If you were told, oh let’s say back in spring training, that the Rays pitching staff would have three complete game shutouts this season, would you have guessed those gems were twirled by rookies? And if you did guess rookies, would you have guessed rookies not named David Price?
Your answer to at least one of those questions, if not both, should be no.
But here they are, 149 games into the season, and the complete games have been provided by the kids, Jeff Niemann, who has two, and Wade Davis, who has one.
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“Yes,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said before Saturday’s 4-0 win against the Blue Jays. “What these guys have done in this short time speaks well of the future.”
We’re getting our fist glimpse of Davis, so we’re not sure what this kid can do other than be outstanding in two starts and very hittable in his other.
His 124-pitch effort in his shutout at Baltimore on Thursday night was the kind of bulldog performance you see from someone like Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia or Josh Beckett, not a guy making his third major league start.
Niemann kept this team in the wild-card race with his surprising 12-6 record. The big righty has easily pitched the best of any of the starters. With a little more help from the bullpen Niemann could have 15 wins and be the leading candidate for the American League Rookie of the Year. He would deserve a mention in the Cy Young Award talk, too. Not necessarily a vote, but at least a mention.
Price received all the headlines during spring training, while Davis made a few starts then headed to the minor league side of the complex, and Niemann quietly competed with Jason Hammel for the fifth spot in the rotation.
Price was sent down to Triple A Durham to work on his fastball command and his change-up. The move was criticized both then and now, yet the lefty, who helped pitch the Rays to the World Series last October, has looked at times like the David Price as advertised and at times like a rookie who still needs to work on his fastball command and his change-up.
This is not meant to be a knock on Price, the first overall pick in the 2007 draft, but much of the success Niemann has had this season and Davis had in his three starts could be attributed to their body of work in the Rays farm system.
Niemann, whose rise to the big leagues was pocked by injuries early in his professional career, managed to throw 372 innings across his four minor league seasons. He pitched in 74 games, making 71 starts.
In five seasons, Davis threw 307 innings, including 158 2/3 this season when he made 28 starts for the Durham Bulls.
“The thread is to always bring guys up too quickly,” Maddon said.
You can’t say that about Niemann and Davis.
Managers and general managers like to say a pitcher will tell you when he’s ready for the big leagues.
Niemann did that this summer.
Davis seems to have done that this month.
“Davis has been baking for a while,” Maddon said. “We put him in the oven and let him cook.”
Same with Niemann.
There is no substitute for experience, which is why we have minor leagues.
One school of thought is to take a young pitcher to the major leagues and let him learn to pitch up there. Works with some and ruins others.
The Rays were careful with Niemann and Davis, which is a luxury afforded by having Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza in the major league rotation. Those three were expected to lead the Rays back to the postseason this October. Yeah, that worked.
Shields, undercut by a lack of offensive support, won his 10th game of the season Friday night. Garza earned win No. 8 on Saturday. Kazmir is gone.
As it looks now, the Rays will go into next season with a rotation of Shields, Garza, Niemann, Price and Davis.
Davis will still be a rookie, which means he will be learning how to negotiate his way through a major league lineup, but not how to pitch.
Like Niemann, Davis already has finished that course.