Marco Estrada proved to be a divisive figure amongst fans while on the Milwaukee Brewers. He posted quality numbers in 2012 and 2013 before getting shouted out of town following his disappointing 2014 campaign. His underlying strikeout-to-walk ratios and swing-and-miss rates always endeared himself to some, while others couldn’t stomach his penchant for the long ball, as shown by his career 1.36 HR/9.
He was always walking a tightrope with the Brewers. When he avoided unnecessary baserunners via the walk, the right-hander could withstand the one-to-two homers per game without too much damage. In 2014, though, his command wavered during prolonged stretches — with a walk rate above the league’s average in three of the six months — which made his expected home-run binge even more harmful. That’s a rather simplistic analysis of what occurred during the year that saw him compile a 4.36 ERA and lose his spot in the starting rotation, but for our purposes, it suffices to say that Estrada couldn’t be off his game much and remain effective.
A year later, Estrada anchored the Toronto Blue Jays’ rotation with a 3.13 ERA and was a key cog in their postseason berth. Many Brewers fans cringed, lamenting their poor luck and wondering why he wasn’t able to do the same for a Milwaukee club that collapsed over the last two months of the 2014 season. I wrote about the 32-year-old’s success with Toronto. Too many people pointed to his .216 BABIP and ignored how he was able to accomplish this. Namely, he made opposing hitters miss within the zone and make poor contact on pitches outside the strike zone. It’s a recipe for poor contact, low batting averages, and a low BABIP. Perhaps not that low, but that’s not exactly the point. With reasonable regression his 2015 numbers, Estrada is still a quality Major League starter with an ERA in the mid- to high-threes — exactly what he did with Milwaukee in 2012 and 2013.
But, again, it’s important to acknowledge that pitchers like Marco Estrada, guys with underwhelming fastballs and an inability to get away with mistakes, have immense downsides. When their command disappears, they’ll get hammered and they become unworkable at the big-league level. Mike Fiers is much the same kind of pitcher, as we saw in 2013.
The Brewers now have another six-foot pitcher with a fastball that struggles to break 90 mph and intriguing peripheral numbers: Zach Davies.
The analytics department reportedly had a strong role in picking up Davies in the Gerardo Parra deal last summer. They liked his strikeout-to-walk ratios over the past couple of years with the Baltimore Orioles. In 2014 he struck out 23.4 percent of the batters he faced in Double-A, while only walking 6.9 percent and posting a 3.35 ERA. The following season, prior to the trade, the right-hander had a 19.3 percent strikeout rate in Triple-A and only walked 7.9 percent, helping him earn an impressive 2.84 ERA and 3.08 FIP.
Detractors point to his fastball that only averaged 89.33 mph with the Brewers, as well as his slight frame. Neither of those are desirable for a starting pitcher. It means he walks a fine line. His command has to be above-average early in the count; otherwise, Davies cannot get to his trademark changeup that caused opposing hitters to swing-and-miss 28 percent of the time in 2015. It’s a profile that lulls people into complacency when it’s working, but it’s important to recognize that he’s always a step or two away from being blasted — which is something that happened in Triple-A Colorado Springs (even if the harsh environment alleviates some of the concern).
A lot of that sounds like Marco Estrada. Davies is someone who relies on a plus changeup to retire Major League hitters, and when he can do so, he’s able to compile respectable-enough numbers to be a back-end starter. For example, the 22-year-old had a 3.71 ERA and 3.81 FIP in his big-league cameo last year. The Brewers would pay good money on the free-agent market to acquire a pitcher like that, especially if it comes with 175-plus innings. That’s a bona fide number-four starter on a competitive club.
Zach Davies is much like Estrada in another important way, though. His most-important skill may be his ability to miss bats within the strike zone. It’s something that Estrada did in 2015, as shown by his 82.8 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, which ranked seventh-best in Major League Baseball among qualified starters. It was better than Matt Harvey, Chris Archer, and Jake deGrom. In fact, as mentioned above, I argued in October that it was an integral reason for his success.
Through his six Major League starts, Davies posted an 82.4 percent contact rate on pitches in the strike zone. It’s a small-sample size, to be sure, but plate discipline rates are numbers that stabilize much more quickly than others. At the very least, it isolates one of the reasons why he was able to generate swings-and-misses 10 percent of the time despite a mere 26.9 percent whiff rate at pitches outside the strike zone. Missing bats within the strike zone is how Davies can work to avoid walks, while not nibbling at the zone. And all of this is a result of his excellent changeup.
I’m interested in how sustainable this type of approach can be for the former 26th-round draft pick. It may turn out that Major League hitters will figure him out during his second or third time through the league, proving that he’s walking too close to the proverbial volcano. He doesn’t have the raw stuff to consistently retire big leaguers without guile and keeping hitters off-balance. It’s all about pitch sequencing and command for Davies. If either of those falter in 2016, he’ll likely get demolished and return to Triple-A Colorado Springs for “further seasoning.”
What gives me pause is Davies’ 57.6 percent ground-ball rate in 2015. That’s obviously great, but it doesn’t really fit a fastball-changeup combination too well. For example, Marco Estrada has a career 34.9 percent ground-ball rate. The two pitchers with the highest changeup rates in the league last season, Jake Odorizzi and John Danks, have ground-ball rates of 33.4 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively. Because of this, they struggle with home runs. If Davies can somehow avoid this pitfall and keep the baseball on the dirt more often than not, it will dramatically improve his chances of sticking in a Major League rotation and being successful for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2016.
Zach Davies currently has his foot in the door for a back-end rotation spot next year. He profiles much in the same way Marco Estrada did for the Brew Crew a couple years ago. The latter proved that it can be a really tricky profile to make work in a consistent basis. But it clearly can work over 100-plus innings. That will be the goal for Davies in 2016 — to prove that he has the command and smarts necessary to get by without premium stuff. The underlying numbers illustrate that he uses his repertoire much like Estrada, aside from the extreme ground-ball rate that he displayed in a brief 34 innings.
At the league minimum, it’s a worthwhile gamble for the Brewers, though, as shown by Estrada’s five-year Major League career, some of those years being quite valuable. It’s a volatile pitching profile, one that will likely draw the ire of many fans if he suffers through a significant rough patch where the home runs flow freely. That’s an image that fans do not easily forget. Davies’ predecessor in Milwaukee is clear evidence of that fact.