Zach Davies Continues To Change Things Up

When the Padres added Mike Clevinger to their starting rotation, they were bolstering what was already a team strength. San Diego’s rotation had cumulatively put up the fourth-best FIP in baseball through the end of August, and that mark has improved from 3.92 to 3.64 in just a few weeks’ time. Their rotation is now the second-best in baseball by FIP and fourth-best by ERA. Dinelson Lamet has led the way with his 2.12 ERA and 2.70 FIP, but their second-best starter might not be who you expect. It’s not last year’s phenom Chris Paddack (4.74 ERA/4.66 FIP) nor is it the finally healthy Garrett Richards (4.27/4.28). It is Zach Davies and his 2.69 ERA and 3.68 FIP.

Acquired from the Brewers in November in the same trade that netted them Trent Grisham, a budding superstar in his own right, Davies has been a surprising source of quality innings for the Padres. A command artist armed with a diving changeup and an 88-mph sinker, he put together a solid-if-unspectacular career in Milwaukee over 600 innings. Despite well-below-average fastball velocity, he’s managed to succeed with a pitch-to-contact mentality by avoiding hard contact.

In late March, Davies discussed his pitch mix in an interview with David Laurila, titled, “Zach Davies Plans to Rely Less on Changeups.” Here’s how he explained it:

“I was getting guys out in any way possible. 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 the 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.”

Davies threw his changeup 31.3% of the time last year, more than twice as often as he had in 2018 and good for the highest rate of his career. After struggling with his health the year before, he lost the feel for his curveball last year and leaned on his fastball-changeup combo to great effect. He posted the lowest ERA of his career, even though it was a little more than a full run lower than his FIP.

Laurila went on to ask Davies about how he wanted to get back to a diversified pitch mix:

“It’s really just going into games with the desire to throw different pitches. 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.”

We’re now 10 starts into his Padres career and his pitch mix looks like the exact opposite of what he mentioned working on earlier in the year. It’s actually a more extreme version of his pitch mix from 2019:

Davies is now throwing his sinker and changeup at nearly the same rate while increasing his cutter usage slightly. The result has been an eight-point increase in his strikeout rate, up to 23.3%, easily the highest of his career. He’s also posted personal bests in ERA and FIP while accumulating 1.4 WAR in a little over 60 innings.

Even though his comments in the spring didn’t appear to work themselves out as he indicated, they do show a willingness to continue honing his craft. His changeup has always been a good pitch for him but he’s just never thrown it all that much. It’s clear that someone on the Padres coaching staff recognized the value of that pitch and encouraged him to lean into it rather than fall back on a more diverse pitch mix.

Coming in at just under 80 mph on average, his change has become a deadly weapon that has formed the foundation of his reimagined repertoire. The 8 mph velocity differential off his 88 mph sinker sits in the 75th percentile for changeups thrown at least 50 times this year. Additionally, its low spin rate helps it dive off the table, giving him excellent vertical movement that sits in the 83rd percentile. With those two qualities, he’s able to generate plenty of whiffs with the pitch. Opposing batters are missing 35.8% of the time they offer at it, a top-20 whiff rate for a changeup this year.

Throwing his best pitch more often has definitely helped him improve his overall strikeout rate. But that improvement isn’t just related to how much he’s throwing it, it’s also tied to how he’s using it. Rather than simply utilizing it as a straight change-of-pace pitch, he’s turning to his changeup as an out pitch more often this year. You can see the difference in these count charts broken down by pitch type from 2019 and 2020.

In two-strike counts, Davies has increased the usage of his changeup from 34.3% to 55.9%. He’s even shown a willingness to get creative with his sequencing. In years past, he’d often play the changeup off his other pitches, using its deception to drive its effectiveness. But as we’ve seen, the pitch itself is good enough to stand on its own, and he hasn’t been afraid to double or triple up on the changeup to earn swinging strikes. For example, in this at-bat from his last start against the Dodgers, Davies throws three straight changeups to Joc Pederson after falling behind 1-0 with a first-pitch sinker.

All three of the changeups are perfectly located at the bottom of the zone, and Pederson can’t help but swing or risk taking a called strike.

Changing his pitch mix has affected his batted ball profile a bit. His groundball rate dropped to a career-low 40.1% last year and it has fallen a point further in 2020. But despite allowing a little more contact in the air, he’s continued to hold his hard hit rate steady, helping him avoid damage when batters get under his pitches. And even though batters aren’t pounding the ball into the ground as often, his infield fly ball rate has climbed to 9.5%, matching a career high. Nearly all of that increase is due to his cutter inducing popups a staggering 22.2% of the time a batter puts it in play.

Davies has thrived in his first season in Southern California. He’s continued to stymie batters with a combination of pinpoint command and barrel-avoiding movement on all his pitches. But by increasing the usage of his changeup and utilizing it as a true out pitch, he’s managed to add more strikeouts to his repertoire. With their eyes on a deep postseason run, the Padres will need a deep rotation to make it through the first three rounds of the playoffs — especially now that there are no mid-series off-days scheduled. The good news is that the growth and adjustments Davies has made as a member of the club have turned him into a key cog in one of the best pitching staffs in the National League.

All stats are through games played on September 16.





Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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Lathund
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Lathund

He is getting more whiffs than before, but it’s also interesting to see that he’s getting a career-low BABIP despite allowing more barrels than ever before. Not that the Statcast x-stats are infallilble by any means, but they don’t buy his performance so far. Career high .351 xwOBA vs actual .259. But then again, his previous high in xwOBA was last year, when he also put up his career-best ERA so who knows really. That being said, I really don’t buy him as the 2.70 ERA guy he is now. Few enough starts remaining that his statline will look good either way though.

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

Yeah, he is sort of like the pitching equivalent of Tim Anderson in this way. The underlying stats aren’t crazy about him and suggest he’s doing better than he should be, but between last year and this year, he’s outperformed those projections for long enough (while actually getting better), that you have to start wondering whether it’s real and the underlying stats are missing something that makes him better in practice than he looks on paper.

JMSolberg
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JMSolberg

He really looks like he’s learned something out there.