First impressions are important. But they aren’t everything.
The sentiment rings especially true in sports: An impact player might not meet expectations in his first game with a new team, and a mediocre player can initially outperform his true talent level by miles. Heck, if first impressions were really that important, Jeff Francoeur would be a perennial MVP contender, and the Phillies would have sought to rescind the Roy Oswalt trade last summer. What happens on the field often lends itself to narratives both preformed and developed, but taking a step back and examining what fuels a hot or a cold start can help keep everything in perspective.
In other words, Brewers fans shouldn’t be overly concerned about Zack Greinke‘s shaky debut on Wednesday.
Though Greinke’s acquisition was overshadowed by big-money contracts doled out to Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth, the former Royals’ ace was thought to vault the Brewers to the top of the National League Central. A rib injury sustained during a pick-up basketball game delayed the 27-year-old’s official debut, but his presence on the mound stood to spark a team that was off to a rather slow start. Especially with Yovani Gallardo struggling lately — an 8.89 ERA and 1.044 opposing OPS in 26 1/3 innings over his past five starts — the Brewers faithful yearned to see their shiny new ace dominate in his grand unveiling.
Greinke’s night was done after four innings, four runs, five hits and a home run. The Braves scored four more times after Greinke was removed, beating the Brewers 8-0 and sweeping the double-header. Given the situation — a team not meeting expectations that stood to lose two games in one day — it’s easy to focus on Greinke’s negatives. But Brewers fans and fantasy owners should take solace in the fact that there were several positives portending success.
He issued only one walk and struck out six batters. Of the 15 balls put in play, eight were on the ground. He threw roughly two strikes for every ball. He hit 94 mph on the gun and sat around 92, throwing the four-seamer with movement similar to last year. He threw a faster curveball — 79 mph compared to the average 74 mph to 75 mph over the past several seasons — though it remains to be seen if that yields positive results. It’s definitely something to monitor during his next few starts. The results can improve but it wasn’t as if Greinke toed the rubber with a flat arsenal. Greinke’s first start was essentially a spring training start for him, since he couldn’t pitch in March and made only three minor league rehab starts before returning.
Given that we can agree on Greinke’s improvement, a more interesting discussion centers on which pitcher the Brewers will get: someone with results in the vicinity of his spectacular 2009 campaign, or the still-great pitcher in 2008 and 2010? Greinke’s luck indicators weren’t otherworldly even in his Cy Young season — it wasn’t as if he posted a .232 BABIP or 92% strand rate. He threw far fewer pitches in the strike zone and induced more swings out of the zone than before. Batters also swung feebly at his offerings, which resulted in his highest swinging-strike rate.
The primary difference between that and his 2010 stat-line is the rate of contact made on his out-of-zone offerings. His O-Contact increased from 56% to 68%, and his swinging strike rate dropped from 9.9% to 7.5%. Part of these dropoffs can be attributed to a change in his pitch allocation: His fastball dominated the league in 2009 and helped set up a devastating off-speed slider/curve combination. Last season he cut back on breaking balls and opted to throw a bevy of changeups.
The changeup didn’t fool hitters, and though I might be forming my own narrative based on speculation, it’s possible that his pitch sequences failed to keep hitters as off-balance as in the prior year. Making adjustments is a necessary part of sticking in the big leagues, but Greinke probably didn’t need to adjust as much as he did.
Most certainly, pitching in the National League will improve his numbers. Starting pitchers capable of throwing 180+ innings who go from the AL to the NL historically experience an ERA improvement of more than a half of a run. Their peripheral numbers also improve — facing Joe Blanton is much easier than Jim Thome or David Ortiz.
The 2009 Greinke was probably a mirage. It was an all-time season unlikely to be replicated. But he can still tally 5-6 wins above replacement this season, a fantastic total only disappointing when measured against the aforementioned all-time season. When the regression associated with his peripherals crosses paths with the switch to National League, the numbers below the surface should improve quite a bit as well. Greinke’s first start might have been a bit rocky, but he still showed signs that he is Zack Greinke. There’s nothing to worry about.