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A pitch-by-pitch conversation with Wade Davis

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Monday, June 24, 2013, at 7:04 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 24, 2013, at 7:04 p.m.

Last Saturday afternoon Wade Davis pitched against the Chicago White Sox. Wade threw 107 pitches, gave up eight hits, struck out six, walked two and gave up two runs while pitching seven innings. Sunday morning Wade and I sat down and went over the game pitch-by-pitch. Here’s what he told me:

First inning: Davis started the game by throwing Chicago’s lead-off hitter, Alejandro De Aza, two fastballs and a changeup. The changeup is usually not a big pitch for Wade, but he’d thrown a couple good ones while warming up in the bullpen and decided to try one on De Aza. Wade liked the results; a pop up to Mike Moustakas at third. That gave Davis the confidence to throw it a bit more than usual during Saturday’s game.

Next, Alexei Ramirez got a first-pitch cut fastball and popped it up to Eric Hosmer at first base.

Wade was now four pitches into the first inning and already had two outs. At that point Davis tapped a finger on the side of his head—the sign for catcher Salvador Perez to "think." Perez got the message and set up in the middle of the plate. What Wade and Salvy were thinking was that the number-three hitter, Alex Rios, would not swing at the first pitch; he wouldn’t want to let Davis out of the inning after throwing only five pitches.

So Wade pretty much lobbed a fastball down the middle for strike one. The pitch registered on MLB.com’s website as a changeup because it was only 86-MPH, but it was just a "rainbowed" fastball. Wade thought Rios might be taking two strikes before he took the bat off his shoulder—but wasn’t absolutely positive—so he put a little more on the next one: a 91-MPH fastball. Davis missed with another fastball, bounced a curve to see if Rios would chase and, with the count 2-2, Perez called for another changeup. Wade decided to go with it because the change to De Aza had been a good one. So was the change to Rios—he struck out swinging.

A pitcher never knows what he’s going to have on any particular day. Even the warm-ups don’t tell a pitcher what his stuff will be like once the game starts. Davis had an unexpectedly good changeup, but his four-seam fastball was a "mess" and his curve was "terrible"—the worst one he’d had all year. Wade said he could hit corners with his four-seamer and it had good life, but he couldn’t get it down in the zone; it was staying mid-thigh to belt high. When one pitch isn’t working, you throw more of something else and Davis wound up throwing a lot of sinking fastballs to make up for his uncontrollable four-seamer.

Second inning: Adam Dunn led off, went 3-0 and singled. Wade started laughing and said to be honest, with Dunn he was just trying to make sure he didn’t throw a pitch that Dunn could hit back at him. Apparently, you can throw Dunn an off-the plate, inside fastball at 96-MPH and he’ll hit it 600 feet foul. You miss in there and he’ll launch it, but if you go away, that’s the pitch that will produce a screaming rocket back up the middle. Wade’s solution to this is to throw Dunn stuff out of the zone—most of the time—and hope he swings at it. If he doesn’t and Dunn walks, Wade can live with that—literally. Walk Dunn and then Wade can try for a double-play groundball off right-handed Paul Konerko.

Finishing position

The discussion about Dunn led to a discussion of Wade’s finishing position: after he releases the pitch, his right foot crosses over his left and he winds up sideways to home plate. When a ball is hit back at a pitcher there are two areas he wants to protect: his head and, as Wade described it, his "vitals." (Apparently the head is not absolutely vital.) So if Davis is turned sideways, his vitals are OK and he just needs to keep the ball off his head.

I asked if that finishing position—facing the first-base foul line—led some teams to try bunting up the third-base foul line and he said no; he bounces off the mound pretty well and can get to that ball, even from his awkward finishing position. Nevertheless, he will tell third baseman Mike Moustakas to play in when a left-handed hitter who bunts is at the plate. Wade doesn’t care if the hitter "chili-dips" a flare over Moose for a single, but he’s going to make sure they take away the bunt. None of this is a secret; teams can see Moose playing in.

