Sunday Notes: Zach Davies Plans to Rely Less on Changeups

Zach Davies threw a lot of changeups last season. Taking the hill for the Milwaukee Brewers, the now-27-year-old right-hander relied on the pitch an eyebrow-raising 31.3% of the time. In 2018, that number was 12.2%. In 2017, it was 14%.

Why the notable uptick in change-of-pace pitches?

“I was getting guys out in any way possible,” explained Davies, who was dealt to the San Diego Padres this past November. “Going into last year, I was coming off injuries [rotator cuff inflammation and lower back tightness] and wasn’t guaranteed a starting spot. I wasn’t able to go into spring training and work on pitches, and best way for me to get outs was fastball-changeup. That’s why the numbers were skewed. This year there will be a lot more of a mix.”

Not having a feel for his curveball, Davies threw his bender just 3.5% of the time last year, down from the 15-16% range he’d been accustomed to. His cutter usage was also down, albeit by only a few percentage points. I asked the command-artist what returning to more of a mix will entail.

“It’s really just going into games with the desire to throw different pitches,” said Davies. “It’s forcing myself to throw curveballs and cutters, everything, in every count. Coming here — them trading for me — I have the sense of having a job. I can work on things without feeling like I might be sacrificing my season.”

One thing he’s not trying to do is increase his velocity. Two springs ago, Davies told me that he’d added weight to his 170-pound frame, with gaining an extra few inches on his sinker being among the objectives. I brought that up in our recent conversation.

“I kind of did that,” Davies acknowledged. “You always try — you always want more — but I’m not going to sacrifice my command, and what I do best, for more velocity. I know that if I have movement and command with an 88-89 mph fastball… I’d rather do that than be throwing 93 right down the middle.”

Throwing a pedestrian fastball and a plethora of changeups wasn’t deleterious to Davies’ performance. In 32 starts, he fashioned a career-low 3.55 ERA while surrendering 155 hits in 159-and-two-thirds innings. Solid results, but he’ll head into the 2020 season — when it finally gets underway — intending to be even more effective. Part of that plan is to throw fewer changeups, and an increased array of everything else in his arsenal.

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A recent installment of my pitch series focused on changeups, and one of the three hurlers I featured was a Mariner who leans heavily on the offering. Brandon Brennan threw his signature pitch 42% of the time in 2019, the third-highest percentage in MLB (min. 40 innings). Only Tommy Kahnle (52%) and Blaine Hardy (44.9%) went to the well with that particular pitch more frequently.

Left on the cutting-room floor from my conversation with the Seattle right-hander was his response when I asked if it’s possible to throw too many changeups.

“I think that’s the case with pretty much any pitch,” Brennan told me. “But there are times where it is extremely efficient to throw a mass quantity of a certain pitch. There are days where you can’t locate a fastball, but you can put your changeup on a dot. You’re going to continue to throw that, because it’s your most effective pitch on that given day.”

As for days when he is commanding his fastball… let’s just say that Brennan isn’t about to back away from his bread-and-butter. No matter how you slice it, the 28-year-old reliever is dependent on his changeup. Without it, he wouldn’t be in the bigs.

“There are times where you need to not throw it too much,” said Brennan. “But for the most part, if it’s your best pitch you have to use it efficiently. For me, that usually means a lot of changeups.”

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Mark Belanger went 10 for 16 against Jim Kern.

Rey Ordonez went 8 for 19 against Roger Clemens.

Mario Mendoza went 7 for 19 against Jon Matlack.

Dal Maxvill went 7 for 15 against Ross Grimsley.

Ray Oyler went 6 for 13 against Fritz Peterson.

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There is a chance that games will take place in empty stadiums this season. On Friday, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark told reporters that players would be open to doing so. While far from ideal, playing sans fans would be better than not playing at all.

The idea isn’t new. A full three weeks ago, that very scenario was floated to veteran left-hander Brett Anderson. Standing in front of his locker at the Milwaukee Brewers spring training complex, Anderson expressed mixed feelings.

