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Change of Scenery Suits Zack Greinke

Posted By Michael Barr On December 14, 2012 @ 1:15 pm In Starting Pitchers | 10 Comments

Zack Greinke has been among the top tier of starting pitchers going on five seasons now, and yet he remains somewhat mercurial. Taken as a whole, his body of work as a starter in this time span is no doubt outstanding, ranking 5th in WAR behind Cliff Lee, Justin Verlander, Roy Halladay, and C.C. Sabathia. But in fantasy baseball, some of Greinke’s inconsistencies lends a degree of trepidation when it comes to the cost associated with acquiring a pitcher of his caliber.

Looking back on 2012, the arithmetical acumen of one Zach Sanders says that Zack Greinke was worth only $15 bones relative to the rest of the starting pack in standard 5×5 roto. Why? Much of it is wrapped up in his ERA and WHIP, which were the highest of any pitcher with 200 strikeouts not named Yu Darvish or Max Scherzer. In real baseball terms, Greinke was spectacular — but in a traditional rotisserie league, you probably could have gotten the same production for less investment.

Things were actually moving along swimmingly for Greinke owners while he was with Milwaukee. His strikeout rate was 24.2%, good for an 8.93 K/9 rate and although his ERA hung around 3.40, his FIP suggested better future returns with a 2.53. He was hurt somewhat by an elevated BABIP in large part due to an uncharacteristic 54% ground ball rate, but his walks were down, his home runs allowed were down, and Greinke was looking pretty great.

Then, of course, he was traded to the Angels where he pretty much stunk over his first five starts. He gave up 38 hits over 32 innings pitched and allowed a .306/.381/.460 slash line to opposing hitters. His walk rate jumped over 9% and his K rate fell to 19.5%. Welcome to the American League.

The “first five starts” is kind of an arbitrary stopping point, but the curious thing is after August 19, he did an interesting thing with his pitch selection:

Yeah, small sample size alert and all that, but I’m not claiming a smoking gun of predictive power here. And whatever algorithm you may lend your support behind, go look it up individually. That said, based on PitchF/X, Greinke made a few big changes, and one really big change in his pitch selection after getting torched in the AL.

In Anaheim he was falling behind batters and struggling with his command early on, so it seems he simply leaned on the pitch he knew he could throw for a strike and went to his four seam fastball almost 45% of the time, generating nearly a 70% strike rate on it. Everything else seemed to fall in place — in his last eight starts, Greinke posted a 2.04 ERA, with a BB% around 5%, a K% near 23%, while holding hitters to a .204/.249/.330 line. This stretch of games included two versus Detroit and two versus Texas, so they weren’t all at home against Seattle.

So what to expect in 2013? Greinke seems like he’s been around forever, but recall that he made his debut with the Royals when he was just nine 20 years old. At 29, he’s starting to flirt with some of the uglier trends featured in Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman’s work on pitcher aging curves. But then again, Greinke just turned 29 in October, and not all pitchers are created equal, of course. We know that Greinke has had very consistent velocity over the last several years, and fastball velocity is at the root of their study. So watch that closely for any notable decline.

The move back to the National League is good news for owners. Greinke is likely to see an uptick in strikeouts, and perhaps significantly so, as he’s averaged almost 10 K/9 in the NL and a 7.6 K/9 in the AL. The sample, of course, includes the early years when Greinke wasn’t striking out the world, so perhaps the gap isn’t quite that great, but it’s also hard to forget 2011 when, in fact, he did strike out everyone in the world.

So what about Chavez Ravine and the money that talks? Based on the GUTS! page, looking at park factors, he’s moving to a somewhat more friendly environment as far as home park goes:

Team Basic 1B 2B 3B HR SO BB GB FB LD
Angels 96 101 98 85 97 99 98 100 101 100
Dodgers 95 100 97 78 98 101 98 100 100 97
Brewers 100 98 100 96 103 102 103 99 101 99

If you tab over to the right on that guts page, you’ll also see park factors by handedness, a word that always makes me feel a little dirty. If Greinke has any visible warts, it could be his work against left handed batters. His career vs. LHB: .269/.324/.435 with a .96 HR/9 rate. Certainly not terrible, but not as nasty as he is vs. righties. As far as home runs go, Greinke is going from from a 106 in Milwaukee to a 95 in Anaheim to a 103 in Los Angeles. Hard to take much away from that since he was particularly stingy last year in Milwaukee and he was giving up a ton of home runs in Anaheim. But on the whole, Dodger Stadium should help him.

In the end, Zack Greinke has stability in his contract, he’s moved back to the National League which should aid his strikeout numbers, and he’s going to be pitching for a pretty solid offense. And heck, if it’s not solid enough, they’ll just go out and buy more, right? If you’re a Greinke owner, march confidently into 2013 but if you are looking at him on draft day, it’s possible his time in Anaheim took him down a notch in perceived value, in which case you should certainly pounce. Greinke might have some inconsistencies, but his raw talent will produce counting stats you’ll appreciate at the end of the season.


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