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Fire & Ice: Zach Davies & Joey Votto

We’re creeping towards the end of May, fully through the first quarter of the season. No standings are set in stone just yet, but it’s time we make some important roster decisions. Some of the stars we drafted haven’t been cutting the proverbial mustard, and you know me, I prefer my mustard cut. We’ll dig into one such star in Joey Votto, but first, let’s catch fire in the form of Zach Davies.

On a side note, I’m putting this together on the day Game of Thrones airs its finale. The title of this series, Fire & Ice, is a nod to the show, which is my favorite of all time. I’m very sad to see it go, but this series won’t stop! If you are also a fan of the show, I’m always up for a conversation about it on Twitter.

Fire – Zach Davies

Zach “Definitely Not Zack” Davies has been a real surprise so far. Through his first nine starts, Davies has a stellar 1.54 ERA and a 5-0 record for the Brew Crew. Last week we discussed his fellow rotation-mate Brandon Woodruff. Davies hasn’t enjoyed a strikeout rate spike like Woody but has the best ERA among qualified starters. If you’ve been starting him to this point, you’re sitting pretty. Are we to expect this dominance to continue?

His mediocre strikeout rate is actually down from 2018, dropping from 6.88 K/9 to 6.15. The walk rate remains relatively unchanged, 2.86 BB/9 in 2018 compared to 2.73 this year. With no major steps forward in those main categories, what is fueling his massive ERA drop? He gave us a woeful 4.77 ERA over 13 starts last season with a 4.52 SIERA, after all.

Zach Davies Pitch Mix Chart

If we look at his pitch deployment, we can see some real changes. He has all but dropped the curve and cutter in exchange for more than twice as many changeups. The change has always been his bread-and-butter, which has totally been cutting the mustard. That sentence makes sense, right? I’m hungry. The changeup has a 19.5% whiff rate with 27.9% usage this year, which is tremendous. It’s yielding a .259 wOBA with a .263 xwOBA, so his results with it have been well deserved. Perhaps there isn’t as much regression coming for his .271 BABIP as you might think.

Where the regression is most likely going to come from is the home run rate. Pitching in Miller Park is tough. Davies has an HR/FB rate between 12%-13.1% in each of the past three seasons. Through his first 52.2 innings in 2019, he’s allowed a mere 7.4% HR/FB. League-wide HR/FB% has jumped from 12.7% in 2018 to 14.4%. Davies is currently rocking the lowest GB% of his career at 44.4%, so he’s been living on the razor’s edge with his fly balls.

Zach Davies, as I mentioned, has the best ERA among qualified starters. His SIERA, at 4.87, is 10th-worst. That is a crazy, Mariana Trench sized divide. The SIERA bakes in his batted ball data, which screams regression, particularly in the home run department. Considering his awful strikeout rate, which is 7th-lowest among qualified starters, his floor is very low when those homers come. If he can continue to keep the walks down, perhaps the homers don’t totally destroy his deep league value when those regression chickens come home to roost. I’d continue to ride the streak while he’s pitching well, but don’t expect a standard mixed league star all season.

Ice – Joey Votto

I play primarily in OBP formats. The ability to lay off bad pitches and draw walks is a skill in my book, and I want a stat that encompasses that. Of course, when you think in terms of OBP studs, what is the first name that comes to mind? If it isn’t Joey Votto, you’re weird. Votto has a career .424 OBP, even walking over 20% of the time back in 2015. 2018 was clearly a bad season though, homering just 12 times in 145 games. Yours truly was banking on a bit of a bounce-back, snapping him up at a very fair price in a couple of mixed OBP leagues. To this point, just like drinking milk on a hot day, that was a bad choice.

Joey Votto is batting .208/.323/.340 over his first 186 plate appearances with four home runs. While he’s still walking at a 12.9% clip, that isn’t what you paid for. When you invest in Votto, you expect him to carry your team in OBP. Not only has the walk rate dropped 4.4%, but the strikeout rate has also jumped a shocking 8% since 2018.

Joey Votto K BB wOBA Chart

That is just about the ugliest thing I have ever seen. Behind those numbers is a drop in contact, particularly on pitches out of the zone, and a jump in swinging strike rate.

Joey Votto Plate Discipline Chart

Father Time remains undefeated, and as Joey Votto approaches age 36, this really looks like the grand decline. His modest OBP has allowed him to score 22 times, but through 44 games he has just eight RBI. It’s pretty hard to drive in runs with a walk. There are some small rays of optimism, though. His .266 BABIP is undeservedly low and his .319 xwOBA compared to his current .298 wOBA does give us a little hope. Of course, when your expected stats point towards just a league-average hitter, that doesn’t give you the warm and fuzzies. Chris Mitchell touched on Votto in this week’s Start/Sit Decisions, recommending you sit him. I can’t say I disagree. Furthermore, you can probably find a better first baseman in standard mixed leagues. Don’t be afraid to cut ties with Joey Votto.

Nathan Dokken is a member of the FSWA and has had his work featured in numerous books and magazines. He has also appeared on many podcasts and radio shows and hosts the Nasty Cast and Fantrax Dynasty Baseball podcasts. His written work can be found exclusively at Fantrax HQ, and his personal thoughts and opinions can be found on Twitter @NathanDokken.

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