After a disappointing return to the Kansas City Royals in 2021, reliever Wade Davis has retired from baseball at the age of 36. He went 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in 40 appearances this past season before finishing the campaign on the 60-day injured list.
Thus ends a rollercoaster ride to a major league career that lasted 13 seasons and spanned four teams. He began as a starter, before finding his way to the bullpen and earning three All-Star appearances and anchoring the back end of the Royals bullpen for their 2014 American League championship squad, and of course the 2015 World Series champions.
Though his career ended with a decided whimper, his legacy in Kansas City will always be secure.
The story of Wade Davis in a Royals uniform will always be an interesting one because of how it unfolded. Two weeks from Thanksgiving will be the ninth anniversary of the trade that set the success of the 2014-15 Royals in motion.
On December 9, 2012, the Royals sent mega-prospect Wil Myers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Rays ace James Shields. Now, a total of seven players changed teams in the deal, but that’s what it boiled down to: Wil Myers for James Shields. You may remember that people did not like it. One guy even wrote up five reasons why it was a disaster for the Royals.
Davis was one of the throw-ins in the deal, though not a bad throw-in, to be fair. He posted two middling (4.27 ERA) seasons as a starter before moving to the bullpen in 2012, showing his first glimpse of what could be. He posted a 2.43 ERA with 11.1 K/9 and a 1.5 WAR in 70.1 innings. Not bad at all.
Nonetheless, though, the 2013 Royals badly needed starting pitching, so the Royals sent the 27-year-old to the hill every fifth day. It did not go well.
At the end of August, Davis was sporting a 5.67 ERA and had just allowed seven runs in his most previous start. Two months prior, he had a doozy of a start where he threw 69 pitches and recorded just three outs. The Royals decided enough was enough, so he was banished to pitching garbage relief, and the Royals made do with a combination of a rehabbing Danny Duffy and baby-faced rookie Yordano Ventura as their fifth starters in September.
The Royals won 86 games in 2013, their most since 1989, but finished five games out of a playoff berth. With a critical 2014 season coming, the original plan was for Davis to return to the rotation, replacing the departed Ervin Santana. Then one of the most fortunate injuries in Royals history occurred.
From Cy Yuk to Cyborg
In 2013, the Royals had given up on much-maligned starter Luke Hochevar, the bust of a #1 overall draft pick who was booed in the first inning of the 2012 home opener, kicking off a season where he allowed the most earned runs of any MLB pitcher. After posting a 5.39 ERA over his first five MLB seasons, Kansas City was out of ideas, so they shipped him to the bullpen for the 2013 season.
He responded by posting a 1.92 ERA with 10.5 K/9 in 70.1 innings. He had got from the outhouse to outstanding. But, that all came to an end in early March 2014, when he was diagnosed with torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), necessitating Tommy John Surgery which ended his season before it began.
All of the sudden, the Royals were missing a late-an inning arm. With Duffy returning, Ventura establishing himself, and the shrewd signing of Jason Vargas, the Royals now had starters. So, like a gift from the heavens, the Royals sent Wade Davis to the bullpen. I think you all know what happened next.
In 2014, Davis went 9-2 and posted a 1.00 ERA in 72 innings, with his 109 strikeouts being a Royals record for a reliever. He followed with 14.1 innings of one-run ball in the postseason, earning two wins in the ALCS. He joined Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera to form the ferocious trio of H-D-H, one of the greatest bullpen trios of all time.
Perhaps the most fitting form of endearment is how Royals broadcaster Rex Hudler would make a pun off his name by capping off a successful inning from Davis with the following line: “Wader, check please.”
He followed that up with an equally absurd 2015: 8-1 record, a 0.94 ERA, and 17 saves in 67.1 innings. Holland went down with a torn UCL in late August, so Davis seamlessly moved into the closer’s role. He tossed 10.2 scoreless innings with 18 strikeouts in the playoffs, earning four saves. His last strikeout that fall was the most memorable one in Royals history.
Alas, that was the final postseason pitch for Davis in a Royals uniform. He appeared in 45 games in 2016, saving 27 games with a 1.87 ERA, though he spent some time on the injured list. That winter, the Royals elected to deal him to the Chicago Cubs for Jorge Soler.
Davis made the All-Star team and pitched in the postseason once more with the Cubs in 2017, before signing a 3-year, $51 million deal with Colorado. He led the National League in saves in 2018 as Colorado reached the NLDS, though he only posted a 4.13 ERA in the regular season. The last gasp of his dominant ways was 1.1 scoreless innings with three strikeouts in a victorious NL Wild Card Game.
His one NLDS appearance against Milwaukee—the final postseason outing of his career—went as follows: two hits, two runs, two walks, no outs. It would be a precursor to the rest of his career.
In the final three years of his career, spanning two years in Colorado and this past season in Kansas City, Davis was the antithesis of his 2014-15 self. He went just 1-10 with an 8.33 ERA, a stretch that spanned a startlingly large amount of outings: 95 games and 89.2 innings pitched.
After a stretch like that, I speculated that retirement would likely be his next move and indeed it was.
If nothing else, Wade Davis will always be remembered as the pitcher who earned the final out of the 2015 World Series. Had he done nothing else in a Royals uniform, he would be remembered fondly for that.
Because of the inauspicious bookends of his Royal years, his over numbers are merely good, not great: 27-18 record with a 3.39 ERA and 6.7 WAR over 360.2 innings, with 49 saves and 386 strikeouts. None of those numbers are on any Royals record lists. It’s probably not good enough for the Royals Hall of Fame even.
However, his 2014-15 seasons stand tall. Since 1900, 16 pitchers have recorded an ERA of 1.00 or lower in at least 50 innings of work. Davis is the only pitcher to do it twice. In 2014, he recorded the second-lowest ERA of a 50-game span in MLB history. He has the best 100-game span in MLB history. Same with 150 games, as well as 200 games.
Simply put, Davis at his best was one of the stingiest relievers in MLB history; a truly remarkable feat considering his awful 2013 to begin his stint here.
Perhaps it’s best to end this piece with one more for the road:
“Wader, check please.”
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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images