74 in Colorado. He did walk less batters, which is obviously a positive, but he seemed to lack the same swing and miss stuff.

His line drive rate actually dropped in Colorado, but his fly ball rate increased and with that, his home run rate also increased. Where were the added home runs coming from? Was it just the Coors Field effect? Not exactly.

Looking at his strand rate, I think we hit the jackpot. From 2014 through 2017, Davis never posted a left-on-base percentage of less than 82.7 percent. In 2018, that rate dropped all the way to 66.9 percent (from 87.7 in 2017). That’s a decrease of 20.8 percent, which means a lot more base runners were rounding third.

The problem here is contact rate. Batters in 2017 had a zone contact rate of 77.5 percent and an overall contact rate of 67.5 percent. In 2018, both these numbers went the wrong way for Davis, ballooning to 89.0 and 71.6 percent, respectively. You can’t strand runners if you can’t make batters miss the ball.

The splits don’t help make a case for a big turnaround in 2019, either. He actually had a lower ERA and batting average against in the first half of 2018. Though to be fair, his second half average against was still a measly .194, up from .178 in the first half. That said, batters did see a dip in OBP during the second half, and his wOBA against dropped to .269 (from .274).

With batters making more contact, and Davis allowing more runners to score, I wondered if something was off when Davis pitched from the stretch. With bases empty, batters had a slash line of .161/.238/.275 against him. With men on base, though, that increased to .226/.330/.464 and jumped again to .220/.333./.525 with runners in scoring position. Maybe some flaw in his mechanics from the stretch had him missing his release point—or maybe it was just the continued slide in his velocity and pitch effectiveness.

While his most dominant days seem to be in the rear view mirror, I do think he can bounce back at least a little bit. His 2018 xFIP was similar to his more successful 2017 campaign. It seems that if he can just figure out what went wrong with men on base, there’s no reason Davis can’t notch another 40 saves while dropping back to a sub-4 ERA.

Colorado shouldn’t expect a return to his 2014-2017 form, but if he can avoid—or at least shorten—the few really bad stretches he had in 2018, he should still be a valuable asset at the back of the bullpen. If not, though, Colorado may be on the hunt for a closer sooner than expected.