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Zach Davies, Michael Fulmer, and sophomore struggles

Perhaps there is no more prevalent alliteration in sports than the proverbial sophomore slump. We hear about it on the radio and from fans and read about it on the internet and perhaps even the newspaper. A hot young rookie tears through the league in his first campaign, only to regress down to a shell of himself in his second year. 

Often this has to do with the league finding a book on the player and learning to adjust to him. Then we have the player, generally someone who has just dominated every league he has ever played in, trying to adjust to the competition for the first time in his twenty plus years on earth.

What happens in the sophomore season, or really whenever this adjustment slump happens (can stil bel in the rookie year or even later like the third year), tends to define the player heading forward. If he can make the proper adjustments, you have someone who can continue to stay ahead of the curve and maintain a hot pace no matter what the league does to slow it. On the other hand, you’ll have guys who just don’t have the skillset, whether its physical or more of a “between the ears” type, to make the changes needed.

Here, we discuss two players, Zach Davies and Michael Fulmer, who both fit the archetype of the sophomore slump, and we’ll analyze and try to find if they can come back strong in their third year.

Davies and Fulmer have already been placed in the sophomore slump narrative, but we could also easily be talking about a small town versus big town type of disparity. Davies, a 26th round pick, was part of a low-key Gerardo Parra trade, sent out to Milwaukee. Then you have Fulmer, drafted eleventh overall, picked by the New York Mets, and now in another big market with Detroit.

Fulmer burst onto the scene in 2016 with a 3.06 ERA that he rode to the American League Rookie of the Year award. He used a mid to high 90s fastball with a strong changeup to keep hitters guessing, and setting the stage for hope around him. Davies had a slight, 30 inning taste of the majors in 2015, but 2016 he spent the entire season (minus two Triple A starts) with the big league club. His 3.97 ERA wasn’t sparkly, but he had a slightly better 3.89 FIP with a 19.8% strikeout rate and small 5.8% walk rate. It didn’t lead to any ROY votes in the National League, but it brought him on some radars for breakout buys.

Fulmer’s issues in 2017 stem largely from his changeup. While it was worth 10.9 runs above average in 2016, it dropped down to just 1.3 runs above average in 2017. He still used it the same amount, but the pitch did climb 2 miles per hour to 88, which can cause it to lose some break. With it, his strikeout rate fell sharply from 20.4% to 16.9%. His initial rate wasn’t even that spectacular, being an average rate, so any drop is a cause for concern. It quells some concern that his walk rate also dropped a tick from 6.5% to 5.9%, which enters elite territory, and maybe signifies a shift in approach to a more contact oriented one.

Pitching to contact can be risky, thanks to the increased amount of variables at play (defense, baserunners, ballparks). Fulmer has a good 49.2% ground ball rate over his career (which has been consistent), and even though his BABIP has been low, it’s still close enough to consider it sustainable at .271 (although we should expect some regression). Where he really lost out was on base-runners, where he had a very high 79.0% left on base rate in his rookie year, dropped down to 65.6% this year. Now LOB% regresses to around 73%, so he’s on both ends of the spectrum.

While it’s good news to expect some regression there, overall Fulmer has shown himself to be consistently worth a player between these two seasons – a guy with a high 3.00s ERA. Unless we see him revamp the changeup (or find better success with his increased sinker) he’s not going to improve on his rookie performance, but he will not be as bad as we saw in 2017.

Davies shows a similar pattern to Fulmer, where he dropped his strikeout rate from average to 15.2%, and his walk rate stayed close to 6.7% (although it increased from 5.6%). Davies saw a 5% point increase in ground bals this year to 50%, thanks to a 52.3% sinker usage, and helps explain why he lost some strikeouts as well. For Davies this approach is a little better suited, throwing low 90s without a consistent plus secondary pitch.

He showed flashes of a strong changeup in 2016, and as a prospect, although he has not quite put it together for a long stretch of time. He dropped its usage down to 14.0% from 20.6%, and used the curve a little more (which is confusing as it was a net negative pitch). Davies still  has some work to do on his repertoire, but if he can improve the secondary pitches it’s easy to see him finding more success heading forward.

When looking for comparables, someone who jumps out is teammate Jimmy Nelson. Nelson also had some early career struggles, but found himself with a revamped curveball that went from negative 2.6 runs above average to a positive 9.7 runs above average. The Brewers have maintained the same coaching staff the past couple of seasons, so look to do the same heading into 2018 thanks to a surprising run at the Wild Card and division. And with that we could assume they will help to do with Davies what they managed to do with Nelson.

Davies has set the stage for some bright spots coming up, and thanks to what we’ve seen from him plus his organization’s track record, it look like those days are coming soon. Davies is a buy-low candidate for deeper keeper leagues and a sleeper candidate for 2018.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.

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