Not a Rookie: Kyle Davies
Kyle Davies was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the fourth round in 2001, out of high school in Stockbridge, Georgia. He was a classic Atlanta draft pick: a high school pitcher from the Deep South with a live arm, projectability, athleticism, but the need for patient development. He did very well in his pro debut, going 4-2, 2.25 with a 53/8 K/BB ratio in 56 innings in the Gulf Coast League. He made one start late in the year for full-season Macon in the Sally League, throwing 5.2 shutout innings with seven strikeouts, remarkable for a guy two months out of high school. Although he threw just 87-90 MPH in his pro debut, his curve and changeup were considered very promising. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, noting that he was a big sleeper that people needed to track.
Davies pitched for Danville in the Appy League in 2002, going 5-3, 3.50 with a 62/23 K/BB in 69 innings, with 73 hits allowed. This wasn't as good as his pro debut. His command was still there, but his velocity remained average and his secondary pitches regressed a little. I gave him a Grade C in the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, writing that he remained an interesting prospect but needed more development time.
2003 was a success: 2.89 ERA with a 148/53 K/BB in 146 innings for Class A Rome, 128 hits allowed. His fastball was still in the 87-91 range, but he got the bite on his secondary pitches back, and he continued to impress with his feel for pitching. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2004 book.
His breakthrough came in 2004. His velocity increased into the 90-94 MPH range, thanks to more physical strength and improved mechanics. He retained his breaking ball, changeup, and sound command. He posted a 2.63 ERA with a 95/32 K/BB in 75 innings for Class A Myrtle Beach, and maintained his progress with a fine showing for Double-A Greenville in the second half, 2.32 ERA with a 73/23 K/BB in 62 innings, 40 hits allowed. The improvement in his K/IP ratio was quite notable, and I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book, writing that "if he avoids injury, he will be a very good pitcher, perhaps even an excellent one."
Davies split 2005 between Triple-A Richmond (3.44 ERA with a 62/34 K/BB in 73 innings) and Atlanta (4.93 ERA with a 62/49 K/BB in 88 innings, 98 hits allowed). His command wasn't as sharp in the majors, and it looked like he'd been rushed. He appeared to lack confidence. He was absolutely awful for the Braves in 2006 (8.38 ERA, 51/33 K/BB in 63 innings, 90 hits and 14 homers allowed). He was better but still weak in 2007, with a 5.76 ERA for the Braves and a 59/44 K/BB in 86 innings. The Braves gave up on him and shipped him to Kansas City for Octavio Dotel. He was even worse for the Royals after the trade.
However, something began to click in 2008. He posted a 4.06 ERA for the Royals. Although his peripherals weren't great (71/43 K/BB in 113 innings, 121 hits) and didn't support the raw ERA improvement, his K/BB showed good development late in the year: 2.27 ERA with a 24/7 K/BB in his last 32 innings.
Davies enters 2009 needing to show that his improvement last year is for real. Either the peripherals will improve to match the better ERA, or the ERA will weaken to match the peripherals. Given his better components late in '08, and his two good starts so far in 2009, there is some sabermetric reason for optimism, granted the perils of small sample size are still there. Subjectively, from watching Davies pitch numerous games since he joined the Royals, there seems to be a big difference between the late ‘08/'09 Davies and the pitcher we saw two or three years ago. His command is obviously better, and he appears to have much greater confidence on the mound. He looks like he belongs now.
I think Davies suffered from being rushed too quickly from Triple-A, then needed time to adjust to major league conditions. Many young pitchers get crushed mentally and never recover from this adjustment experience, but right now it looks like Davies has made the transition. We need more data to be sure, but his minor league track record was solid, he's got the physical talent, and sometimes pitchers just need time.
PECOTA comps are Mark Thompson, Stan Bahnsen, Steve Trachsel, Jim Hughes, Dave Freisleben, Pat Hentgen, Shawn Chacon, Mac Suzuki, Skip Lockwood, and Francisco Barrios for the Top Ten. Others of note include Don Larsen, Livan Hernandez, Jim Perry, and Rick Rhoden. Some early burnouts on that list, but some very good pitchers as well. I particularly like the Pat Hentgen comp.