Back to the second inning

After Dunn singled Konerko hit a fly ball to David Lough on a pitch that he should have hammered. Wade left one of those uncontrollable fastballs up and got away with it. Conor Gillaspie also flew out and as we studied the MLB.com print out, we realized it misidentified some of Wade’s pitches, so none of us should take that stuff too seriously. Wade said he was surprised that Konerko swung at the first pitch and Gillaspie swung at the second—he’d thrown four pitches to Dunn and when Dayan Viciedo also swung at the first pitch, Chicago let him off the hook. The second inning bought Wade an extra inning or two at the backend of his outing because the White Sox hitters got him back in the dugout after eight pitches. They turned what could have been a 16 to 18-pitch inning into an "easy-breezy" inning.

When it’s hot—especially if a guy has been pitching indoors or in cool weather—a pitcher may not be acclimated to the temperature. Get a guy to throw 60 pitches in the first three innings and he won’t be around long. A guy can have a tough second inning, get out of it with no runs scoring, but pay for that extra exertion an inning or two later. If you don’t get rest between innings, you can get exhausted early. A long inning also makes it tough on hitters: just like Rios in the first, they need to go up and take pitches and allow their pitcher to rest. Smart pitchers on the other side know that and pour in fastballs. So a hitter can have a lousy looking at-bat because the pitcher struggled the inning before. And a pitcher can get whacked because his hitters didn’t take pitches and sent him right back out to the mound without rest.

One thing leads to another.

I asked if the outfield had been playing deeper Saturday because it was hot and a day game and Wade said it also had to do with the heavy hitters Chicago has in their lineup. According to Davis not every hitter is up there with the sole purpose of getting hits—some want more. Those guys are looking to do heavy damage, other guys are happy with a single.

Third inning: Davis had a nine-pitch first inning and an eight-pitch second, so he figured Jeff Keppinger was going to make him work a bit by taking pitches to start the third—and he was right. Keppinger took two fastballs for strikes and then swung at the third. Davis was trying to go away off the plate to set up something in on the next pitch, but missed, leaving a fastball "out over." Keppinger singled up the middle.

"I can’t get that guy out."

Next, Wade walked Tyler Flowers which—as Wade said—"sucked." Flowers is a big, right-handed pull hitter and that’s the kind of guy Wade should have success with; you don’t want to walk him. Flowers not only walked, but took nine pitches to do it. Now Wade’s pitch count was climbing.

I asked if walking Flowers was a case of being too fine, but Wade said no—if he’s missing, he’s just missing—it’s not because he’s trying to be too fine on the corners. Wade’s pitches can have a lot of movement and that can be hard to control. There are days he has to throw it down the middle and let the ball go where it goes. If he’s getting a lot of movement he’ll ask his catcher to set up on the inner or outer third and he’ll just throw something moving up there.

After Keppinger singled and Flowers walked, De Aza struck out and Davis was a groundball away from getting out of the inning. Alexei Ramirez rolled over on a cutter running away from him (a cutter is about halfway between a fastball and a slider) and hit a weak groundball to Moustakas at third. Even though the double play was in order, the ball was hit too softly to turn two, so Moose stepped on third and got the lead runner. That turned out to be a good decision because Wade threw a wild pitch during the next at-bat. The runners on second and third moved up a base, but if there has been a runner on third, he might have scored— if Wade had still thrown a wild pitch.

Bouncing pitches

If Moose had gone to second base with the Ramirez groundball, tried to turn two and only got one, there would have been runners on first and third, not first and second. I asked Wade how comfortable he was purposely bouncing a pitch with a runner on third base and he said you have to "hone it in a bit." You have to be a bit more careful about what you bounce up there—Salvador Perez is very good at blocking pitches, but the pitches have to be blockable. You can’t just bounce one 10 feet out in front of home plate.

The ability to bounce a pitch with runners on base without fear that the pitch will wind up at the backstop is important. Bouncing a breaking pitch—especially once a hitter has two strikes—is a favorite tactic of most pitchers and they want to be able to do it even if there is a runner on base. Davis said bouncing a pitch to start an at-bat also gives the hitter something to think about: did the pitcher mean to do it? Will he come back with another one?

Messing with the hitter’s mind

That bounced curve can set up a fastball. All a pitcher is trying to do by bouncing a breaking pitch in that situation is to introduce some doubt in the hitter’s mind. If a pitcher can get a hitter to think—even for a split-second—that the pitcher might throw something unexpected, the pitcher has already won the battle. A hitter that’s trying to cover both a fastball and an off-speed pitch has little chance of hitting either. The dangerous guys are the ones with a game plan: they’re looking for a particular pitch and when they get it, they usually don’t miss it. You can make a guy look late on fastballs in his first at-bat and then throw him a curve in his second and—boom—it’s off the wall. That’s the pitch he was waiting on. A guy who has a plan he’s sticking to is a tougher out than a guy just up there hacking at whatever looks good at the moment.

Wade said pitchers thrive off hitters who swing the bat, not off guys who are more selective. A guy who’s up there hacking—”fire against fire”—you bounce something in the dirt and you’re ahead in the count. "We thrive off that." Guys who have a plan? Guys who are selective? Guys who won’t swing at the borderline pitch? They’re much tougher. The guys who are selective are much harder to face than the power guys; those guys want to swing the bat and usually have holes in their swings.

Davis got out of the third inning without a run scoring when Alex Rios struck out, but it took him 25 pitches to do it.

Fourth inning: Wade walked Adam Dunn to start the fourth and was thinking about getting a groundball out of Konerko, turning turn two and erasing Dunn’s walk. With the count 1-2 Davis threw his best curveball of the day and Konerko went down, got it and singled up the middle.

With two on and nobody out Wade mentally conceded giving up a run. He wanted to make sure I understood it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try to get out of the inning with no runners crossing the plate, mentally conceding a run had more to do with tactics.

Conserving energy early in the game

The Royals were up 1-0 at that point. Decide nobody is going to score, go into strikeout mode, expend energy throwing your nastiest stuff and you could turn the next at-bat into a 10-pitch affair. The chances were good the run was going to score anyway and expending energy on an uphill battle could turn a one-run inning into something worse. Burn 10 pitches to get one out—especially when it’s hot outside—exhaust yourself and then make a bad pitch on the next guy and you’re suddenly watching a three-run bomb leave the yard. Wade decided to just concentrate on getting three outs, however he could—he wanted to limit the damage.

Davis said he’s talks to James Shields about this kind of stuff between innings. James says that if you get in that situation early, you don’t want to burn yourself up trying to punch out the side. If the same situation happens in the seventh, it’s pedal to the metal—you’re almost done anyway—it’s “time to ride.” Give it everything you have.

Starting pitchers have to pace themselves just like a long-distance runner. Starting the Boston Marathon in a sprint isn’t a great game plan. Do that—sprint out of the gate with your best stuff—and you can ruin the rest of your outing. Nobody is going to care that you got out of that bases-loaded jam early if you get shelled in the fifth. Keep pitching, keep the damage to a minimum, keep your team in the game.

If you can get some pitchers to come out blazing fire in the first three innings, you can beat them. Make them throw a lot of pitches right away, make them work hard, make them exhaust themselves and you’ll either get them later or they’ll be out early. They may go scoreless in the first three innings and you get them in fifth. Wade said if you let a guy like Justin Verlander get easy outs early—and he’s the king of it—you let him get stronger late. He’ll have something left over for the later innings. Verlander could throw in the mid-nineties early in games, but sometimes less is more. He’s pacing himself.

Back to the fourth inning

With nobody down and two on, Davis threw a sinker to Gillaspie. Wade wanted a double-play ground ball and he got one, but it was just a bit out of anybody’s reach. Gillaspie singled and Dunn scored. Davis then got a double-play groundball from Dayan Viciedo on a sinker—Moose caught the ball stepped on third and threw to first—but that allowed Gillaspie to move into scoring position with two outs. And that brought Jeff Keppinger to the plate.

Davis said Keppinger is the kind of guy who doesn’t try to do too much. Pitchers do not fear a singles-hitter until there is a man in scoring position—then they can do as much damage as any home run hitter when the bases are empty. But home run hitters have more holes in their swings. Contact guys are probably going to get the ball in play. Keppinger did, he hit a soft single to right and Gillaspie scored.

Tyler Flowers ended the inning by striking out swinging.

