Not entirely, no. Before acquiring Christian Yelich and signing Lorenzo Cain, the Brewers still had a host of other talent scattered throughout their lineup that made them interesting, if not necessarily intimidating. But Davies occupies a particular space that their more established players have surpassed and that their other younger players have yet to enter.
He’s going into his third full season and has provided nearly six wins for the team, and his approach could make you believe he could keep doing that in the middle of the rotation. He’ll play 2018 at just 25 years old.
Travis Sawchik detailed why Davies is an outlier toward the end of last season. At 6’0, 155, he creates his success by combining guts, guile, and execution. Of those three characteristics, guile may pique the most interest.
From his start on July 19 and after, Davies was a different pitcher. He made a big adjustment to his sequencing as he adapted the usage of his secondary pitches to better complement his two-seamer.
Davies’s two-seamer and changeup fade to the same quadrant of the strike zone. If he was working off the fastball, it may have been giving batters a better opportunity to tee up a changeup because of how tunneling works. They would have looked the same to batters by the time they had to decide to swing, generating a similar bat path.
Meanwhile, his cutter and curve could have come out of the same tunnel as his two-seamer, but ended up working the opposite side of the plate. Batters would have had a much more difficult time picking up what was coming next.
Given how Davies’s two-seamer and changeup work the same area of the plate, it’s interesting that their drop in wOBA was identical after July 19, and equally interesting that the cutter and curveball became so much more effective.
These differences after Davies’s change in sequencing speak to the possible impact a tunneling effect could have had on his overall game. While tunneling isn’t necessary for pitchers to have success it may be especially productive for a guy who throws in the low 90s and lives on the edges of the zone.
Sequencing better in any count is bound to help performance, but it appears to have helped Davies in one particular situation. When he was behind 3-1 before July 19 — 38 times in 19 starts — hitters were smacking the ball into play at over 100 miles an hour. After that date — 26 times in 14 starts — he coaxed hitters’ exit velocity down to 87.3 mph. Once or twice a game, Davies turned absolute screamers into much more average balls in play. That’s critical when a pitcher isn’t going to generate outs on his own with whiffs, as Davies won’t with his career 6.55 K/9.
We can probably fairly consider this adjustment as deliberate, based on another quote from him in Travis’s article:
“I think it just comes down to the other side of the game that not a lot of people pay attention to…[t]he thinking part of the game…[smaller guys] have to rely upon smaller details about their game that can give them an edge.”
What if that also explains, at least partially, how the Brewers decided to go big by trading for Yelich and signing Cain? Teams have billions of data points to measure player performance. Davies’ subpar raw skills apparently haven’t kept him from being able to make adjustments and providing tangible value, despite falling outside what those data points might influence teams to prioritize. In this respect he’s a player who gives his team a unique edge.
We’ll have to wait to see an encore from Milwaukee’s holdovers from 2017, as well as the impact their newcomers make. But Zach Davies finds himself at the heart of a team looking to make some noise in a challenging NL Central.
All data from Statcast.
Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him and all his baseball thoughts online at timjacksonwrites.com/baseball and @TimCertain.