Wherein the writer acknowledges his prior bias against the Milwaukee Brewers’ ageless wonder, and celebrates Zach Davies‘ early-season success.
I haven’t been high on Zach Davies in three years.
After being acquired as one of the final moves of erstwhile Brewers general manager Doug Melvin’s legacy-salvaging mode, Davies, one of the top pitching prospects in the Baltimore Orioles system, showed promise with a more-than-effective changeup but faded from strong midseason form in 2016 and 2017, and was ineffective for all of 2018 due to a number of injuries.
This writer, in no uncertain terms, signaled as much going into 2018: “The back end of the Brewers’ rotation isn’t going to be the problem; Zach Davies will be.”
With Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff all banging at the door, Zack Brown not far behind them, Junior Guerra and Chase Anderson fighting for spots and Jimmy Nelson rehabbing for an eventual return to the rotation and entering arbitration after this season, Davies’ career was at a crossroads going into 2019. With health issues and overall effectiveness, Davies could be relegated to middle-relief and potentially cost himself significant salary in pre-arbitration negotiations.
If Davies’ first three 2019 starts are any indication, he has not only turned the corner, but he is laying down a foundation to be an effective, every-fifth-day mid-rotation starter for the Brewers.
What’s the difference between his previous campaigns and this one? For one, health: back and shoulder issues will tax any athlete, let alone a slight-built pitcher. Davies’ mechanics were well out of whack as a result, and his truncated 2018 numbers against his prior two seasons are fairly indicative of physical issues (see below.)
Second, he’s starting strong, and that’s not something he could claim in either 2016 or ’17:
First three starts:
2016: 0-3, 13.1 IP, 14 R/13 earned, 2 HR, 10 K, 8.78 ERA, .467 BABIP, 2.25 WHIP
2017: 0-2, 14.1 IP, 14 R/14 ER, 2 HR, 11 K, 8.79 ERA, .396 BABIP, 2.02 WHIP
2018: 0-2, 16 IP, 13 R/12 earned, 4 HR, 18 K, 6.75 ERA, .366 BABIP, 1.5 WHIP
and 2019: 2-0, 17.2 IP, 5 R/3 earned, 2 HR, 13 K, 1.53 ERA, .294 BABIP, 1.3 WHIP
Moreover, Davies’ starts have been deeper, including Saturday night’s seven-inning gem and with fewer men on base, the home runs he has allowed are his three earned runs for the season. Bottom line, Davies is clearly showing the signs of emerging from a high-ceiling prospect beleaguered by injuries into a reliable member of a Brewers rotation in need of stability.
Davies is amongst the best in big league pitching early on with a 15.1 hard hit percentage and tying hitters up with a brilliant fastball/change combo (Brooks Baseball’s data shows his, ahem, heat so slow they count it as a sinker) along with the ability to throw a curve, cutter and the very infrequent slider. His arm slot is virtually unchanged from the fastball to change and he’s trusting his batterymates (two with Yasmani Grandal, one with Manny Pina). As a result, he’s displaying some of the best fastball and curve spin in the game and exit velocity against is in 18th percentile in MLB.
He is also disguising his pitches better than he has in his career thus far and relying on guile and disruption to induce putouts early and strikeouts late; five of his 13 strikeouts have come the third time through the lineup, bucking contemporary conventional wisdom and analytics.
No, Zach Davies is not the second coming of Greg Maddux and he’s not contending for ace status in the Brewers rotation. Three starts only begin to tell the story of a pitcher’s season. But the data and the eye test suggest that with health and good battery-mates, the mental part of the game is also coming into focus and Davies is realizing his potential as an effective change-of-pace starter on a team with championship aspirations. Where Freddy Peralta is seemingly wilting under the pressure, Zach Davies is leaning into it and thriving.
What a difference a year makes.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.