Zack Greinke and Pitch Sequences

Pitching is a game of strategy. At any given time, a pitcher must consider the batter, the ballpark, the count, the strength of his pitches, his stamina and more. And there’s not always a correct answer — there might be multiple pitch combinations, locations and speeds, all with the same probability of success.

Even when a pitcher has one plus-plus, unhittable, grade 80 pitch, they still need to know how and when to use it. One such pitcher is Zack Greinke. The owner of a nasty slider, the Brewers’ ace racks up strikeouts and swings-and-misses, thanks primarily to his slider. The pitch is dynamic: it doesn’t appear to suffer from platoon issues nearly as much as other sliders, which allows him to throw it both to left-handed and to right-handed batters. Indeed, the whiff rate (whiff/pitches) against his slider is actually higher against left-handed batters than against right-handed batters, albeit by a very marginal amount.

The pitch is hard to hit, and Greinke knows it. When he’s not in two-strike counts, Greinke’s pitch selection looks like this:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL

0.10 0.22 0.44 0.17 0.07

CH = changeup, CU = curveball, FF = four-seam, FT = two-seam, SL = slider

We see lots of fastballs and lots of curveballs, but very few sliders. It’s almost as if he is saving the pitch. But in two-strike counts, we see a different pitcher:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL

0.04 0.08 0.35 0.08 0.45

It’s almost a flip of a coin. Either you face Greinke’s devastating slider, or you see one of his not-so-easy “easier” pitches — the changeup, the curveball, the four-seam or the two-seam.

Combining the two sets of information, here’s the pitch-usage difference between two-strike counts and non-two counts:

 

CH = changeup, CU = curveball, FF = four-seam, FT = two-seam, SL = slider

*These classifications are not from Gameday – they’re the result of the output from clustering analysis and manual reclassification.

And the strategy, although simplistic, is very effective. Greinke obviously has a plan in mind – use the fastball and the curveball to get ahead, then use the slider to finish off the batters.

What is he doing to set up his slider?

Here’s his distribution of pitches* thrown against righties, prior to a slider in a 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2 count:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL

0.00 0.07 0.33 0.09 0.50

Here we see that, against righties, he seems throw slider after slider until he records a strikeout. Intuitively, this strategy seems to make sense. His slider is so good that he might as well keep throwing it until the batter gets himself out — a result Greinke frequently accomplishes.

If we break down the success of his slider based on the previous pitch thrown — as measured by whiff rate (whiff/pitches) — we find that his sliders in 0-2,1-2 and 2-2 against right-handed batters are most effective when preceded by a four-seam fastball (29% whiff rate) or a slider (24% whiff rate).

 *The one previous pitch, not all pitches from the at-bat. 

Here’s the distribution of pitches thrown against lefties, prior to a slider in a 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2 count:

CH   CU   FF   FT   SL

0.38 0.08 0.26 0.05 0.23

Against lefties, we see that he often sets up his slider with a changeup. Interestingly, Greinke often uses his change against lefties in 0-1, 1-0, and 1-1 counts — but not very often in two-strike counts. This seems to suggest that he doesn’t see his changeup as a strikeout pitch, but more as a tool to advance an at-bat.

If we look at the whiff rates for his slider based on the previous pitch thrown, we see that his sliders in favorable pitcher counts against left-handed batters are most effective when preceded by a curveball, which has an astonishing 50% whiff rate. When preceded by a four-seamer or a slider, the whiff rate on his slider is about 23%. And when the previous pitch is a changeup, his whiff rate on sliders is 22%.

Much like his sliders against right-handed batters, the pitch doesn’t lose effectiveness when he throws it consecutively. While the 50% whiff rate on his sliders thrown after a curveball is very impressive, it’s also from a sample of just 10 curveball-slider sequences, so it doesn’t seem noteworthy.

 

References and Resources

*PITCHf/x data from MLBAM via Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 database and scripts by Joseph Adler/Mike Fast/Darrel Zimmerman




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10 Responses to “Zack Greinke and Pitch Sequences”

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  1. Andre says:

    Good job!

