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Brewers Tender or Non-Tender Decisions: Zach Davies

The Brewers’ most dependable starter over the last few years could soon be able to afford to buy his own orange slices

Milwaukee Brewers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

2019 Salary: $2.6 million
2020 Projection: $5 million
Difference: +$2.4 million

Outside of Chase Anderson, the Brewers may not have had a more consistent starting pitcher over the past few years than Zach Davies.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Davies is a foundational piece to the Brewers’ rotation, but you roughly know what you’re going to get, and when it comes to pitching, a lack of surprises is generally a good thing. Davies won’t strike many — if any, sometimes — batters out, but he has a good enough feel for the stuff that he does have that he tends to keep batters off-balance and can draw weak contact.

In an era of big velocity and strikeout numbers, that makes Davies a bit of a throwback — and a valuable change of pace.

Davies bounced back from a disappointing and injury-filled 2018 season to put together a solid bounceback campaign in 2019. He went back to being one of the Brewers’ most dependable starters for good chunks of the season before getting bit by some regression and a stint on the Injured List in August, but bounced back for a strong finish to the season with a 2.31 ERA in September.

He wound up making 31 starts, leading the Brewers in innings pitched with 159.2. While a much lower total for a team innings leader than most would expect, that’s more a function of Craig Counsell’s pitching philosophy, and the fact he threw 20 more innings than the next-highest total (Chase Anderson) likely shows Counsell trusted Davies more than anyone else to get through an extra inning throughout the season.

His FIP of 4.56 might point to some good fortune leading to his career-best 3.55 ERA, but outperforming FIP isn’t that unusual for pitchers who don’t rely on strikeouts. If we’re looking for a cause for concern, it’s that he continues to be prone to games where he walks too many batters — another side effect of constantly working the corners and sometimes not getting borderline calls. Davies’ BB/9 rose to a career-high 2.87 this year, well above his career average of 2.64. That happened even with the much-celebrated pitch-framing of Yasmani Grandal behind the plate, and as his K/9 dropped to a career-low 5.75.

While Davies has never been a strikeout pitcher, that’s starting to verge on “too low for comfort” territory, especially considering the concerns about the Brewers’ infield defense. Everyone is trying to build pitching staffs full of strikeout monsters because balls in play are variables, and the more balls in play you allow, the more opportunity there is for something to go wrong. We saw that this year with Davies, who even in the best ERA season of his career had four starts of 5+ earned runs, with a season-high 7 earned runs coming on July 28th against the Cubs. He had two outings in which he allowed 9 hits, two more in which he allowed 8, and three others in which he allowed 7.

That’s part of the risk you take with Davies, but you have to hope those hits are scattered and don’t cluster around the walks he also allows. You also hope most of the contact he allows is on the ground, affording for more double play opportunities, but Davies saw his GB% fall from 47.5% to just 40.1% this year. You don’t need a deep understanding of the metrics to put together that a soft-throwing contact pitcher becoming a flyball pitcher is not a great recipe for success.

Still, after trading away Chase Anderson, the Brewers will likely need to depend on Davies to be a stabilizing presence again in 2020. Tendering him a contract seems like a no-brainer, considering the only other locks for the rotation next season appear to be Brandon Woodruff and possibly Adrian Houser. For a projected $5 million in his second go-around in arbitration, he’s still a good value for the organization, too. That may change next winter, but for now, it seems very likely he’ll be back.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference