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Sitting atop ERA leaderboard, Zach Davies brings to mind a bygone era of baseball pitchers

The league’s ERA leader does things differently.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching strategy in baseball has been changing rapidly over the past several years. The game continues to shift towards power pitchers who are missing bats at record rates. Pitching coaches are preaching four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone and breaking ball usage has increased league-wide as the game’s hurlers try to counteract the so-called “launch angle revolution.” Throwing to contact while attempting to induce ground balls and weak contact has become the pitching blueprint of a bygone era.

But don’t bother telling MLB’s surprise ERA leader that the sinkerballer is a dying breed.

Sinker usage around the game has dropped to an all-time low during the 2019 according to a study by Baseball Prospectus. But Zach Davies has produced a 1.38 ERA through his first six starts — the lowest in baseball by pitchers with at least 30 innings — by throwing more sinkers than anyone else. His 63.3% usage rate of the pitch is the highest in the game and close to a 7% increase over last season. Pitch Info grades the offering at +1.8 runs above average so far, tied for 10th-most valuable among sinkerballers. He’s tightened up his location on the pitch in comparison to last year, working both lefties and righties on their respective outside corners while doing a much better job of staying out of the dangerous part of the strike zone.

Increased sinker usage isn’t the only change that Davies has made to his arsenal in 2019, either. Coming up as a prospect, Davies’ changeup was considered to be his best offering, typically receiving plus or better grades from scouts. But he had gotten away from the pitch in recent years, slashing his usage each year from 2015-2018 as he relied more and more on his curveball. Davies spoke during Spring Training about his desire to get back to using his changeup more, and he is proving during the season’s early going that that was more than just media fodder.

Last season, Davies threw his cambio a career-low 12.5% of the time. He has more than doubled that total in 2019, with his 26.5% usage rate coming in higher than during any other season of his career. He threw the pitch less than 8% of the time against right-handers in 2018 while turning to his curveball 19% of the time, including 23% curve usage when ahead and 17% with two strikes. Now right-handers are seeing his change 26% of the time and typically as a put-away pitch — 29% usage when ahead and 27% with two strikes. Right-handed hitters have managed a mere .177 average against the changeup while beating it into the ground nearly 54% of the time they’ve managed to put one in play.

Davies’ changing use of his change is even more dramatic against southpaw hitters. Last year, lefties saw his changeup a total of 17% of the time. That includes a 21% rate while ahead and 22% rate with two strikes. Davies is using his changeup at a 27% clip against left-handed batters this year, including a whopping 41% of the time he is ahead in the count. He also leans on the pitch with two strikes 29% of the time. Lefties are hitting only .217 against the pitch without an extra base hit.

Overall, batters are whiffing on Davies’ changeup 19.21% of the time this season, three times more than any of his other pitches. Only six hurlers are unfurling their change-of-paces at a higher rate this season, and Davies’ +4.5 runs above average with the pitch rank it as the seventh-most effective changeup in the game so far this season.

The significant increases in his changeup and sinker usage mean that Davies has scaled back the rest of his arsenal quite a bit this season. He’s now featuring his curveball only 4% of the time. It has been mostly a “show-me” first pitch against left-handers and, on occasion, a selection when ahead of righties. Davies’ cutter use is down to 5.5% from more than 13% last year, and he has effectively shelved his slider — a pitch that he rarely threw in the first place.

Davies has made an alteration to where he positions himself on the mound, too. He spent last season pitching mostly from the middle of the rubber, but this year he has moved much further to the first base side of the slab. Brooks Baseball measures the difference at between a quarter and half of a foot from where he was standing throughout 2018.

At a time when starting pitchers around the league are averaging nearly a strikeout per inning, Davies 5.79 K/9 rate stands out as the fourth-lowest among those pitchers with at least 30 innings under their belts this season. Without overpowering stuff, Davies has thrived by relying on his elite ability to live around the edges of the strike zone. He ranks first in baseball in Baseball Prospectus’ command stat — Called Strikes Above Average — by more than half a point. That’s roughly the same difference between second place and seventh place on the CSAA leaderboard. That skill has helped Davies rank among the league’s best at suppressing exit velocity and hard contact rate. As enjoyable as it is to watch a pitcher dominate opposing lineups with strikeouts, it can be even more fun to watch a junkballer like Davies flummox the game’s best hitters by hitting his spots to induce roll-overs and weak fly balls.

Statcast data courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Davies’ reliance on the defense making plays behind him makes it difficult to predict such a nonpareil level of run prevention going forward. It would be quite a surprise if he finished the year with baseball’s best earned run average. But the changes that Zach Davies has instituted this season appear to be making a real difference in his production level. His FIP- (91) is currently lower than it has been at any point in his career, and his DRA- (89) is the best he’s recorded since his first full big league season back in 2016. Both peripheral statistics see Davies’ overall work as far better than the league-average this season.

The strong start has been a godsend for the Cream City Nine, who are the owners of the National League’s worst team ERA (5.10). Zach Davies is not intimidating to look at on the mound, his stuff isn’t overpowering, and his sinker/changeup approach to attacking batters calls to mind top pitchers yesteryear rather than today’s typical four-seam and slider-heavy hurlers. But after a mostly lost season in 2018, the 26 year old is clearly doing all that he can to firmly reposition himself as rotational stalwart for the franchise going forward.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Savant