“Playing without fans is something that would be out of our control,” he told a sparse cadre of scribes. “We have to just deal with the cards we’re dealt, and go on. We want to play in front of people, but we’ll have to see what Major League League Baseball says.”

In April 2015, the Orioles and White Sox played a game in Baltimore with no fans in attendance — this due to security concerns, civil unrest having enveloped the city following a racially-tinged police incident. Anderson brought up that game, noting that the relative silence would be eerie — “Foul balls and nobody going to get them, [being able to] hear the play-by-play.” Adding that it would be especially awkward in your home ballpark, he expressed that it’s nonetheless better to be safe than sorry.

It’s said that pitchers are out on an island when standing on the mound, their sole focus being the batter and the catcher’s mitt. With that in mind, I asked Anderson just how aware of fans he is during a typical game.

“I think I’d be more aware if there were zero fans,” answered Anderson. “I’ve played in Oakland where there have seemingly been zero, but I’ve also been in Oakland where it feels like there are 100,000. So it’s not that big of a factor from a pitching standpoint — you try to ‘clear the mechanism’ — but again, it would be awkward to pitch in front of nobody. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that.“

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Roger Clemens told the following story (edited here for clarity) during a charity event I attended in Boston a few months ago:

“At one point, at Fenway Park, Morganna ‘the Kissing Bandit’ ran out after me,” recalled Clemens. “I struck somebody out and Mo Vaughn, or Tim Naehring — one of the guys in the infield — was screaming at me to turn around. The fans kept cheering, and getting louder and louder. I turned around, and here comes this gal in a lime-green halter top. She lays one on me.

“My catcher is Tony Pena, and he’s got a game going on within a game. He’s just having fun all the time. I said [to Morganna], ‘Listen, before you get arrested — because here comes security — ‘run in there and lay one on my catcher.’ She thought I said umpire… I think Tony dropped down to one knee and put his arms out. She went right by him and laid one on the umpire.”

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I wasn’t surprised when I learned earlier this month that Mookie Betts had contracted food poisoning. A few hours before he was scratched from a Friday evening lineup, Betts didn’t seem his usual self when I approached him in the clubhouse. Normally congenial, he was impatient and less-engaging than I’d experienced in Boston. To his credit, he did give me a minute or two of his time.

Defense is the subject I broached. Specifically, does the perennial Gold Glove winner expect playing the outfield at Dodger Stadium to be much different than playing the outfield at Fenway Park?

“Off the top of my head, I think it will be much the same,” Betts told me. “There will be a lot of ground to cover, but that’s something that’s easy for me. I can just turn around and run, because I don’t have to worry about a wall, or anything like that.”

Betts did allow that he’ll need to better acclimate himself to Dodger Stadium. He’s played just six games there; three in the regular season, and three more in the World Series. He likewise acknowledged that other National League venues will take getting used to. Not that he’s all that concerned.

“When you go to a place you’re not familiar with, you just look around the field,” siad Betts. “It’s, ‘OK, there’s a quirk here,’ or you see how much track you have to work with. There’s usually not too much that you need to game plan for. You just go out and play.”

Needless to say, the number of games Betts will play in Dodger Stadium this season is a great unknown.

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NEWS ITEMS

Jesse Dougherty of The Washington Post (A Division) and Derrick Goold of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (B Division) were among those taking top honors in the Associated Press Sports Editors 2019 contest for beat writing.

Minor League Baseball’s streaming service, MiLB.TV, is providing free access to all games from the 2019 season. More than 6,500 games are available to stream.

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Jimmy Wynn, a 5’ 9” slugger nicknamed “The Toy Cannon,” died on Tuesday at age 78. Arguably the most under-appreciated hitter of his era, Wynn logged a 130 wRC+ in a career than spanned the 1963-1977 seasons. Playing primarily with the Houston Astros, he swatted 291 home runs despite playing the lion’s share of his home games in the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. He also swiped 225 bases. In his first full season, Wynn was successful on 43 of 47 attempts.

