PHOENIX — In the 48-year history of the Milwaukee Brewers, only three pitchers have won 20 games in a single season (Mike Caldwell, 22 wins in 1978; Jim Colborn, 20 wins in 1973; and Teddy Higuera, 20 wins in 1986).
Right-hander Zach Davies could very well become the fourth.
He approached that magic number last season, finishing with a team-leading 17 victories, a career high. He failed to win any of his final three starts. Davies might have reached 20 wins if not for a rocky first few weeks.
Davies, 25, had an 8.24 ERA through his first four starts but went 6-2 with a 3.69 ERA over his next 10 before he gave up seven earned runs over five innings in a loss to Pittsburgh on June 15.
After that, Davies was one of the National League’s best pitchers. He went 10-5 with a 2.87 ERA over his final 18 starts and held opponents to three runs or fewer in 10 of those games.
“I felt like I got stronger and stronger as the year went on, but it’s just something to think about,” Davies said. “If you have it there from the get-go, it’s that much more exciting.”
Davies’ struggles might have buried the Brewers — and, ultimately, prevented their surprising pursuit of a playoff spot into the final weekend of the season — but Milwaukee’s offense seemed to save its best performances for Davies’ starts.
The Brewers averaged 5.9 runs per game behind Davies last season, the sixth-best mark in the NL and 11th-best in all of baseball. Milwaukee scored six runs or more in 14 of Davies’ 33 starts and, not surprisingly, he went 11-0 in those games while posting a 3.99 ERA.
“Having the offense there was a real pick-me-up for me,” said Davies, who was 11-4 through his first 19 starts despite a 5.08 ERA. “I knew after the struggles of the beginning of the season that I had to pick it up and show the kind of pitcher that I am and that the offense isn’t going to have to carry me every single time out.”
Starting off strong has been Davies’ primary focus this spring and to help with that effort, he’s worked on sharpening his arsenal of off-speed pitches.
“In spring training, you’re always trying to refine a pitch,” manager Craig Counsell said. “I don’t know if Zach so much has to add a pitch. I think at times Zach thought his change-up could have been better last year. The change-up is such a feel pitch. You’ll hear that from a lot of guys. ‘If I can throw it a lot in spring training, I can get a feel for it.’ ”
With a fastball that averaged just 90 mph last season, Davies needs to rely on control and deception to be effective. He lacked both early on.
“Everything felt good by the middle of the season but at the beginning of the year, it was kind of slow,” said Davies, who is 31-18 with a 3.91 ERA in 67 major league starts. “I just didn’t have a feel for everything to be able to throw it in every count that I wanted to.
“I want to be 100 percent ready to go at the beginning of the year.”
Davies was Milwaukee’s most durable pitcher in 2017, making each of his 33 of his scheduled starts until he was scratched the final day after the Brewers were eliminated from postseason contention. He finished with a team-best 191⅓ innings.
Davies is one of three locks to make the Opening Day rotation, along with Chase Anderson and Jhoulys Chacin. In which order those three make their season debuts — not to mention, which pitcher gets the coveted Opening Day assignment — remains up in the air.
“It’s great to feel like you’re the Opening Day starter but at the same time, it’s just another game,” Davies said. “You go through the season and you’re just as valuable as the rest of the guys.”