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Arizona fixes its Zach Davies problem

If the D-backs make the post-season, it will be despite, rather than because of, Davies.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When Arizona signed Zach Davies in January, there was not much question about the SnakePit editorial position on the matter. As the poll on the article shows, fan opinion was largely meh, with a slight skewing below that (26% went below, compared to 21% above). Agree or not, you could see the purpose behind it, the team not wanting to be over-reliant on rookie starting pitchers. Davies had been reasonable enough the previous season, making 27 starts with an ERA+ basically at league average (98). The price will end up being $6.15 million: a $4.7 million base salary, $950K in incentives for making 10 + 15 starts, and a $500K buyout, since next year’s $5.5 million option will not be exercised.

But any positive sentiment quickly soured on Davies, as from the get-go, his production was indeed, “meh” at best. After two starts and a 5.79 ERA, he went on the injured list with a strain of his oblique, and missed 43 games as a result. When he returned, the ineffectiveness only escalated. Bad start followed bad start, and after his outing on June 23, Davies’s season ERA had ballooned to 7.82 over eight appearances. It was during that game I tweeted the following. It became one of the SnakePit’s most-liked posts of the season, although the general reaction to it was something along the lines of, “What took you so long?”

Davies rebounded with seven scoreless innings his next time out, in what was easily his best outing of the year. But that proved to be the exception, rather than the rule. Another injured list spell followed, this time with a lower back problem - though at least these saved the team money, by ensuring he couldn’t max out the possible $3 million in incentives. 35 more games were missed, and a couple of decent outings followed on his return in late August. But normal service was quickly resumed. Over his last four starts, Davies threw a total of only 14 innings, Torey Lovullo moving into quick hook mode. Zach allowed 15 earned runs there, opponents hitting .359 off him over that time.

Today, the D-backs finally joined the SnakePit in being officially over Zach Davies, DFA’ing him to free up a roster spot for the final five games. My first reaction would be, “What took you so long?” In the games prior to my Tweet, Zach had a 7.11 ERA. Yet the D-backs kept rolling him out there, health permitting, for eleven further starts, over which spell he had an ERA of 6.89. A couple of things do perhaps explain the D-backs reluctance to pull the trigger, in contrast to the four (4) games before MadBum was dumped. Firstly, he hadn’t hurt the team that much in the standings. All told, the D-backs were 10-8 in Davies’s starts: that’s a higher win percentage (.556) than when our other starting pitchers took the mound.

Additionally, Davies’s peripherals suggested he’d been unlucky. His Fielding Independed ERA was close to two and a half runs lower than his ERA, at 4.58. That was far and away the highest negative gap of any of the 169 pitchers with eighty or more innings in the majors this year. The next largest difference was 1.66 and only three others were above 1.00. The team may therefore have been waiting for positive regression from Davies. While a 4.58 ERA still wouldn’t have been great, it would likely have been good enough to keep him around. Especially considering the lack of reliable options to be found at the back of the Diamondbacks rotation - likely another reason this move didn’t happen earlier.

But in the end, it appears even Lovullo and Hazen had seen enough. And who can blame them? For the 7.00 ERA with which Davies ends, is the highest for a season in franchise history, by any pitcher with more than 16 starts. He breaks the old mark of 6.89, set by Russ Ortiz in 2005. When you are beating D-backs’ records set by Ortiz, it’s never a good thing, obviously. Zach ends the year worth -1.5 bWAR. The last pitcher with such negative production was Trevor Cahill in 2014 - again, not a name you want to find yourself beside. Just two starting pitchers have been worse in a single season than Davies: Omar Daal in 2000 was -2.0 bWAR, and Ortiz’s 2005 was -1.8 bWAR.

What’s particularly interesting is how the D-backs are still highly likely to make the post-season despite Davies’s struggles. Only three times has a team made the playoffs where it had 18 or more starts from a pitcher who had an ERA of seven or worse. Two of those came in 2001, with Scott Elarton (7.14) on the Astros and Andy Benes (7.38) on the Cardinals. The all-time mark belongs to Hideo Nomo on the 2004 Dodgers, who started 18 games and went 4-11 with an 8.25 ERA. He stayed in the rotation into mid-September, even though Los Angeles were in a tight division race. But none of that trio appeared in the post-season, a fate now also shared by Davies.

It will be interesting to see what the rotation is for the rest of the regular season - and, we hope, beyond. Davies would have been scheduled to start Game 162 on Sunday at Chase Field against the Astros. Right now, there’s a good chance that game will no longer matter, in which case I’d expect a random AAA starter to be called up - someone like Slade Cecconi. Signs indicate tomorrow might end up being a bullpen game, and while that’s a possibility for Sunday too, with the wild-card series starting on Tuesday, the D-backs probably want some innings to be eaten up. But should it still be significant, then it might be Ryne Nelson, who pitched well after Davies yesterday.

In the end, Davies’s time in the desert was a tale of two halves. The first was acceptable; the second close to an unmitigated disaster. He exits having made 45 starts as a Diamondback, and won just four of them. He had an identical 2-5 record in both 2022 and 2023, despite an ERA close to three runs worse this season (4.09 vs. 7.00). It’s hard for any one-year contract to be considered a disaster. But if you price production below replacement at $8 million per negative WAR, the same as positive WAR, this one ended up costing Arizona $18.15 million. If that is not the worst one-year deal in franchise history, it’s certainly in the conversation.