Zach Davies: Future Ace?

(Thanks for reading my first fan article here on BCB. I've always wanted to get into sports writing or blogging of some kind on the amateur level and after some recent life changes I've decided to go for it and jump right in. Been reading BCB forever and decided that this would be as good a place as any to start and get my feet wet. Appreciate any comments or thoughts on the subjects I decide to tackle!)

Zach Davies has been a revelation for the 2016 Milwaukee Brewers. The slightly built, right-hander just finished an excellent month of June that has to have David Stearns, Craig Counsell and Co. giddy about their young starter's chance to become a long term answer for the rotation. Davies seems to have found the confidence in his pitches that he was lacking this past September when he was called up to make six starts over the final month. While his 3.71 ERA over those outings was certainly serviceable, his 15 walks versus just 24 strikeouts had to be a cause for concern. Despite the rather terrible strikeout to walk ratio, Davies did post elite groundball rates in his abbreviated 2015 campaign, so there was some hope that he could develop into a back of the rotation-type arm and possibly help the 2016 Brewers right out of Spring Training.

Unable to beat out Chase Anderson for the fifth starter spot this past spring, Davies had to wait until late April, when Taylor Jungmann imploded, before he was given his shot to start every fifth day for Milwaukee. His first five starts eerily mirrored those final six in the fall and Davies looked like a prime candidate to be a proverbial AAAA arm. Good enough to get called up to the majors, but not quite good enough to stick very long. His 13 walks and 14 strikeouts in 24.1 innings to begin 2016 were well below league average and his ERA sat at an unsightly 6.29. But then a funny thing happened for Davies in mid May. Something clicked and he began to not only post better numbers, his confidence rose and he has emerged as the Brewers de facto ace (or at least one of them along with Junior Guerra's surprising 2016).

The young pitcher from Chandler, AZ who calls Seattle his home put together a run of 8 out of 10 starts with 2 earned runs or less allowed. He's struck out 55 batters versus just 14 walks in his past 61.1 innings. He's won five of those starts and has not taken a loss during the stretch. Yet, in so doing, his "elite" ground ball rates from the tail end of 2015 and early 2016 have reversed course and he's actually giving up MORE flyballs now than at any other time in his brief major league career, culminating in a 3/10 groundball/flyball ratio in his 5 inning, 9 K no decision Friday night against Washington. Why all the fly balls? Davies has the look of a pitcher who is starting to trust his stuff. More specifically, he's starting to trust his fastball up in the zone as well as inside. He's throwing his cutter more and inducing weak contact. No one is going to confuse Davies for Wily Peralta, the slightly-built right hander will struggle to touch 90 mph on the radar gun consistently. But he does have great command of his two-seamer and his fastball plays up due to his plus changeup. In the past 10 starts, its hard to argue that Davies does not belong in a major league rotation. He's proven that he can play at this level and be effective without the blazing, mid-90s heat.

But Brewers fans would be forgiven if they've seen this song and dance before. Milwaukee has been tantalized over the years by young, organizational pitching prospects who dominate AAA hitters and achieve some modicum of success at the big league level, only to come crashing down right when they should be entering the prime of their major league careers. Peralta and Jungmann are two very recent examples of highly touted starters who looked like future staples of this Milwaukee team only to be plying their trade(and struggling) at AAA Colorado Springs midway through the season. The list of Brewers pitchers who have given the fans false hopes of a young, controllable ace to build around is long and it goes back along ways. Some have proven to be serviceable: Yovani Gallardo. But others have been frustratingly inconsistent: Manny Parra. Not since Ben Sheets in 2001 has a Brewers pitcher broken through and delivered that front of the line starter that can win a game by himself and carry a team on his back. Sheets will go down as one of the truly sad stories in Milwaukee's history. He was one of their most dominant starting pitchers the franchise has ever seen, but the team around him was simply terrible. It might be a while before a Brewers pitcher ever sports an 8/1 K/BB ratio over 30+ starts.

During their recent playoff pushes, the Brewers relied heavily on free agent acquisitions and rental trades to get their aces. A team like Milwaukee needs to develop young arms and no one knows that better than Stearns. But more than developing back end types, the Brewers need a young ace. Is Davies that guy? Its too early to tell. A stretch of 10 good starts in the majors simply isn't a harbinger of a successful career, ask Taylor Jungman. But Davies does seem to have something going for him that the others did not: Control of his pitches. For a young pitcher, he doesn't miss his spots very often and working the corners is something usually developed later in a big leaguers' career once they discover they can't blow away hitters with fastballs or nasty breaking stuff down the heart of the plate. Davies isn't a prototypical "potential ace." He lacks the elite stuff to miss bats consistently but his command and fastball/change dynamic could be good enough anyway. He doesn't posses the huge breaking pitch, so he will never dominate a game like his counterpart last Friday, Max Scherzer, can who generates a ton of misses on pitches in the strikezone. But what Davies does seem to be able to do is locate his fastball, cutter and changeup and induce weak contact by mixing speeds and working the bottom part of the zone and the corners. He pitches inside when he needs to and, for 10 starts anyway, he hasn't gotten tagged with the long ball. Its tough to find a suitable comparison for Davies right now, most of the games dominant pitchers feature big fastballs and power curves or sliders.

It remains to be seen if Davies' smaller frame can hold up to the rigors of a 30 start campaign, but because he doesn't throw as hard as a Tim Lincecum, there is less cause for concern. The addition of the cutter that he started throwing last year under the guidance of former pitching coach Rick Kranitz has given him another wrinkle and everything is definitely clicking for him right now. It won't be possible to sustain this run for the entire season, Davies will hit a rough spot just as every young pitcher does. Yet there is no doubt that his recent success has now put Davies into the conversation as a big piece in David Stearns' rebuilding plans. This off-season we wondered if he was good enough to be the Brewers fifth starter, now we're wondering if he is, in fact, their ace.