Move to 'pen changed everything for Davis

Cubs' new closer has been among MLB's best relievers over past 3 years

March 1st, 2017

MESA, Ariz. -- , the Cubs' new closer, never set out to be baseball's most dominant reliever, and isn't it funny how these things sometimes work out? Actually, he was adamant about it.

Davis was going to be a starting pitcher -- period, end of story, thanks for asking. When the Royals acquired him from the Rays in December 2012, they had the same thing in mind.

What was that someone once said about necessity being the mother of invention? Even when Davis was shifted to the bullpen at the start of the 2014 season, it was supposed to be a temporary deal.

This is what happened: Davis became almost unhittable. His stuff, which always good, got even better when he was asked to pitch an inning or two at a time instead of six or seven. Davis' fastball ticked up from 92 mph to 96. His curveball got harder, too, from 82 mph to 85.

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And if Davis' cutter isn't the best pitch in baseball, it's in the conversation. One of them was clocked at 99 mph, which is ridiculously good, bat-breaking, knee-buckling good.

This is the guy the Cubs acquired in December for outfielder to replace , who was plenty dominant himself after the Cubs acquired him at the non-waiver Trade Deadline from the Yankees last summer, posting a .825 WHIP in 28 regular-season appearances.

Chapman returned to the Yankees for $86 million over five years in December. By then, the Cubs had already acquired Davis, who is a potential free agent after this season.

"It was a little bit of a shock when [the trade] happened," Davis said, "but it's really good, really fun. Everybody has been really nice and easy to get along with. Knowing Joe [Maddon, his manager with the Rays and now with the Cubs] and knowing some of the coaches has definitely been helpful."

There's something else the Royals noticed about Davis when he moved to the bullpen -- first as a setup man, and then as a closer -- and that's his raging competitive fire. It surely had been there before, but in relief, with the game on the line, they just saw it more clearly.

As Tigers pitcher Mike Pelfrey told the Kansas City Star, "Guys are like, 'Gulp'" when Davis enters the game."

That's the part of this that would be almost impossible to know, especially given that Davis' personality off the field is so quiet, so polite.

"It's just his demeanor," Royals first baseman said. "Looking at him and at his demeanor, you couldn't tell what the situation was."

As Maddon said: "There's this incredible calm about [Davis]. That's a big part of what plays so well in the bullpen. He's able to process the moment so slowly."

There was plenty of other stuff going on at the point in Davis' life when he made the move to the bullpen, so there's no way of knowing if pitching in relief is what made him a star. He poured himself into an intense offseason program that added muscle and impacted his stuff, if not his confidence. That cutter got better, and Davis threw it more.

Again, Davis might have become a dominant starting pitcher. He's so disciplined with his delivery, so intellectually curious about what works and what doesn't, that he probably would have been plenty successful.

What Davis might not have been is historically good, and that's what these past three seasons have been. Since the start of the 2014 season, he has posted a 1.18 ERA -- which is the lowest among all Major League relievers. Over 182 2/3 innings, Davis had 59 walks and 234 strikeouts while limiting opposing hitters to a .163 average.

Even more impressive is that these numbers include a tough stretch for Davis in the final three months of the 2016 season. He was twice placed on the 15-day disabled list last year -- once with a forearm strain, a second time with a flexor strain.

Davis returned from the DL in September, and in his final nine appearances, he allowed just one earned run in 8 2/3 innings with one walk and 14 strikeouts.

Still, there were enough questions about Davis' health that the Cubs flew their trainer, P.J. Mainville, to upstate New York to meet with Davis before signing off on the trade with the Royals.

And then the Cubs had their man.

This is a spring of celebration for a team that just won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Davis wasn't part of the World Series and says he's thinking, as always, about the small picture.

"I'm anxious to get out there and help," he said.