Zach Davies Commands Contact

The Milwaukee Brewers have been a very entertaining team in 2017. Their early dominance of the NL Central over the struggling Cubs predictably came to an end after the Cubs decided to stop being bad and to start winning baseball games again. Now, thanks to some struggles, along with the surge of the Rockies and Diamondbacks, the Brewers are on the outside looking in during the playoff race. However, that doesn’t mean that the Brewers don’t have an interesting group of solid young pitching and an intriguing offensive core. Among all of these players, Zach Davies may be one of the most interesting. Davies was never a highly-touted prospect; he always lingered near the bottom of organizational top-10 lists during his time with the Baltimore Orioles and Milwaukee Brewers. In 2016, Baseball Prospectus had him ranked 8th in the Brewers system with a 45 FV, projecting him as a back-end starter with above-average command.

This year, Davies has sported a 4.38 xFIP and a 15.9 K%, which certainly profiles like a 4th starter’s stat line. However, Davies ranks in a tie for 27th (min. 100 IP) for WAR with 3.0 on the season up until September 16th, which definitely isn’t something to expect from a back-end starter. When you look at Davies’ numbers, you have to wonder how he has manged to succeed with such a low K rate and an inflated xFIP.  Even going back to last year, Davies had a higher K rate at 19.8%, along with a 3.94 xFIP in 163.1 innings, and posted a 2.7 WAR. These stat lines look fairly similar, except for the the fact that he reduced his K rate in 2017. What else changed that has allowed him to succeed with this decreased strikeout rate? One thing Davies has changed in 2017 is his HR rate, which decreased from 1.10 in 2016 to 0.87 in 2017. So, in essence, Davies traded strikeouts for home runs. How did he manage to do that?

Let’s revisit that scouting report from 2016, with an emphasis on the 55 FV for Davies’ command. In that same report, it’s said that he had battled control problems during his time in the Brewers system. Now, there has always been a little bit of confusion as to what exactly the difference is between command and control, but Baseball Prospectus did a great job of dissecting this issue. Basically, control is the ability to throw the ball in the strike zone, while command is the ability to throw the ball in precise locations in or out of the strike zone. Below is a very handy diagram from the aforementioned article.

In this same article, two new stats are introduced that help attempt to quantify command and control: CSAA (called strikes above average) and CSProb (called strike probability). While these stats were originally created to show how well a catcher frames pitches, they can also tell you a lot about a pitcher. CSAA attempts to quantify how many strikes a pitcher creates for his team solely on taken pitches, and quantifies command. For example, having a CSAA of 3.0% means that there is 3 percent better chance that pitcher’s pitches will be called a strike than your average pitcher. CSProb quantifies how likely a certain pitch is to be called a strike, and highlights control. If you have a 50% CSProb, then there is a 50% chance a pitch you throw will be called a strike. As it turns out, the 2016 scouting report on Davies was correct; he ranks at the top of the leaderboard in CSAA and is near the bottom in CSProb. In 2017, Davies ranks 6th among qualified pitchers in CSAA at 2.83%, and he has a CSProb of 43.8%.

Davies has always been good at working the corners with a low 90’s to high 80’s fastball that has a lot of heavy run/sink to it. Usually, pitchers like this have to ensure that they can nibble at the corners of the plate so that their “slow” fastballs don’t get completely crushed by the power hitters of the league (which are apparently Elvis Andrus and Didi Gregorius now). Davies does just that, as shown in his zone heat map from Brooks Baseball below. He stays low in the zone to the majority of batters and does a good job of working both sides of the plate.

A pitcher who lives on the corners like this usually tends to draw poor contact, and that’s exactly what Davies does, in whatever way you want to to quantify it. He is one of the better pitchers in a multitude of categories, as he ranks near the top in Baseball Savant’s barrels per plate appearance stat at 2.9, has one of the lowest average exit velocities at 85.0 mph, and only 28.3% of contact against him is classified as hard hit by FanGraphs. It seems like Davies has the ability to use his pitches to work the corners and manipulate contact in his favor, which explains how he started allowing fewer home runs in 2017.

You can see this in his numbers, like stated before, where he has worked to his strengths and traded strikeouts for weak contact. This is also supported by his ability to command the ball, and his 2.83% CSAA. Put both of these qualities together, and you get a pitcher who not only limits good contact but also excels in getting called strikes more often than the average pitcher. These qualities can also help show why Davies has an inflated xFIP. Davies’ contact rate has gone up 2.5% from 2016 to 2017, and since xFIP relies a lot on batted-ball events, it can help explain why his is fairly high despite his 3.0 WAR. Davies has shown that he has the ability to adapt to major-league hitting by identifying that he can be successful in limiting good contact while at the same time allowing more of it and striking fewer batters out. If he can keep it up, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t be a mainstay in the Brewers rotation for a long time.

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Scientist by trade. Annual hopeful/idiotic Twins fan. Writing as a new hobby.

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