Welcome to our 2021 Boston Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep-diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview, and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Austin Davis’s 2021 campaign.
2021 in one sentence
Austin Davis was a serviceable middle reliever for the Red Sox down the stretch, but fellow trade deadline acquisition Hansel Robles far outshined him.
The positives for Austin Davis lie underneath the game-level stats. Analytically, there is some real promise for the southpaw. His fastball had an average velocity of 93.6 mph but was extremely effective. Batters hit a mere .230 with a .232 expected batting average off of Davis’s fastball. He threw his heater up in the zone almost exclusively in 2021 and it worked wonders. The former Pirate’s slider was equally effective in 2021, with a .226 batting average against this year. He threw his fastball 52 percent of the time and his slider 37 percent of the time. We’ll save his third pitch, the changeup, for a little bit later.
Davis is a left-handed pitcher, and as one would expect he has most of his success against same-handed hitters. Lefties hit just .149 against Davis in 2021. The not-so-new three-batter minimum rule essentially destroyed the lefty-specialist role, but having a reliever that can mow down lefties is still valuable late in games.
Other than the advanced pitch-specific analytics, Davis’s biggest upside may lie in knowing who traded for him. A relief pitcher with the Chaim Bloom stamp of approval means something in this era of baseball. I’ll listen to anyone that had a long layover in Tampa Bay about pitching. Bloom has already had success using his Tampa Bay mindset to find diamonds in the brought and Austin Davis could be one of those diamonds moving forward.
Remember those game-level stats I quickly glossed over in the positives section? That’s because they belong down here. With the Red Sox, Davis was 1-1 with a 4.86 ERA and a 1.500 WHIP in 16 2⁄3 innings. Unfortunately, those numbers improved his season statistics, as he was even worse in 9 2⁄3 innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Davis simply allowed too many baserunners and could not get out of the holes he dug himself into early. As I said, his advanced analytics are promising but at some point, you just have to get the job done. As a reliever entering his age-29 season, Davis is running out of time to rely on his upside.
If you look back, you’ll see that I highlighted how effective Davis was against lefties in 2021. I didn’t talk about his performance against righties because that area was for positives, and these numbers do not fit that description. Davis allowed a batting average against of .309 with a .876 OPS against right-handed hitting. You aren’t going to survive in the majors with those numbers against righties, especially given the three-batter minimum rule.
There is one major factor for his lack of success in 2021, his changeup. His changeup was thrown 9.9 percent of the time and hit at a .333 clip. While those numbers are high, his biggest issue is clearly command. He did just as much damage to his numbers on the pitches that weren’t swung at.
As you can see, Davis is frequently missing arm side with his changeup. He’s putting himself in bad counts by throwing waste pitches with a changeup that needs work. You could argue that the low changeups outside the zone are intentional, but nobody is trying to throw a high changeup inches out of the zone. Unfortunately, high and out is his hottest heat zone with this pitch.
Davis’s focus of the offseason should be to gain control of this pitch. It’s pretty clear that Davis is getting under his changeup. When you get under a changeup, the ball flies high and away, arm side (towards a left-handed hitter’s head in Davis’s case). If he can get on top of the ball he could turn what has been a liability for him into a strength. This improvement could be made by simply playing catch with a changeup grip, so there is no reason why he shouldn't make massive strides this offseason with his third pitch.
The Big Question
2022 and Beyond
Are you sitting down? Okay, Austin Davis is under the Red Sox control for the next four seasons. That’s right, we could be seeing Davis trotting out from the bullpen through the 2025 season. Now, based on what I’ve seen from Red Sox fans, this will not sit well with the majority of this wonderfully aggressive city.
That said, this is positive news for the Red Sox (I reserve the right to take that back). Davis does have actual potential as a pitcher who only has 88 1⁄3 career innings pitched. His effectiveness against lefties provides a solid floor as a quality middle reliever. His advanced analytics prove that he has the potential to be a set-up reliever down the road.
Fans should be excited to see what Davis can do in a full season for a 2022 Red Sox team that is shaping up nicely. Whether you like him or not, Davis has a chance to pitch meaningful innings this upcoming season, and I genuinely expect him to get hot a few times this season.