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  2. MasonMLB says:

    This is why I read FanGraphs. Fascinating stuff.

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  3. Phantom Stranger says:

    I would say the biggest difference between All-World Greinke in 2009 when he was the best pitcher on the planet and now, is the drop in command. During 2009 his command of every pitch was simply phenomenal, almost superhuman. His raw stuff is still some of the best in the league.

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  4. CircleChange11 says:

    Agreed. Great stuff.

    This reminds me of a Royals Greinke start that I saw against ARZ and Mark Reynolds … he K’d Reynolds 3 times on primarily fastballs and slider. In the 4th at bat on a 3-2 count, it looked like it was a sombrero for Reynolds, until the slider hung and ended up as a 3-run bomb in the left center seats. This stuck out to me because it shows the small margin of error. He dominated Reynolds throughout the game, but then one little mistake and the game was lost.

    I would guess most sliders are effective following fastballs because of the recognition factor. If you go fastball away and then a slider away or fastball in followed by slider in, or even FB and SL on opposite corners, you’re giving batters pitches that look similarly early on, and by the time they recognize “not a fastball”, it’s too late.

    I don;t want to play on the emotion side of Greinke, but it’s possible that he’s holding back on his slider use until it’s time to “put them away” because of confidence issues with his other pitches. It might make him even more effective to use the slider a little earlier on, either to get weak contact or to get another strike.

    If we detect that he’s not using his slider until he has 2 strikes, then certainly teams have picked up on that are not looking for the pitch until they get in 2-strike situations. That means any time they see something that looks like a fastball early in the count, it’s is most probably a fastball.

    We see this with other pitchers that see success in their sliders, they use it as essentially an “out pitch” only or primarily, when they might be better served to break out with it a little more often or in different situations.

    Greinke seems like a pitcher that thinks about things a lot. I wonder what his commentary would be in regards to his slider usage and his confidence in other pitches. I’d also be interested in hearing if he is trying too hard in the post-season. He’s certainly pitched very well in regular season games in various situations, but the playoffs are new to him, and I wonder if he’s trying to be too perfect with some of his pitches, or instead of just throwing a “good curveball”, he’s trying to throw the best curveball in history.

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  5. Pete says:

    Good piece. You would think based on this he would have more success, but something is obviously wrong. Greinke’s velocity on his two seam and four seam fastballs are down alittle from previous years, along with the vertical movement on both pitches. This may account for the lack of success Greinke had with his fastballs, registering a -9.1 fastball above average.

    I wonder if the move to the NL has hurt his as well, Miller Park has a significantly higher home run park factor than Kauffman Stadium and Greinke’s HR/FB% jumped considerably this year.On a more subjective note the lineups in the NL Central appear to be more powerful than those in the AL Central for the past several years. This may partially account for Grienke’s increased BABIP as his linedrive percentage rose over 22% this year.

    Greinke struggled more with men in scoring position this year compared to his career numbers. He posted a 4.63 FIP with men in scoring position in 2011 compared to a 3.82 over his career. His K’s are up in these situations, however he is issuing more walks and homeruns, which makes one think maybe he is trying to hard to strike batters out and in the course of doing so having less overall success.

    Even with all of these trends Greinke still has delivered excellant starts throughout of the 2011 season which proves he can go out on a given night and dominate. The question is where does he go from here? I would love to here thoughts.

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  6. pete says:

    horizontal movement on the fastballs my bad*

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  7. My guess, Greinke was caught by Miguel Olivo in 2009 at KC. Without some guidance, Greinke believes he’s superman and not the airhead he actually is. A guy like Olivo makes a big dfferece, IMO.

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  8. Barkey Walker says:

    “If we look at the whiff rates for his slider based on the previous pitch thrown, we see that his sliders in favorable pitcher counts against left-handed batters are most effective when preceded by a curveball, which has an astonishing 50% whiff rate. … While the 50% whiff rate on his sliders thrown after a curveball is very impressive, it’s also from a sample of just 10 curveball-slider sequences, so it doesn’t seem noteworthy.”

    Wait, is it astonishing or not noteworthy?

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  9. Bill says:

    Not pitching inside enough.

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