Zach Davies: Aggressive Adjustments | Disciples of Uecker

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On September 24, John Jackson reported that Zach Davies was working with a more aggressive pitching approach. The young righty noted that he had been giving hitters too much credit at times, and his changed gameplan included:

“Going after hitters, attacking them and making sure that I’m not losing strikes down in the zone, and making sure that I’m making them swing….I think it was me changing up my game plan a little bit, not being afraid of hitters…Attacking them, going in and not shying away from going in the zone.”

Season Snapshot
So, Davies had great success against the Cubs with his new gameplan, pitching six scoreless with two hits and one walk allowed. The righty took that improvement into San Diego last night, where he dominated the Padres in seven scoreless innings. The prospect acquired in the Gerardo Parra now suddenly worked three consecutive quality starts to close his season. In this sense, Davies’s adjustments will color his full season evaluation and development.

2015 Brewers SP IP Runs Prevented
Mike Fiers 118
Jimmy Nelson 177.3 -4
Wily Peralta 108.7 -8
Kyle Lohse 150.3 -27
Matt Garza 148.7 -31
OD Rotation 703 -70
2015 Brewers SP IP Runs Prevented
Taylor Jungmann 116.3 4
Zach Davies 34.0 2
Ariel Pena 23.0 1
Jorge Lopez 5.0 -1
Tyler Wagner 7.7 -6
Tyler Cravy 40.7 -10
“Replacements” 226.7 -10

Note on the Table: -10 runs prevented in 226.7 replacement innings is really quite good. For example, the average #4 starter in the 2014 NL worked 171 innings with -13 runs prevented, which should basically show the strength of replacements working at that level. Of course, the Brewers featured two regular SP that were indeed “true replacement level” to the extent that their performances were bad enough to be replaced; those veterans are responsible for 72.5% of the Brewers’ runs below average in the rotation.

In 34 innings spanning six starts, Davies’s overall line of 24 K / 15 BB / 2 HR does not look overpowering, but the sinker/change up artist succeeded with a 1.38 Groundball:Flyball rate, and his line drives allowed plummeted with his new approach during his last two starts. As a replacement starter this year, Davies prevented two runs, continuing the success of Milwaukee rookies (as compared to Milwaukee veteran starters).

Where’s the Improvement?
On September 14, I analyzed Davies’s strike zone approach, and found that the righty indeed strayed away from the strike zone. More specifically, the young pitcher did not venture into the strike zone with his off-speed pitches frequently enough, which essentially exposed his sinker (if batters did not need to worry about a change or curve up in the zone, they could conceivably isolate certain areas of the zone and expect one pitch). Notably, on September 18 against the Reds, Davies still stayed low in the zone and ventured into the middle of the zone on his arm-side, and he still stayed out of the zone with his off-speed pitches (according to ESPN TruMedia).

So, it really is the case that Davies did not change his approach until after that start against Cincinnati; therefore, I thought it would be worth asking, “Where did Davies change his pitching approach?”

This is meant as a companion article to the charts I analyzed on September 14. This article will be better if you read both simultaneously to compare charts.

To judge Davies’s approach, I am once again isolated sinkers and cutters (84+ MPH), change ups (75-83 MPH), and curveballs (-74 MPH). These charts are from ESPN TruMedia, and “Recent” means Davies’ last two starts against the Cubs and Padres.

(1) Pitch Selection: More Sinkers
Frankly, it looks like Davies just decided on his “meat and potatoes” for retiring MLB batters: he didn’t reach for more sliders or cutters to make his adjustment. He didn’t reach for that lollipop curveball. He didn’t even go change-up first. Get that junkball out of here!

Instead, it’s more accurate to classify Davies as a sinker-ball pitcher, and that’s his first major improvement over the last two starts: Davies doubled-down on his sinker. The pitch is just straight up nasty, as it sinks approximately 4″-to-6″ below a true rising fastball, and busts-in 8″ on right-handed batters (compared to a spinless ball). Davies simply throws a true sinker, and he decided to work with that pitch instead of any of his secondary offerings.

Zach Davies Pitch Selection Sinker Change Curve Cutter/Slider Other?
September 1 to 18 54.4 25.8 8.2 4.5 “FF” = Four-Seamer that actually acted as a “true sinker” (7.1)
September 23 & 30 64.5 25.3 8.6 1.6 None

This is the first crucial step in developing an aggressive approach. Perhaps Davies will eventually morph into a change-up first pitcher, or throw that curve more frequently, but right now he made great strides by establishing that sinker.

(2) Pitch Location: Off-Speed in the Zone
Indeed, Davies is also pitching more aggressively, insofar as he is working higher in the zone with more pitches. He went “up” with his sinker over his last two starts, but also mirrored that location with his curveball. One has to guess that even a few curveballs in the zone would baffle batters and keep hitters off his sinker, and that’s exactly what happened:

(a) Davies allowed only two hits on off-speed pitches over his last two starts.

(b) Davies also decreased the number of hitting areas for his sinker.

(c) Davies accomplished these improvements by moving to the following strike zone (and “outside” strike zone) areas:

Sinker: Up and glove-side, instead of down and glove-side (big increase/change); smaller increases in middle of zone, ultimately working evenly to four middle-armside strike zone areas; more pitches “outside” of strike zone glove-side low & middle, and arm-side low & middle.

Change up: Increase glove-side low strike zone area, and arm-side middle strike zone area. Otherwise mimics exactly the same areas.

Curveball: Increase glove-side middle and low strike zone areas, as well as arm-side high strike zone areas; overall, more curveballs “outside” the strike zone in high armside areas.

My favorite statistic over this set of starts is that not only were batters nearly hitless against Davies’s offspeed offerings, but they also looked at 18 off-speed pitches in the zone. This is a big step for Davies because not only was he crossing batters up while they were swinging, but essentially, he had them off-balance enough to keep the bats on their shoulders. Essentially, even looking at these off-speed pitches in the zone adds a wrinkle to the batters’ approaches; if they were looking for sinkers and did not get them, that’s at least one other area of the game they have to keep in mind while Davies is pitching. I don’t believe it is a stretch to suggest that this approach therefore keeps batters “off” of the sinker just a little bit; given Davies’s velocity, pitching style, and general life around the edges of the zone, this is an excellent development and a vindication of his decision to “get aggressive.”

Conclusion
It remains to be seen how GM David Stearns handles the Brewers’ offseason transactions and roster-building, including with the starting rotation. But, if one does the math, it is easy to see that there is an open spot behind Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, and Taylor Jungmann. Obviously, given the number of starters the average team needs throughout the season, there is no question that Davies will get his chance at some point in 2016. Since the young righty is already showing an ability to adjust at the MLB level, it is difficult to not pencil Davies into that fifth spit for next season. He may get stuck with that “back rotation” label from a scouting standpoint, but if Davies continues his willingness to pitch aggressively and adjust, he will accompany that label with rotational success.

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