February 3, 2023

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How Davies, other starters are trying to be unpredictable

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PITTSBURGH — Under new pitching coach Brent Strom, one of the most revered “pitching whisperers” in the game, the D-backs have tried to find ways to stay unpredictable as they try to rebound from an unsightly 4.20 team ERA in 2021.

Zach Davies, an experienced offseason acquisition, made a big step in continuing that theme of doing the unexpected in his start Saturday afternoon at PNC Park, and in the process, he had his best start of the season despite the D-backs being handed a 2-1 loss in walk-off fashion by the Pirates.

Davies went 7 2/3 scoreless innings, marking his longest start since an eight-inning turn on Aug. 22, 2020, and his longest scoreless outing since July 25, 2017, when he also pitched 7 2/3 blank frames vs. the Nationals.

Between the second inning and the eighth inning, Davies retired 18 batters in a row. Those were also the only two innings in which the Pirates put runners in scoring position against him. He calmly wiggled out of the first challenge with a groundout, but the second ended his day, as he loaded the bases with two outs on two walks and a single.

After, the offense could only muster one run on a wild pitch in support.

Mark Melancon allowed a two-run blast to Jack Suwinski to cap a tough-luck loss.

“It was a great ballgame,” Davies said. “That’s what’s great about baseball, is you can win those games or you can lose those games. Just being able to get deep in the ballgame and give the team a chance, that was my goal.”

Though Davies’ primary pitches didn’t change — he used his changeup and sinker for a combined 75% of his offerings — those watching closely might have noticed a new third pitch. It’s a new breaking ball that Strom introduced to Davies, one which he said has helped pitchers including Corey Kluber, Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh.

“I think sometimes we can become too predictable, especially [the] third time around the order,” Strom said. “When you’re a two-pitch or two-and-a-half-pitch mix like Davies is, I think a third pitch that he can throw for strikes would help him get over the hump a little bit.”

Davies used it several times, including in an at-bat to punctuate the three-strikeout third against leadoff hitter Ke’Bryan Hayes, a right-handed batter. Those are the types of players Davies wants to attack with this pitch instead of going back to his changeup.

“It’s something that I want to develop myself — something that moves to that side of the plate because I’m typically such an arm-side pitcher,” Davies said. “So definitely anything that can help, I’ll use it to my advantage.”

As he grows more comfortable with it, using it in tough spots will be a big test. Saturday’s eighth-inning jam was a bit of a unique situation, with four lefties pitted against Davies. But going forward, Strom wants Davies and other pitchers experimenting with new tricks to be fearless.

“I’d like to see it brought more to the forefront, but when pitchers get in jams, they usually default back to what they’ve done in the past,” Strom said. “And for us, I think, to be successful, we need to do things a bit differently.”

The new mentality Strom has brought to the club this season has led to a breakthrough for many of its starters. Madison Bumgarner, who moved from one side of the pitching rubber to the other to keep his pitches’ trajectories toward the strike zone longer, has a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts, which is his best mark since 2018. Zac Gallen incurred a lone six-run blemish against the Royals on May 24; outside of that start, he’s had Cy Young-caliber numbers. Strom said that five-pitch starter Merrill Kelly (3.66 ERA) reverse-tipped pitches against the Dodgers to fool them a few times on May 28.

Davies has been on a bit of a roller coaster of results this season, but his 4.28 xERA entering the game is his lowest since 2016, pointing to him getting the kind of weaker contact he wants. With this new tool Strom introduced, perhaps Davies will more consistently join in on the pitching renaissance happening for Arizona.

“He’s the architect of what’s going on here,” manager Torey Lovullo said of Strom. “For Zach to trust him and go out and execute basically his third pitch that he’s just learning how to throw effectively … speaks volumes about what our pitching staff is able to do and the trust they have in Strommy. It was a great adjustment, and that’s what this game is all about.”

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