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How Zach Davies can bounce back in 2019

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Can the diminutive pitcher return to form after an injury riddled 2018?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

National baseball pundits are generally skeptical about the starting rotation of the Milwaukee Brewers. Evidently they see the outcomes of last season as a fluke, or they are in denial that the Brew Crew can build a quality rotation without household names and high-end pitching prospects. Obviously David Stearns, Matt Arnold, Craig Counsell, and the rest of the Brewers’ brass believe differently. For Milwaukee, depth and youth are keys. One of those young depth pieces is Zach Davies.

With the multitude of starting pitching options in camp, what role will Davies play in 2019? Heading into last season, Davies seemed like a rotational stalwart, and now it seems as if no one is talking about him. In some ways it seems appropriate. Davies is an unassuming presence on the mound, yet he has gotten results in the past.

Unfortunately the 2018 season was hampered by injuries that kept him out of the rotation for much of the season. Even when he was healthy enough to get on the mound, he was nowhere near as effective as his first two full seasons in the big leagues. Davies was even left off the playoff roster in favor of Gio Gonzalez until the southpaw got hurt in the NLCS.

Among the plethora of questions revolving around the Brewers starting rotation, an important one is: can Davies bounce back and be a part of the rotation going into 2019? Even if he is capable of a bounce back, the Brewers have a number of options. Davies is a notoriously slow starter, and shoulder and back injuries last year have to be concerning. He might be on the outside looking in compared to his counterparts.

Davies was one of Milwaukee’s top starters in 2017. While wins and ERA don’t offer an accurate read of a pitcher’s ability, he did record 17 winning decisions while posting a 3.90 ERA. He also recorded a 95 FIP- across 191.1 innings. Overall he was pretty successful, and proved to be a solid back-of-the-rotation type arm.

2018 was tougher for the 6’0” and 165 lbs. hurler. He missed a Spring Training start in March due to an oblique strain. He battled through a couple instances of rotator cuff inflammation, first identified after an April 29 loss to the Cubs. He went on the DL in May and went back on the disabled list on June 1st. Setbacks occurred involving his back. Ultimately he spent June, July, and August rehabbing with Wisconsin, Biloxi, and Colorado Springs.

The former Orioles farmhand is not overpowering (averaging 90.2 mph on his fastball). Thus he has little room for error. He does generally have good command over a five-pitch repertoire (2-seam fastball, change, curve, cutter, and occasional slider). The velocity difference between his fastball and change up (difference 8-10 mph) and curve (difference 12-15 mph) keeps hitters off balance when he is going well. His curveball spin rate generally ranks around the 75th percentile. When he commands his changeup - which he did well in 2016 - utilizes his curve, and locates his fastball, Zach Davies is a very effective MLB starting pitcher. Remember Buck Showalter hated losing him for a reason. Back during Davies’ days as an Orioles farmhand, Buck mentioned that Zach is something that you don’t see as much of in today’s game - a pitcher. “He can manipulate the baseball, and he’s got a feel for pitching.”

Davies comes with his warts though. In 2017 and 2018 he ranked in the 7th and 11th percentile in xBA, 25th and 29th in xwOBA, and 34th and 31st in xSLG. In 2018, he was hit harder than normal as he was in the 16th percentile in hard hit % as opposed to the 69th percentile in 2017 and 87th percentile in 2016. That was likely due to the injuries as well as the inability to make up for his poor start, which he was able to do in 2016 and 2017.

Milwaukee will look to its young guns to carry much of the load for 2019 for better or worse. Generally we think of Woodruff, Burnes, and Peralta when we think of Milwaukee’s young guns. But we probably forget, Davies falls into that category too. He just turned 26. Compare that to Brandon Woodruff who also just turned 26. Davies was just quicker to the majors. The problem is that if Woodruff works out, he can pitch at 97-99 mph and has other wipe out stuff. Davies is unable to rely on such “stuff.”

2016 has been Davies best season to date, pitching to a 1.25 WHIP. If Davies does break camp in the rotation, he might want to throw his changeup more. In 2016, he threw the change 20.6% of the time compared to 13.9% in 2017 and 12.5% in 2018. He might have stopped using the changeup as much because he was not throwing it at the same quality. Results would suggest that. While his pitch values for changeups thrown in 2016 were at +8.2 runs, which is quite good, he had negative pitch values throwing the changeup in 2017 and 2018. Either MLB hitters were able to pick it up better, had better scouting against Davies, or he just wasn’t throwing the pitch as well. Thus he went away from it. He made up for it by increasing the usage of the curveball, which should have been a strength based on the before mentioned spin rate. Unfortunately that did not translate in pitch value results as he had negative pitch values when throwing his curve in both 2017 (-1.9) and 2018 (-1.0). If he can rediscover the effective version of his changeup, he will pitch more like a mid-rotation starter than back-end starter. Craig Counsell would find that difficult to ignore.

Davies change up usage
Davies curveball usage

As teams go from average to good and then from good to great, they generally bring in more talent and the level of that talent increases as well. As a result, good players take on lesser roles (Eric Thames) or are sent to other teams (Domingo Santana). If Jimmy Nelson and/or Chase Anderson come back to form, if Jhoulys Chacin pitches close to last year, and if some combination of Burnes, Woodruff, and Peralta work out, where does that leave Davies? Does he take a lesser role as a long man? Does he get traded or sent down at some point?

Hopefully for Davies, he takes one of the rotation spots. In order to do it, he has to demonstrate 2016 form, and probably earlier in the season than he has a penchant to do. Chacin will be in the rotation barring injury, leaving four spots. That means Davies will have to beat out three of Nelson, Anderson, Burnes, Woodruff, Peralta, and Josh Tomlin. Jimmy Nelson could start in the minors, on a rehab assignment, or the injured list. That increases Davies odds dramatically, but that would still mean beating two others.

The odds are more against Zach Davies than in years past. There are just more options. While diminutive in stature, he makes up for with a bulldog-like nature and intelligence. It would not be a surprise to see him break camp as one of the starters and stay there throughout the season. It also would not be a surprise to see him pitching for someone else at some point in 2019. Whatever the case, the Gerardo Parra trade worked out and will continue to work out for the Brewers.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant