Let’s Talk About New Cubs Starter Zach Davies For a Change
Nobody wanted to hear about new Cubs pitcher Zach Davies in the wake of the disappointing Yu Darvish trade, and for good reason. But enough time has passed that reality has fully set in, so it’s time to talk about the most visible aspect of Jed Hoyer’s first swap as the man in charge of the Cubs.
Fans have seen Davies enough times the last several years that few still accidentally mistake him for former Royals starter Kyle Davies, who last pitched in Major League Baseball in 2015. The former Brewer has faced the Cubs 19 times in his career – his most frequent opponent – and has a 3.61 ERA in 107.1 innings. Davies has started nine times at Wrigley Field, posting a 3.70 ERA in 48.2 innings.
His stuff should also be familiar, whether it’s from seeing him so often or recalling that he’s like Kyle Hendricks Lite. Davies tops out at 88-89 mph and he used to throw a four-seam fastball before ditching it completely in favor of a combination of sinkers, cutters, changeups, and breaking pitches. His changeup is undoubtedly his best pitch, according to the stats collected at Brooks Baseball.
This is notable since he has thrown his change much more frequently since the start of the 2019 season. Here’s another fun chart!
Okay, that’s enough charts.
Davies primarily throws a sinker/change combo and ramping up his usage of the latter as his primary out-pitch helped boost his strikeout rate. Even considering the small sample of just 12 starts in 2020, his 8.18 K/9 and 22.8% K-rate were much higher than in any previous season.
Back to that earlier comparison, Hendricks typically throws his changeup about 27% of the time and has a 20.8% career whiff rate. Davies boasts an extremely similar 19.9% rate for his career, meaning the Cubs now have two of the best changeups in the major leagues in their starting rotation. Since 2015, both pitchers are in the top 10 in MLB in terms of runs saved via the changeup and in the top 15 when looking at per-pitch value.
Matthew Trueblood, a frequent villain of Cubs Twitter, wrote for Baseball Prospectus back in 2019 about the coming renaissance in changeup usage.
As pitchers engineer their four-seamers to rise more, they’re honing their spin axes to decrease horizontal run. Between that and the proliferation of sliders, the league’s movement patterns favor the glove side more than ever. Though most sinkers never fooled batters effectively enough to consistently induce swings and misses, they were valuable insofar as they gave most pitchers who used them an offering that moved away from opposite-handed batters (or in on same-handed ones) and that they could command consistently to that side of home plate.
In that way, changeups are the natural replacement for sinkers. They also move to the arm side, but obviously they tend to drop more than sinkers do, relative to four-seam fastballs — and they almost universally have a greater velocity differential off the fastball than do sinkers. They’re sinker-like in terms of the things they open up for pitchers who utilize them, but they have much greater potential to miss bats than sinkers have.
Is it possible that pitchers who rely heavily on change-ups are a new market inefficiency the Cubs are attempting to exploit? It could explain why they’ve acquired Davies to pair with Hendricks and Alec Mills, who is the only other regular starter currently penciled into the rotation. It’s worth pointing out that while Mills doesn’t have the career track record of Hendricks or Davies, he does have a 21% whiff rate on his changeup in nearly 120 innings as a big leaguer.
Rather than being pioneers of a new revolution, it’s more likely the Cubs have just identified and properly valued pitchers, like Davies and Mills, who would rather lose a few ticks on their hard pitches in exchange for more movement. With Davies in particular, that means looking at his splits to see whether his overall performance may actually be better than some numbers indicate.
Davies has a career 4.52 ERA in his home ballpark, which is a bit odd given that pitchers typically perform better at home. These sub-par numbers are heavily related to his 4.65 ERA in 61 starts at Miller Park, which ranks among the most hitter-friendly MLB ballparks. And while it doesn’t necessarily mean moving to the North Side of Chicago will be an automatic boost, Davies does boast a 2.95 ERA in 351 career innings pitched outside of ballparks with a big, yellow slide in the outfield.
He’s also got a career 3.70 ERA at Wrigley Field, where his nine starts and 48.2 innings are the most he’s thrown at any ballpark he’s not called home. And as easy as it’s become to get down on the Cubs and their recent offensive performance, let’s not forget Davies was facing some pretty stout lineups from 2015-19.
All of that is to say that the Cubs may have something with Davies, whose penchant for groundballs could make him a perfect fit for the strong defensive team that is projected to line up behind him. Assuming there are no more jarring trades in the immediate future, that is. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Davies get off to a great start in 2021, thanks to cold days with the wind blowing in at Wrigley.
How well the Cubs are doing as a team might determine whether Davies makes it to the end of the season in blue pinstripes. Despite the unshakable feeling that he’s been consistently soft-tossing gems against the Cubs for a decade, he will be just 28 years old this season and is in his final year of arbitration. As a pending free agent on a team that claims to have no money available, Davies may serve the Cubs better as another team’s trade-deadline acquisition.
But that’s looking ahead speculatively, and with the assumption that the Cubs will find themselves out of NL Central contention in July. Even after the Darvish trade and with everything else we know about Hoyer’s plan, which isn’t much, it’s easy to see how a strong performance from Davies could be one factor that keeps the Cubs in the playoff chase in baseball’s weakest division.