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A closer look at (another) rough early-season start for Zach Davies

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Davies has always struggled in his first few starts of the season and had another rocky outing in the Brewers’ home opener. But is there hope for improvement?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

So Zach Davies isn’t very good at the start of the season.

We have a few seasons’ worth of evidence of this now, the latest example coming during Monday’s home opener in which he ended up getting charged with 6 earned runs off of 8 hits in 5.2 innings.

Things were actually going pretty well for Davies on Monday until his last couple innings, all things considered. He did give up a pair of runs in the 3rd inning on a Jedd Gyorko RBI double and a Dexter Fowler bloop RBI single, but giving up a couple of runs the first or second time through the order against a lineup as good as the Cardinals’ is probably to be expected and he bounced back with a 1-2-3 4th inning against Matt Carpenter, Marcell Ozuna and Jose Martinez.

Davies even started the 5th inning well, getting Yadier Molina to ground out and striking out the latest in the Line of the Brewer Killers Paul DeJong. Then he hit Gyorko on the first pitch of a two-out at-bat and gave Miles Mikolas a 1-1 fastball that was middle in, and even pitchers can hit 90 mph middle-in fastballs far if they’re sitting on them.

From there, it unraveled, and we can probably debate on whether it was a good idea to bring Davies back out for a 6th inning (especially since his spot in the order was up second in the bottom of the 5th). Four of the eight hits Davies allowed happened in the 6th inning, and the two outs he was able to get came on a caught stealing and a sac fly. Brandon Woodruff tacked two earned runs on to Davies’ line with the home run he allowed to DeJong.

I won’t sit here and try to argue that Davies’ start wasn’t *that* bad (even though by his standards, it wasn’t, at least through 5 innings), or that Counsell may not have done him any favors by trying to squeeze another inning out of him (hindsight is 20/20).

Davies’ problem in his early-season starts has been control and command, and while it was better on Monday, it still wasn’t peak Davies.

This spring, Davies told Adam McCalvy that he felt his problem in his early-season starts the past couple years was a reliance on his sinker because he didn’t quite have a handle on his secondary pitches.

“I’m trying to get a lot more offspeed into the game and focus on it in bullpens,” Davies said, “because last year it came on slow. I had to rely a lot on my sinker, and as a guy who doesn’t throw 95-96 [mph], it’s hard to just rely on that one pitch.”

The numbers definitely reflect that — in eight career starts in March/April, Davies has a 7.34 ERA and opponents are hitting him to the tune of .358/.426/.580, an OPS of 1.006. Like Mikolas, when you know a 90 mph fastball is coming in the strikezone, anyone can do damage with it.

McCalvy noted in that spring training article that when Davies struggled through the first month of last season, only 38% of the pitches he threw were changeups, curveballs or cutters, and almost half of those (45%, to be precise) were balls. Davies started to see better success last season when he upped those secondary offerings to 42% of the pitches he threw, and upping the strike rate on those pitches from 55% to 66.5%.

When you look at what Davies threw on Monday, he actually approached those rates that led to his successful outings last year. Here’s the pitch breakdown, according to Brooks Baseball:

  • 50 sinkers/fastballs (28 strikes)
  • 9 changeups (6 strikes)
  • 10 curveballs (3 strikes)
  • 19 cutters (16 strikes)

Of his 88 pitches, 38 of them (or 43%) where cutters, curveballs, or changeups — actually more than what he averaged outside of the first month last season. His strike rate on those secondary pitches (about 65.8%) was also in that 2017 “success zone.” He ended up with zero walks on the day.

So, what was the deal with Monday, then?

Aside from facing a good lineup that jumps on strikes, while Davies’ control looked good from those numbers, his command — throwing quality strikes and staying close to the zone — still looked to be off.

Take a look at his strikezone plot from Monday, and compare it to a similar “good” start from last September, when he held the Chicago Cubs to 2 runs on 7 hits in 7 innings (and slightly fewer pitches than he threw in this year’s home opener):

Brooks Baseball
Brooks Baseball

That September start was Davies when he’s sharp -- even the balls are decent pitches, and they’re close enough that he was able to get a handful of swinging strikes or outs on pitches that weren’t strikes.

While Davies threw mostly strikes on Monday, when he didn’t, he really didn’t and it wasn’t that hard for the Cardinals to lay off. He also threw quite a few strikes right in the middle of the zone, which is not where he wants to live, and just about all of the damage the Cardinals did against him was on stuff that was roughly belt high.

Even with Monday’s results and lack of execution, the process is still encouraging, and Davies was able to find some success early despite his lack of command. While it would be easy to chalk this up to Another Crappy Early Start for Davies, he’s at least pitching differently than he has in previous Aprils, and he’s shown an understanding of what works. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning his command, which is not a problem unique to Davies this early in the season. That’s something that should come sometime in the next month if that part of his history holds up.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference