DENVER -- The biggest question facing what was a questionable Rockies bullpen in 2019 is unlikely to be answered this winter:
Can Wade Davis rebound?
Other questions potentially could be shored up with offseason moves.
But Davis, whose signing before the 2018 season was hailed as Colorado’s answer as a closer, is due $17 million in 2020. And after his 2019 struggles -- 1-6 with three blown saves and an 8.65 ERA in 50 appearances -- it would be hard to imagine a trade.
While the Rockies need a turnaround from Davis, who led the National League with a club-record 43 saves in 2018, it is not essential that he enter 2020 as closer. Scott Oberg supplanted Davis and handled the job well until blood clots in his right arm ended his season in August. Jairo Díaz, who has embraced a long-held view that he has a future as a closer, pitched well during the final two months. Carlos Estévez, the team’s best strikeout threat, will pitch late in games, if not at the end.
The Colorado bullpen’s 5.14 ERA was sixth-highest in club history. Closer or not, Davis, who before last season was dominant more often than not since he was converted to a relief role with the Royals in 2014, must regain his previous status to help the bullpen wash away a tough year.
“I put myself in a terrible spot this year for them to have confidence,” said Davis, 34. “I can’t argue with that. I will be more prepared next year. This will not happen two years in a row.”
What went right?
Even the best of the season had an ominous side.
Davis didn’t give up an earned run in his first nine road appearances, and he had a 1.08 ERA away from Coors Field through June 19.
But beneath the ERA lurked an ominous 13 walks in 20 innings pitched, home and away, through that date. Oddly, the fact that he wasn’t a complete success on the road while also struggling at home precluded the suggestion that Coors Field was the problem. His 22.50 ERA on the road from Aug. 19 through the end of the season took away any thought that all he needed to do was wear gray pants.
What went wrong?
Essentially, wherever Davis wanted the ball to go, it didn’t get there often enough. Walks were a problem, but poorly located strikes with his main pitches were as well. Opponents batted .282 and slugged .521 against his four-seam fastball, after going .196/.393 in 2018. Against his cutter, the numbers were .262/.385 in 2019 after .197/.352 in 2018.
On June 29, in the midst of a rough month for Rockies pitching, starter Jon Gray held the Dodgers to three runs (two earned) in 6 2/3 innings, and Shaw and Díaz kept a strong lineup at bay to hand Davis a two-run lead in the ninth. He hit Joc Pederson with a pitch with two outs, bringing the tying run to the plate. But he secured the 5-3 victory with no runs or hits and two strikeouts.
Davis gave up three hits, including a game-tying, two-run single to Fernando Tatis Jr., to complete a dubious club record – a six-run ninth-inning lead blown on June 14. The result was a confidence-shaking 16-12, 12-inning loss to the Padres. Then, two days later, Davis coughed up a three-run ninth-inning lead with four runs on two hits and two walks in a 14-13 loss to the Padres.
Before Davis looks ahead, a question from 2019 remains: Was he healthy?
He didn’t believe injury was the problem. It’s true his performance was variable before his trip to the injured list in May with a left oblique strain. But Statcast shows some key post-injury declines.
Davis’ four-seam fastball, which averaged better than 96 mph through 2015, averaged 93.2 mph in 2019. But after Davis was sidelined, he averaged 92.2 mph. And he posted an 11.89 ERA after his return from the injury.
Beyond that, according to Statcast, half of his pre-injury fastballs were in the strike zone, whereas afterward that figure dropped to 47.6 percent.
Davis said there was a strategic component. He drifted away from his four-seamer early in counts -- 42.5 percent through August. He raised that to 48 percent in September, a strategy he preferred even though success didn’t follow.
Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said Davis and the staff identified some mechanical issues that he couldn’t arrest during the season, although he devoted much of his time in September to working on his delivery. Those issues will be addressed over the winter.
“He’s going to get into his legs more and stay more linear to the plate,” Foster said. “He’s been a pillar of consistency throughout his career. Like many of our pitchers, he had a poor season but he has been working to show that there is more to him.”
Davis said he has no intention of experiencing a season like 2019 again.
“At first, I was frustrated,” Davis said. “I don’t like losing games, ever, and I haven’t really had too much failure like that, maybe one year out of 10 in the past. So when you lose, you’ve got to learn. Instead of being frustrated, I’ve got to learn from those experiences.”