Quick: match these 2008 pitching stats with the players who authored them:
Pitcher A: 173.2 IP, 3.60 FIP ERA, 8.6 K/9, 3.06 BB/9, 1.70 WPA, 27 years old
Pitcher B: 202.1 IP, 3.56 FIP ERA, 8.14 K/9, 2.49 BB/9, 1.74 WPA, 25 years old
As you can see, these two fellows are nearly dead even in terms of Fielding Independent ERA, with Pitcher A holding a slight edge in K’s and Pitcher B exhibiting sharper control. Both players enjoyed very strong campaigns, but the perception of the two is markedly different. Player A is considered a bondfide ace, and has been the subject of much trade debate. Player B, meanwhile, might not even be recognized by the average fan as the best starting pitcher on his own team.
So, who are these guys? Player A is quasi-ace Jake Peavy. Player B is none other than Royals righty Zack Greinke. If we want to dig a little bit deeper into their respective 2008 seasons, the numbers actually slant a little further toward Greinke’s favor. Using Statcorner’s tRA statistic (which is park and defense neutral, thus negating Peavy’s Petco Park advantage), we find that Peavy turned in a 4.02 tRA (4.77 NL average) and a 116 tRA+ (100 is average), while Greinke managed a 3.74 tRA (4.87 AL average) and a 123 tRA+. In other words, Greinke outperformed the man for whom teams are lining up to surrender their farm systems.
None of this is to criticize Peavy (though his trade value might be slightly less than it seems at first glance). This exercise simply points out just how good Zack Greinke has become. He has essentially transformed from more of a finesse pitcher to a power arm capable of ripping through the best lineups in the DH league.
Greinke’s first two years in the big leagues were solid (his 5.80 ERA in ’05 was the result of a fluky .343 BABIP), but his K rates were not those of a fledging ace:
2004: 6.21 K/9, 1.61 BB/9, 4.64 XFIP
2005: 5.61 K/9, 2.61 BB/9, 4.94 XFIP
(for those of you wondering, XFIP is a fielding independent stat that “normalizes” home run rates. HR/fly ball rates tend to fluctuate, so this takes out some of the “noise” from the pitcher’s line and just examines strikeouts, walks, and uses an average home/flyball rate.)
Following a 2006 season in which Greinke dealt with some personal issues (spending the great majority of the season at AA), he re-emerged in 2007 as a vastly different type of pitcher. While his average fastball velocity was a mild 89.8 MPH in 2005, he threw his heat an average of 94 MPH in 2007. He threw his cheese slightly softer in ’08 (93.3 MPH), but that’s still one hefty increase in speed. And, as we can see from Josh Kalk’s pitch F/X blog, Greinke’s fastball is anything but “true”: it has above-average vertical movement and plenty of tailing action in on the hands of a right-handed batter. With that increased speed, Greinke’s pedestrian K rate climbed to 7.82 in 2007 before hitting a career-high 8.14 this past season.
Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Greinke’s dastardly secondary pitches as well. When he’s not firing darts with his fastball, he can utilize a hard 85 MPH slider or a soft 74 MPH curveball to buckle hitters’ knees. Still not impressed? He can also break out an 82 MPH changeup with fading and dropping action.
By utilizing John Walsh’s work from The Hardball Times and Josh Kalk’s pitch data, we can compare Greinke’s vertical and horizontal movement on his pitches to that of the average pitcher:
(X is horizontal movement. A negative X number means that the pitch is moving in toward a right-handed hitter, while a positive X means that the pitch is moving away from a righty hitter (in to a lefty). Z is vertical movement- the lower the Z number, the more the pitch “drops” in the strike zone.)
Greinke: -5.29X, 10.61Z
Average: -6.2X, 8.9Z
Greinke: 4.28X, 0.63Z
Average: 0.7X, 3.7Z
Greinke: 7.42X, -3.29Z
Average: 5.2X, -3.3Z
Greinke: -8.52X, 4.95Z
Average: -7.4X, 6.0Z
Greinke has a four-pitch mix, and literally all four could be considered plus offerings considering their above-average movement. His curveball and slider both generate a ridiculous amount of horizontal break, while his changeup drops over 5 inches more than his fastball while also tailing away an additional 3.2 inches. And, as if he didn’t have enough going for him, Zack upped his groundball rate from a very low 32.1% in 2007 to 42.7% in 2008. Fewer fly balls means fewer opportunities for the home run bug to bite him.
While other starting pitchers may come with a higher degree of name recognition, few are better than Zack Greinke. Given his youth, power arsenal and positive statistical trends, there’s no reason not to pick this guy early on draft day.
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