On July 25, 2016, Hector Rondon lost his closing job with the Chicago Cubs.
He didn’t do anything wrong, mind you, but the Cubs were barreling towards the postseason, in an era when dominant relievers appeared to be as valuable and important as ever during those most meaningful games of the year.
So, the Cubs acquired a few months of one of the best arms in baseball, Aroldis Chapman, from the Yankees, and Rondon was bounced down one notch, by default, to set-up man.
But it was all supposed to be temporary. After all, Rondon was a very good closer, if not one of the better ones in the National League, and was still under team control for two and half seasons.
Unfortunately, about one week after acquiring Chapman, Rondon lost the closer job for even longer, even if we didn’t know it yet. That’s when injuries began to derail the rest of his season (including the playoffs) and forced the Cubs’ front office, in my opinion, to seriously consider external candidates during the winter.
Enter Wade Davis.
Earlier this month, the Cubs acquired another one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball, Wade Davis, from the Kansas City Royals, in exchange for one high-upside, but oft-injured outfielder, Jorge Soler. For the prospect nerds among us, especially those of us who followed the rebuild closely from the beginning, it stung a bit to give up Soler for just one season of a closer, but after you’re done getting to know Davis better, I suspect you may understand.
Wade Davis, known or not, has inarguably been among the elite tier of relievers ever since 2014 (when he first became a full-time reliever). Consider his placement by fWAR over that three-season stretch:
- Dellin Betances: 8.5 fWAR
- Aroldis Chapman: 8.0 fWAR
- Andrew Miller: 7.2 fWAR
- Kenley Jansen: 7.0 fWAR
- Wade Davis: 6.3 fWAR
No other relievers posted anything above 5.6 fWAR, and Davis was able to stick in the top five, despite throwing fewer innings (182.2 IP) than anyone else in the top 15. Of course, the reason he threw fewer innings is a big part of his story.
After becoming the first pitcher in Major League history to post consecutive seasons with a 1.00 ERA or lower over at least 50 innings (2014-2015), Davis hit a bit of a roadblock this past season – well, two roadblocks.
First, on July 5, Davis hit the 15-day disabled list with a strained right forearm. Although he was able to return immediately after the All-Star break, the return didn’t last long. The Royals sent Davis back to Kansas City on July 30 for an MRI on his right forearm and one day later, he was back on the DL with a right flexor strain.
In total, Davis was able to throw only 43.1 innings in 2016, after averaging about 70 innings per season the two seasons prior (keep in mind, he was a starter before moving to the pen, so throwing more than the typical reliever wouldn’t be out of the question).
Even still, Davis put up a 1.87 ERA (2.29 FIP) in 2016, which together with 2014 and 2015, gives him an MLB-leading 1.18 ERA over the past three years. His 1.78 FIP is fourth, and his 1.58 xFIP is also best in the Majors.
Thus, one year of Wade Davis equals four cost-controlled seasons of Jorge Soler (and at least $5 million in savings for the Cubs, since Soler’s contract is a bit unique – but I’ll save all salary discussions for Brett’s earlier dive on the topic).
As a starter with the Rays and the Royals, Davis used to employ an unusually robust arsenal, which featured six(!) different pitches – most of which were actually thrown with some consistency. As a reliever, however, Davis was forced to cut that way down, and now he uses only four pitches – hopefully, this joke lands, as four pitches for a reliever is quite high. Heck, plenty of very successful starters use only three (or even two, in extreme cases) pitches.
Although to be fair, Davis’s use of his two-seamer fell off as the year went on in 2016 (it was barely over 1% by the end of the year). He relied primarily on his four-seamer (53.7%), a cutter/slider (26.5%), and a knuckle-curve (18.8%). He routinely throws his fastball at roughly 95.0 MPH (and yes, that’s where it was even with the injury last season), but has touched as high as 99.5 MPH (98.9 in 2016).
That cutter/slider, though. That is something you’re going to want to see:
New Chicago Cubs pitcher Wade Davis can do this. pic.twitter.com/FqGIVLFTlN
— Baseball Is Fun (@flippingbats) December 7, 2016
So who did the Cubs acquire for Jorge Soler?
They got a lockdown closer with ridiculous numbers, who is capable of reaching the upper nineties with his fastball, while displaying fantastic movement. They got a guy who boasts the single best ERA and xFIP from 2014-2016 (the only years he was a reliever), and is top 5 in fWAR despite pitching fewer innings than anyone else near him.
Oh, and he can still do this:
Wade Davis, 93 mph cutter movement. pic.twitter.com/OhwF7OIgtX
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) December 8, 2016
Chicago may have netted Wade Davis for only one season of control, but if healthy he might prove invaluable to another playoff-bound Cubs team. This isn’t just another, run-of-the-mill acquisition. No, the Cubs acquired one of the very best closers in the entire game.