Zack Greinke!

Posted: 07/20/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

If you had asked me before the season to name the top 10 pitchers in baseball, I might have named Zack Greinke, or I might not have. At best, he was in the 9-10 range, as evidenced by his ESPN average draft position (he was the 10th pitcher taken in the average draft). And it could be argued, probably correctly, that even guys drafted below him, including Jordan Zimmermann, Cole Hamels, and Matt Harvey, were more well known and/or more likely to leap into the top five. By the way, ADP has been a pretty good indicator of the best pitchers in baseball; the top four pitchers drafted were Kershaw, Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer, and Chris Sale. Considering that we’re talking about an established ace pitching in a big market, the lack of preseason hype is, in retrospect, bizarre. But Greinke also has the misfortune (fortune?) of being the #2 starter on his own team. When you are pitching behind Clayton Kershaw, a guy who is in the midst of an all-time great run, you are going to get overlooked.

Well, Greinke still isn’t the best pitcher on his own team, but he also is holding a fair share of the limelight. After starting the All-Star Game (perhaps because Scherzer was unavailable), Greinke threw eight brilliant, shutout innings against the Nationals, allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out 11. His scoreless innings streak now stands at 43.2 innings, and he’s making a run at 60+, a streak which would eclipse the record set by ex-Dodger Orel Hershiser (59). But you know the even crazier thing? Greinke’s ERA was below 2.00 before he started his streak of six consecutive scoreless starts. It now stands at 1.30, an ERA four fifths of a run lower than Scherzer’s. He’s been extremely consistent, with 18 quality starts in 19 total appearances, and he boasts a 9-2 record while giving up just 19 earned runs (yes, that’s one per start). If that isn’t a Cy Young resume, I don’t know what is.

Why didn’t we see this coming from Greinke, a former Cy Young winner with the Kansas City Royals? Well, we knew he was a good pitcher, but his career ERA even after his start to this season is just 3.41. He’s not a Kershaw or Sale type strikeout pitcher, and he’s nearly 32-years old. Even putting aside the fact that you can’t expect anyone to post a 1.30 ERA (Kershaw’s last year, in one of the best-pitched seasons ever, was 1.77), Greinke wouldn’t have been the first name to come to mind if I had told you before the season that someone was going to challenge Bob Gibson’s 1.12.

Here comes the inevitable question: what’s changed? Well, some of it is, of course, luck. Entering today, Greinke had stranded 89.5% of baserunners, and hitters were hitting just .233 on balls in play. His career numbers? A 74.7% strand rate, and a .301 BABIP. If you were puzzled as to how a pitcher was striking out markedly fewer batters (his K rate is below his 8.09/nine innings average) and still more dominant than ever, this is a big reason why. Before today, his FIP was 2.64, just ninth in baseball. But it isn’t all luck, and sometimes a pitcher makes his own luck anyway.

Greinke’s control was always good, but now it’s Cliff Lee-in-his-prime good; he’s walking fewer than a batter and a half per nine innings. On a more micro level, the ace is forcing softer contact and fewer line drives. His stuff hasn’t changed much, although he is throwing his changeup, his best pitch, a bit more. Greinke’s slider, once one of the most dominant pitches in baseball, has rebounded from a few off years (going from a combined 1.7 runs below average over the past three years to +6.1 this season), probably because he’s throwing it two ticks harder than he did last season and it’s now in the same speed range as it was in its best seasons. So he’s throwing the change more, he’s throwing the slider more effectively, and he’s also scrapped his cutter, which he used for a couple of seasons. But that and luck can’t fully explain his 1.30 ERA, right?

The one other factor I can think of is the schedule. It’s no coincidence that Greinke’s worst start came at Coors Field, a brutal park for pitchers. But his other two starts against Colorado have come at home, and outside of Coors, he’s only faced one top tier offense by runs per game in Arizona’s. He’s also pitched against a bunch of the worst offenses in baseball. I might be nitpicking here, but when you are looking at a pitcher with a 1.30 ERA who hasn’t really changed that much, that’s what you have to do.

Is Greinke going to keep this up? The answer is a clear, unequivocal no. I would bet against him coming much closer to the scoreless innings record, and I think his ERA ends up much closer to 2 than 1. But he’s an extremely good pitcher, and the season he’s had should boost him into top-five discussions. I’d still take Kershaw, Hernandez, etc. (you get the point) over him in the future, but he’s elevated himself into that tier and out of the Hamels-Zimmermann area. So the verdict is that the 1.30 ERA is largely driven by luck, but Greinke’s still shown enough to prove that he’s one of the very best pitchers in baseball.

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