Wade said he made the pitches he wanted to: Gillaspie’s ball could have easily been a double play and Keppinger broke his bat on the single to right field, but the balls found holes and the walk to Dunn came back to haunt him.

Umpires

The conversation drifted into dealing with umpires and Wade said a player can help himself a lot by how he goes about it. If you think an umpire is missing pitches you can say so between innings, but end the conversation on a light note. "Hey, where are those missing?" should be followed by something like: "Well, let’s have a quick one; you’re cutting into our beer-drinking time." Then you’re in it together—you both want a clean, quick game—you’re not banging heads over every call.

If you whine and complain all the time, that gets around. Umpiring crews talk to each other and if you have a bad reputation, they’ll have their ears up. If you’ve got a good rep, they’re more likely to take a complaint seriously. An umpire who has never been behind the plate when a certain guy pitches will want to know what he’s like—how does he react to calls that don’t go his way? If an umpire is told you’re a pain in the ass, he might be more thin-skinned. When you see a guy get rung up with an exaggerated motion, that might be a hitter who has tested everybody’s patience.

Fifth inning: With two outs Wade left a curveball up to Alex Rios and he doubled to left. Once again, Adam Dunn walked to the plate. This time Wade felt like he couldn’t work around him: make a mistake to Dunn and it was two runs, walk him and then make a mistake to Konerko and it would be three. Plus Dunn strikes out a whole more often than Konerko does.

It was now late enough in the game that Wade was not willing to concede another run, it was time to step on the gas and try to keep Rios from scoring. The first pitch to Adam was a curve, followed by two cutters. The count was 1-2 and all three pitches had been down. Davis wound up and threw a fastball as hard as he could at the top of the zone and Dunn swung—hitting a fly ball to Lorenzo Cain in center.

Sixth inning: Wade got his wish; he was facing Paul Konerko with the bases empty. With the count 1-2 Konerko struck out on another changeup. Davis said teams are very aware of pitch percentages and the Sox were probably surprised he was throwing a changeup at that point in the game. Players need to think about scouting reports and how to cross them up—Wade’s changeup was doing just that.

After Gillaspie lined out to right, Viciedo nicked Wade’s knee with a ball back up the middle for a single. Jeff Keppinger then got yet another hit; this one off a changeup. In three consecutive at-bats Keppinger had gotten hits off a fastball, cutter and changeup. Wade said, "He hit every pitch I’ve got." Tyler Flowers ended the inning by hitting a fly ball to right. If a guy is a dead-pull hitter you can play your opposite field outfielder in, the dead pull hitter probably won’t drive the ball the other way. It’s more likely to be a flare.

Seventh inning: Wade was now down to his last hitter; if anyone got on base, Ned Yost was coming to get him. The score was 2-2, his pitch count was up and they were running out of time to score another run. Give up even one more run and it might be too much. (It was, the Sox scored the winning run in the ninth). Wade had gotten the ball to the back end of the pen and Yost was now in a position to use Tim Collins, Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Greg Holland.

At that point, knowing they were going hitter-to-hitter, Wade was giving everything he had left. He got De Aza on a broken-bat liner to Hosmer. He got Alexei Ramirez to fly out to Cain in centerfield and finished his day with a called strike three to Alex Rios.

Good outing, but the Royals didn’t win

I asked Wade to sum up the day: he threw seven innings and gave up two runs on hits that easily could have been outs—but Wade said anytime you don’t win a game, it’s disappointing. He felt like he kept his team right there with a chance to win, but if he didn’t issue those two walks, maybe things would have been different.

It might be frustrating to give up two runs and not get a win, but Davis believes sometimes you just have to pitch better. If you’re capable of stepping it up and preventing an early run, maybe the situation calls for it—even if it means you’re coming out early. Sometimes you can live with giving up one run, sometimes you can’t.

Saturday they couldn’t and the Royals lost 3-2.

P.S.

If you stuck around and read this whole thing, thanks. I thought Wade Davis gave us all a fascinating look inside a starting pitcher’s mind and I can’t thank him enough for his time and insight. Wade will pitch again this week and now that I’ve got a better idea of what he’s thinking, I’m looking forward to seeing it.

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