Change of scenery for changeup master

February 21st, 2021

is aware of the pessimism that surrounded the December trade that brought him to the Cubs. When you’re the headlining Major Leaguer coming over in a swap that sends a fan favorite and National League Cy Young Award runner-up like Yu Darvish to another team, you're tied to that moment -- for better or worse.

Davies happens to be quite familiar with many of the faces in the Cubs’ clubhouse, having pitched against them for five seasons with the rival Brewers. After having had a front-row seat to the North Siders’ rise to NL supremacy -- and watching Chicago maintain that level with five postseason trips in the past six years -- he carries a lot of confidence in his new club.

“Coming to a team like the Cubs, it’s going to be a fun year for me,” Davies said via Zoom on Sunday. “Pitching against these guys has always been a mental battle for me and one that I enjoy because that’s the way that I play and I pitch. It’s exciting to be pitching in front of those guys now, have them on defense behind me and have that offense perform for me when I’m on the mound.”

Davies isn’t coming off the same 2020 that Darvish enjoyed -- almost nobody is -- but the Cubs are still acquiring a savvy veteran looking to build on what might have been a career year. The right-hander never missed his turn in the rotation for a rising Padres club that came to rely on him as the season went along. Davies finished with career-best marks in ERA (2.73), WHIP (1.07) and strikeout rate (22.8%) as San Diego’s second-most valuable pitcher, by fWAR (1.4), behind Dinelson Lamet.

Now positioned near the top of the Cubs’ rotation, Davies will need to maintain that level across a longer season -- a challenge he embraces.

“I’m one of those guys where I want to pitch every five days and pitch as many innings as I can,” he said. “Last year didn’t allow me to do that; it didn’t allow anyone to do that, really, with only 60 games. I’m excited for 162 [games] this year and trying to throw as many innings as possible.”

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Davies is no stranger to trades. This winter marked the third time he had been involved in a swap.

The Orioles, Davies’ original club, traded him to the Brewers before his Major League debut, and Milwaukee dealt him and outfielder Trent Grisham to San Diego in exchange for pitcher Eric Lauer and infielder Luis Urías last winter. It’s a process that Davies knows well and concedes that he can’t control.

But as Davies looks forward to tackling the grind of a normal, six-month regular season once again, he sees a Cubs roster around him with the veteran moxie that he believes could be built for the marathon.

“Teams that can grind through a full season, keep their head above water and continue to play and win ballgames will at the end of the day make the playoffs,” said Davies. “Having a veteran team gives people the mindset and the idea of how to do that through the course of a full season.

“I still think this will be a really competitive team, and we’ll be right there at the end of the year.”

As for his place in the rotation, Davies is fully aware of the connections observers will make when they see his name near ’ on the depth chart. Both pitchers have bucked the expectations that accompany their lack of elite (or, in each of their cases, even average) fastball velocity thanks to supreme command of their arsenals. Of course, both feature superb changeups. Per Statcast’s run values formula, developed by MLB senior data architect Tom Tango, Davies’ changeup is tied for baseball’s sixth-most valuable pitch type thrown by any pitcher across the past two seasons. Last year saw Davies up his usage of that pitch to roughly 41%, putting it on par with the usage of his sinker.

Davies acknowledged that the similarity in styles between he and Hendricks made the Cubs’ longtime master of pace one of the pitchers Davies loved to watch most as he came up with the Brewers. Perhaps it’s no accident that their two lockers are positioned right next to each other at camp.

“We’ve talked a lot, simple stuff so far,” Davies said of Hendricks. “There are similarities [between Kyle and I], and there are differences in my eyes and his eyes -- a little bit finer differences that not everybody catches. But I think both of our games are similar in the fact that he’s reading swings and reading hitters, and how our skillset and our stuff plays within the game.”

With primary contributors like Davies, Hendricks, and (whose fastball velocity has dipped in recent years), the Cubs could potentially have the Majors softest-throwing rotation in 2021. Davies and Hendricks have proven in recent years that they can get outs without lighting up the radar gun, however, and they’ll look to buck expectations again. 

“When you look at their frames and how hard they throw, these guys have probably been the underdogs for their entire lives,” said manager David Ross. “We don’t have the ‘velocity guys.’ Velocity is so much in our game; maybe our staff is the outlier of the group. But I think these guys are excited about going out and proving what they’ve always had to prove.