Zach Davies is Changing Things Up
The soft-tossing righty is unlocking a better version of himself in San Diego
In his sixth start as a San Diego Padre, Zach Davies turned in his best performance yet. Davies fired eight innings of two-run ball, working around four hits and two walks while striking out seven. The right-hander now owns a strong 3.03 ERA (145 ERA+) in 35 2/3 innings to begin his season.
At first glance, this may not seem noteworthy. After all, Davies posted a career-best 3.55 ERA in 31 starts last season for the Brewers, and he posted an ERA north of 4.00 in just one of his first five MLB seasons. However, the Zach Davies that has emerged in San Diego is unlike any version of Davies seen before.
In many ways, the surface-level numbers for Davies last season are deceiving. Underneath that shiny ERA was a 4.56 FIP, 5.30 DRA, 5.43 SIERA, and 5.26 xERA. He tied career-worsts in strikeout rate and swinging strike rate and posted his lowest ground ball rate ever. As a pitch-to-contact hurler, Davies has long overperformed his estimators, but never by as much as two full runs.
In Milwaukee, Davies leaned heavily on his sinker, throwing it more than 52% of the time in each of his seasons there. Davies threw a good amount of changeups when he first broke into the league (25% when he debuted and 20.6% as a rookie) but eventually transitioned to a more even mix of changeups, curveballs, and cutters.
The changeup made a notable resurgence in 2019 when Davies essentially shelved his curveball and upped his changeup usage to a career-high 31.3%. Among pitchers to throw at least 150 innings, the unassuming righty’s changeup was the fourth-most valuable in the game at 18.2 runs above average. All of his other pitches graded out below average. It was Davies’ only pitch that generated a notable amount of swings and misses — it yielded a 29% whiff rate compared to a single-digit whiff rate on the rest of his arsenal.
With San Diego, Davies has gone all-in on the changeup. For the first time in his career, he is throwing it even more frequently than his sinker. The soft-tossing veteran has slashed his sinker usage by nearly 20 percentage points, and his cutter usage has nearly doubled as well.
The change in approach has brought results for Davies. His strikeout rate of 20% is still slightly below-average, but it is easily the highest of his career. His 9.7% swinging strike rate and 78% contact rate are the best marks he has posted since his 34-inning debut in 2015. Last season, Davies threw more sinkers than any other pitch in every count situation, even with two strikes. This year, he’s shown an increased willingness to pitch for the strikeout by leaning on his changeup the most in two-strike counts. Of Davies’ 31 strikeouts, 21 have been with changeups.
Davies’ bread and butter is still getting outs on balls in play — his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate remain well above average — but the increased amount of swings and misses ought to make him more reliable and lead to more sustainable success than his previous approach. Davies’ current 3.03 ERA is supported by a 3.10 FIP and 3.07 DRA, and even the metrics that are more bearish on him (4.12 xERA and 4.14 SIERA) view him much more favorably than they did last year.
The sample size is small, but Zach Davies had made notable changes that ought to help him moving forward. He is not going to suddenly turn into an ace, but less reliance on balls in play can help him avoid the blowup outings that were prone to occur at any moment when he was a Brewer. Adding some strikeouts to his game gives Davies more control over his results and increases his floor as a starting pitcher.