A veteran scout once described baseball to me as a “big man’s game.” When you spend some time in clubhouses, particularly around starting pitchers, that certainly seems to be an indisputable fact. Many starters are beginning to resemble tight ends or wing types in basketball.
But there are always exceptions. There are always outliers. And those cases are particularly interesting, at least to this author, because they represent instances in which a player has weathered whatever selection bias exists and found his own path to the pinnacle of the sport.
Zach Davies is an outlier.
He’s the kind of player of whom security guards ask to see ID at the entrance of away stadiums. His listed weight is 40 pounds lighter (155 pounds) than the average U.S. adult man’s (195 pounds), and that mass is spread thin over his six-foot frame. When searching for a scout’s ideal right-handed pitcher body type — a matter that Baseball America explored in 2015 — you will not find any Davies comps.
Yet, here he is, helping the Brewers remain competitive in the NL Central race into mid-September.
Here is Davies ranked 22nd in WAR (3.0) among qualified pitchers and occupying a spot closer to the front of the Milwaukee rotation following Jimmy Nelson’s injury. Despite his lithe body, Davies has a chance to reach 200 innings in an age when the elbows of more massive pitchers continue to break down. How did he arrive here, a well above-average pitcher both by new-age and traditional measures this season (17-8, 3.26 ERA/4.06FIP) and for his career (31-17, 3.81/3.96)?
“I think it just comes down to the other side of the game that not a lot of people pay attention to,” Davies said. “The thinking part of the game. Guys that don’t have the big velo, that don’t have the wipeout pitches, they have to rely on video. They have to rely upon smaller details about their game that can give them an edge. I think that’s what I’ve done my entire career, my entire life. I’ve been the same type of player since I was a kid.”
The 24-year-old was raised in the showcase, year-round era of sports specialization, which may not provide net benefit for Major League Baseball. There are indications, for example, that it could be a contributing factor to the pitching-injury epidemic, that it prices some athletes out of the sport. But it’s perhaps also why so many young players have performed so well, so early in their careers.
And it’s on the showcase circuit where physical projection and radar-gun readings often determine a prospect’s fortunes in the draft. Davies was drafted in the 26th round out of Mesquite High (Arz.) by the Orioles in 2011 and traded on July 31, 2015, for Gerardo Parra. Of the 21 pitchers who have produced more WAR value than Davies this year, he has the most modest prospect pedigree.
But in two-plus years of major league baseball, he’s produced 6.1 WAR.
He throws 90 mph in an era during which the major-league fastball averages 93 mph. He has a modest 9.1-point K-BB% mark this season, 11.1 points for his career. But he keeps getting major-league hitters out and defying odds. What is his secret?
Davies shares some similarities with expert nibblers like Zack Greinke and Dallas Keuchel. Davies ranks seventh among qualified starters in fewest percent of pitches within the boundaries of the PITCHf/x strike zone (42%), yet he’s maintained an out-of-zone swing rate of 30.1%, which ranks 48th best among qualified starters.
To consider this visually, consider where Davies ranks in relation to qualified starters in zone percentage and walk rate:
And consider a scatter plot that depicts Davies’ ranks in relation to qualified starters by zone percentage and two-seam fastball velocity:
It takes guile and guts — and execution — to live on the outskirts of the strike zone with that kind of stuff. Davies is often walking a fine line. It works for some, not for others. (Note Wade Miley as the NotGraphs Purple data point.)
Among the 230 pitchers to have thrown 1,000 pitches this season, Davies ranks 41st in percent of pitches to have found that 50-50 edge of the strike zone (40.3%), according to Baseball Savant’s “detailed” zone data.
He’s been able to stay out of the heart of the zone, and he’s gotten enough batters to chase out of the zone — if not to miss a pitch, then make weak contact. He also has a four-pitch mix to keep hitters guessing.
“Pitchability for me is to be able to throw every pitch in any count,” Davies said. “Throw a 3-0 changeup or a 3-2 changeup or a 2-0 curveball. Kind of mix everything in in every count.”
While Davies relies upon his 90-mph sinker in most counts, he is not without stuff. His curveball, for example, ranks among the top 30 in both horizontal and vertical movement this season, according to Baseball Prospectus PITCHf/x leaderboards. It’s a pitch, along with his cutter, upon which he has increasingly relied.
So could more pitchers be like Davies? Is baseball writing off too many players with a similar lack of size and velocity?
In his experience, Davies has seen too many amateur and pro players try to transform themselves into something they’re not, seeking size and velocity while losing feel for the craft. Davies knows he’s an outlier, but he doesn’t think he should be this extreme of an outlier.
“I think if guys stick to what they know and stick to what they’ve been successful with, you could see that more,” said Davies of his body type and skill set in the game. “But I think that part of the game is ingrained in everyone’s mind, and guys that throw like me — 90 mph — they want to try to throw it 94.
“They are going to try and bulk up as much as they can. But are they going to lose that command and sharpness of stuff?”
Davies would like to add weight, though he has had trouble making that happen. He notes his dad was a similar weight when he graduated high school. Davies has tried meal plans in the offseason but he chooses not force-feed himself in season.
“I don’t want to try and stuff myself and make myself feel bad during the season,” Davies said.
“My goal is, if I get a little bigger, I will throw with the same effort just a little more velo.”
He attributes his durability to “flexibility” and being “wiry strong.” He has demonstrated no loss of strength or stuff as the season roles into September. He said he prefers pitching on a five-day turn to the idea of occasionally getting extra rest. And he feels like landing with Milwaukee might have been important for his career.
“They let you play how you play,” Davies said. “That’s a great thing.”
And perhaps that is one reason — Davies being another — that the Brewers are still, improbably, in the postseason picture.