Power having been his calling card, I asked Wynn during a 2010 interview how a man his size was able to hit a baseball so far. His response? “I drank a lot of milk.”

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I’ve quoted passages from Norman L. Macht’s They Played the Game: Memories from 47 Major Leaguers in recent columns, and I’ll do so again here. Macht’s book is filled with great anecdotes, and this one is from an interview he did several years ago with Woody English. The event took place in 1932, when English was playing shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. Rogers Hornsby had just been fired, and Charlie Grimm named the new manager.

“That afternoon, Grimm had a meeting,” recalled English. “He says, ‘If everybody takes care of himself and we hustle, we still have a chance to win this.’ Rollie Hemsley was our catcher. Rollie was a drinker but not a good one. He could take two beers and be drunk as the devil. Rollie gets up and says, ‘Yeah, all you guys take care of yourselves. I’m going to now, too. We can win this pennant.’ About three in the morning the traveling secretary, Bob Lewis, and Grimm had to go over to Camden, New Jersey and get Hemsley out of jail.”

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

At DRaysBay, Daniel Russell wrote about how an independent league closer named Ryan Newell could be a surprise contributor to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020.

Jason Mackey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about how women in the Pirates organization are providing inspiration for others.(Story via AP News.)

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Bobby Nightengale talked to Reds hitting coach Alan Zinter about the latter’s approach toward Shogo Akiyama, Nick Senzel and Joey Votto.

Josh Mauer, the play-by-play voice of both Boston College basketball and the Pawtucket Red Sox, has been experienced symptoms consistent with COVID-19, yet hasn’t been able to get tested. Alex Speier shared the specifics at The Boston Globe.

An excerpt from Jessie Dougherty’s Buzz Saw: The Improbable Story of How the Washington Nationals Won the World Series was published in The Washington Post. The book was published earlier this week and can be purchased here.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Ten pitchers in big-league history have allowed exactly 100 home runs. Of them, Johnny Vander Meer threw the most innings (2,104.2). Ian Snell threw the fewest innings (803.2).

Ricky Nolasco’s 81 wins are the most in Miami Marlins franchise history. Jorge De La Rosa’s 86 wins are the most in Colorado Rockies franchise history. Both teams joined the National League in 1993.

Fergie Jenkins went 162-97 with a 3.34 ERA in home games. He went 122-129 with a 3.33 ERA in road games.

Frank Tanana was a third-team selection on Michigan’s 1970 high-school all-state basketball team. The former big-league left-hander was joined on the list by, among others, erstwhile NBA All-Stars George Gervin and Campy Russell. Tanana played at Detroit Catholic Central.

In 1929, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lefty O’Doul hit 32 home runs, drew 76 walks, and struck out 19 times. In 1930, O’Doul hit 22 home runs, drew 63 walks, and struck out 21 times. His slash line over those two season was .391/.460/.614. In October 1930, the Phillies traded O’Doul to the Brooklyn Robins.

Brooklyn Robins right-hander Dazzy Vance led the National League in strikeouts in 1924, with 262. His teammate, Burleigh Grimes, finished second in the circuit with 135. Vance led the NL in Ks each year from 1922-1928.

Players born on this date include Ferris Fain, a first baseman for four different teams from 1947-1955. A five-time All-Star, Fain won back-to-back batting titles with the Philadelphia A’s in 1951 and 1952.

On March 30, 1992, the Chicago Cubs acquired Sammy Sosa and Ken Patterson from the Chicago White Sox in exchange for George Bell.

Squire Potter pitched in one game for the Washington Senators in 1923. His brother, Maryland Dykes Potter, pitched in two games for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1938.

The Cincinnati Kelly’s Killers finished in seventh place in the American Association, in 1891. King Kelly was the club’s catcher and manager.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Zach Davies Plans to Rely Less on Changeups by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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For those wondering about why Lefty O’Doul was 32 when he hit .398 in his 1st full big league season in 1929, here is his SABR Bio –
https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/b820a06c

Quite an amazing life in baseball.