Dodgers are pursuing Wade Davis, which is probably a bad idea

The Dodgers are after Royals closer Wade Davis, according to Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball, and the interest only makes sense given that they previously tried to trade for Aroldis Chapman in the off-season. Sure, that was before the bullpen collectively led the majors in ERA, but even that stat masks the reality that Kenley Jansen is the only reliable shutdown arm in the pen.

Wade Davis would certainly add another elite run prevention arm, as evidenced by his 1.09 ERA from 2014-16 over 173 innings, and that comes with 11.4 strikeouts per nine. In 2016, Davis also has a sterling 1.60 ERA and has a $10 million option for 2017, so he’s more than just a rental.

So why is it a bad idea, right? The reason for that seems three-fold for the Dodgers current situation.

1) There’s some concern Wade Davis might not be THAT Wade Davis anymore.

Davis has already missed time with an arm injury this year, his strikeouts and walks are going in the wrong direction, and so is his fastball, as some guy named Mike Petriello pointed out for MLB.com.

At his best, Davis is all about blowing hitters away. In 2014, he struck out 39.1 percent of the hitters he faced, which was the fifth-best of any qualified reliever. Last year, that was 31.1 percent, which was still quite good, though down somewhat to 16th-best. This year, it’s 23.7 percent, which is 78th-best. So while batters are striking out more often, Davis is striking out fewer of them.

Meanwhile, the opposite is happening with Davis’ walk rate. In 2014-15, he walked 8.1 percent of hitters, which was tied for 48th of 98 qualified relievers, making it essentially average. This year, it’s up to 11.1 percent, which is tied for 131st of 157. Part of that, obviously, is that because Davis had been so good, almost historically so, there was almost nowhere to go but down.

We know that high fastball spin correlates positively with swinging strikes as the ball defies gravity for longer, while lower fastball spin, which allows the ball to sink more, is better correlated with grounders. And wouldn’t you know it, as Davis’ whiff rate is falling, his ground-ball rate of 49.4 percent is a career high, and more than 10 percentage points higher than last year.

The spin rate drop comes along with missing a tick off his velocity as well. However, as Jeff Sullivan points out, the contact being made against him has been weak.

By exit velocity, recorded by Statcast, Davis has been elite in each of the last couple seasons. And by the difference between hard-hit rate and soft-hit rate, recorded not by Statcast, Davis has also been elite in each of the last couple seasons. This year he’s almost at the very top. He’s in the 99th percentile, so while he hasn’t quite been Zach Britton, most other pitchers haven’t quite been Wade Davis. We’re still in the early stages of trying to figure out the significance of weak contact allowed, but Davis stands out in the category, even as other numbers have gotten worse.

One more related note of support: No pitcher has allowed a lower average exit velocity on balls hit at least 10 degrees above the horizontal. That’s basically flies and liners. Davis limits that force, because his pitches have avoided the sweet spots.

So while Wade Davis might not be the same, he’s still a great reliever. The question is just whether this version of Wade Davis is worth meeting the price.

2) The price for Wade Davis is probably going to be ridiculous.

Of course the Dodgers would be a better team by adding Davis, but that’s not exactly how things work since they don’t get him for free. Everything revolves around what the Dodgers have to give in return, and given the market that was set with the Chapman trade by the Cubs, the return for an elite reliever with team control through 2017 is going to be even higher.

There’s evidence of this in the Nationals interest and the Royals supposedly targeting Lucas Giolito, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports.

The Royals are valuing him that way, according to sources. In one internal conversation, Kansas City was discussing possible destinations for Davis and considered the Washington Nationals, whose desire for a closer to replace Jonathan Papelbon would grow even stronger if they couldn’t get Chapman. With Davis under contract the rest of this season and for just $10 million next season, the Royals bandied about a potential target, according to sources: Lucas Giolito.

Furthermore, Jayson Stark of ESPN said that the Chapman package wouldn’t get it done for Davis.

That seems obvious, but it just illustrates the magnitude of the package needed to acquire Davis.

Perhaps even worse, there’s rumors that the Royals want to package Ian Kennedy along with Davis.

Besides any fan feelings about Kennedy hitting Yasiel Puig in the face way back when, he’s still owed $66 million over the next four-plus years, and the 31-year-old is a #5 starter at best with 4.41 ERA, 5.32 FIP, and 4.10 DRA.

One way or another, whatever team that wants to acquire Davis is going to have to give up a ton, that much is clear. What isn’t so clear is whether the Dodgers are really in a position for a win-now move.

3) This Dodgers team isn’t one elite reliever away from glory.

Perhaps the Chapman trade is defensible, not from a value standpoint, but because the Cubs are the best team in baseball and are virtually guaranteed to make the playoffs. Thus a high-leverage reliever could be the final piece to the puzzle. The Dodgers? Not so much.

The Dodgers have bigger and more pressing needs than a trade for an elite reliever that would serve as a setup man. The Dodgers need a starting outfielder (preferably one that can hit lefties) and starting pitcher (front line) for this year and the future, and also have long-term holes at second base and third base. Thus, if they are willing to make a major move, then whatever prospect capital or major contract they’re willing to take on probably shouldn’t come in a deal for player like Davis.

An elite reliever, while potentially incredibly useful, is useless without a more consistent offense and better starters that more consistently keep the team in the game. Thus, the Dodgers are better off trying to make sure they have leads to protect at the end of games to begin with rather than worry about a problem that hasn’t really manifested itself as a major issue thus far this season.

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Of course, Wade Davis is still a valuable asset and the Dodgers would be lucky to have him. With the Dodgers starters generally unable to go past five or six innings, shortening games would go a significant way to helping close out games. Additionally, his acquisition would serve as insurance with questions looming about re-signing Kenley Jansen to a long-term deal.

That said, there’s just too many other areas of the team that the Dodgers need to prioritize. And despite my hesitancy to give relievers long-term deals, I’d much rather risk Jansen at four or five years at $15 million per than overpay in talent for a reliever that has concerns about his ability to remain elite.

This is especially relevant when the Dodgers are still a short losing streak from being out of the playoffs, and there’s still questions if Clayton Kershaw will even be coming back or if he’ll be the same. Of all the years to go for it in a deal like the Cubs did for Chapman, 2016 for the Dodgers would seem like one of the worst times to do so.

All of this is to say that a potential trade for Wade Davis, and many other back-end relievers, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for this Dodgers team. Instead, the focus should probably either fall on upgrades via cheaper rental options for this year or a significant splash that will make the team better not only in the now but also going forward at positions of more significant impact.

About Chad Moriyama

Chad Moriyama
"A highly rational Internet troll." - Los Angeles Times