Zack Greinke Getting By Without His Best Pitch

August 17, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Posted in Zack Greinke | Leave a comment

greinke_colorado_2013-07-03Zack Greinke tossed shutout baseball at the Phillies over 7.1 innings last night, dropping his ERA to 3.02 and pushing his record to 11-3. I mention those otherwise not-too-useful surface stats because that’s what so many tend to look at, and at this rate, he’s going to have what some will consider “one of the best years of his career”. Over his last eight starts, he’s allowed more than two earned runs just once, allowing nine earned runs in 56 innings. It’s not at all difficult to think that he’ll get that ERA into the twos for only the second time in his career, and that’s damn impressive.

But I find it interesting that he’s going about it a little differently this year, because his FIP is 3.57, higher than he’s had since 2007. Now, I’ve said more than a few times that judging just about anything of his full season this year is difficult, because thanks to the right elbow pain that ruined his spring and the Carlos Quentin-inflicted broken collarbone that destroyed his April, it’s been a more than unusual first season in Los Angeles for Greinke, and I’m inclined to give him a pass on just about anything.

Still, it’s not exactly the same Greinke you’d have expected. He struck out only three Phillies, and his 6.91 K/9 would be his lowest mark since 2005, when he was putting up a 5.80 ERA as a 21-year-old for Kansas City. Pair that with a BB/9 rate that’s higher than any he’s had since 2007 (though only slightly, and still good), and his K/BB is only 2.59. That’s not exactly great news, but he’s obviously making it work, despite a BABIP that’s a bit under average but not absurdly so.

The good news, anyway, is that after the total mess that was March through May for him — including almost certainly returning too soon from the collarbone injury as the Dodger season was circling the drain — he’s clearly managed to get his arm into top shape, as you can see in this velocity chart from Brooks Baseball:

greinke_velo_2013

That’s 91.42 MPH on the heater in April, as compared to 93.94 now — and you’ll notice the gray on top of the black there, and that’s a sinker that’s touching 94.

But you’ll also notice the red line that just sort of stops in May, and that’s his slider. In past years, he’d thrown it between 15-20% of the time; this year, it’s just 2.9%, and that will keep dropping as the season goes on. Instead, he’s replaced it with more cut fastballs and changes. (The red dot shows that he may have used it briefly yesterday, but until we see more of a trend there I’m considering it a potential classification error in the data.)

Why? Over his career, the slider has been an incredibly effective pitch for him. It’s one of five pitches he’s thrown at least 1,500 times (via FanGraphs), and the results are stunning:

greinke_pitch_usage_2013As you can see, his slider is nearly unhittable. Over the years, he’s allowed just a .199 wOBA on it, far better than any of his other pitches. Despite throwing it just 15% of the time over his career, 35.4% of his career strikeouts have come off it. It’s his put-away pitch, and he’s not throwing it. That’s supported somewhat by the fact that Greinke is still missing bats, with a 9.9% swinging-strike percentage that’s above his career average, he’s just not putting them away with strike three.

There’s more than a few recent studies that point to slider usage being a concern for elbow health, and as we know Greinke dealt with exactly that problem this spring. My guess here — and that’s all it is — is not that he’s still feeling pain and therefore can’t throw it, but that he’s attempting to head off any future issues by avoiding it. (Again, total speculation there.)

But without his slider, he’s not getting lit up — far from it. Really, the takeaway from this for me is that Greinke is even more impressive than I thought he was. How many pitchers can you think of who could simply stop using their most effective pitch and still keep runs off the board in the way he has? He may not pile up the strikeouts in the way that we’d hope, but he’s more than making up for it. Incredible.

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