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One Big Question: Can Austin Davis carve out a consistent role in this bullpen?

He has a skillset that makes it possible, but he’ll have to work for it.

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Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Austin Davis.

The Question: Can Austin Davis carve out a role in the Red Sox bullpen?

If we rewind ourselves back to last summer leading up to the trade deadline, it was pretty clear that most Red Sox fans wanted the team to upgrade their pitching staff. Whether those upgrades should come in the bullpen or in the rotation was a matter of some debate, but most everyone wanted some arms. They opted not to add any starters, but did add a pair of relievers in Hansel Robles and Austin Davis. I was among many who were underwhelmed by the haul, most notably the latter, and was concerned that the team had not done enough.

I’m not all that interested in rehashing the deadline once again, especially since things ultimately worked out with a trip to the ALCS, even if the postseason was almost missed entirely. With Davis specifically, the deal was for Michael Chavis straight up, so it wasn’t a huge price which tempered the criticism. And to Davis’ credit, he did start to win me over a bit as his tenure with the club extended. Granted, his overall numbers with the Red Sox don’t look great with a 5.13 ERA, but he pitched quite well against lefties and his strikeout and walk numbers were in an acceptable range for a middle reliever on a good team.

And yet, despite my easing up on feeling down about that deal, Davis actually ended up struggling to play a part in the Red Sox bullpen later in the year. The southpaw missed a little bit of time in September after going on paternity leave, and he seemingly never became a big part of the plan again moving forward. Davis pitched on September 6, then was off the next three days before going on the paternity list from September 10 through September 14. From that point forward, he made only four appearances over the last 18 games. Then, in the postseason, Davis appeared in just a single game.

Whether or not Alex Cora should have utilized the former Pirate and Phillie more down the stretch is besides the point by now, but what kind of role Davis could play in 2022 is interesting. Entering his age-29 season, the lefty has never really held down a consistent role in the majors, with his rookie year in 2018 actually representing his career-high in appearances (32) and innings (34 23). Whenever camp actually gets underway, Davis will presumably have to fight for whatever role he may end up with.

We are pretty sure that Boston’s bullpen is not a finished product at this point and that more additions are going to be made, but at this point there are three left-handed pitchers who are likely to be fighting for a spot in the Opening Day lineup, with Davis being joined by Darwinzon Hernandez and Josh Taylor. We can throw the latter out of this discussion because his spot in the bullpen shouldn’t be up for debate, leaving the second lefty spot between the other two. Davis does have a built-in advantage being out of minor-league options while Hernandez is not, though that could also make him easier to designate for assignment if 40-man room is needed after the lockout.

The argument in favor of Davis is pretty straight forward, though it may not be the most persuasive in today’s game. Really, based on last year Davis would fit best as a straight-up LOOGY, only facing left-handed batters, though that is obviously more difficult with the three-batter rule now in place. In 2021 he allowed a wOBA of just .262 against left-handed opponents compared to a mark of .364 against righties. We should mentioned over his career that he doesn’t have many splits, but even there his peripherals still favor left-handed opponents.

Boston Red Sox v Cleveland Indians Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

However, as alluded to above it’s hard to limit pitchers like Davis to only face left-handed batters, and the number of times you can do so safely may not be high enough to justify his spot on the roster. That, to me, was the biggest detractor from using him down the stretch last season, especially with so many American League rivals having a plethora of right-handed options in their respective lineups. And just looking more broadly at Davis’ body of work as a whole, he’s been very inconsistent with his walk rates over his career. That is, of course, a major issue for Hernandez as well, but the latter has much better stuff to try and make up for it.

In a different era, perhaps Davis would have been a better fit in a contending bullpen to be used mostly as a lefty, but at this point it seems whether or not he ends up on the active roster comes down to matters outside himself. Right now, the team doesn’t have a ton of left-handed relief depth beyond the three names already mentioned, so he may be kept around just for that unless they can find other options from outside the organization. Furthermore, Davis’ spot on the Opening Day roster may well come down to whether or not the team feels good about the strides Hernandez has or has not made with his own control issues.

I think the Davis trade, at the end of the day, went better than I thought it would at the time and there were some outings in August and early September where the southpaw came through in a big spot. But ultimately, his future with the club moving forward and what kind of role that may or may not entail at this point could be out of his control.

Thanks to FanGraphs for statistics in this post.