The Things Zack Greinke Makes Me Think About

For my birthday, I’m giving myself a present.

That present? A good scolding.

Because maybe I’ve made too many excuses for Zack Greinke over the course of his career. Maybe I’ve wishcasted him into a role he doesn’t occupy. Is he really a fantasy ace? What’s going on with him this year? And if the answer to the first is No, then how much do we care about the answer to the second. These are the things I contemplate on the day that I hang up another number next to my name.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Obviously, there are things to like when you look at Zack Greinke. His career swinging-strike rate (8.8%) is above average (more of an accomplishment for a starter, who averaged closer to 8.0% early in the decade), and he’s got great control (2.3 BB/9, 6.1%). He doesn’t always keep the ball on the ground (41.9% career), but he’s rarely had a homer problem (one season of 1+ HR/9 since 2005). He’s had FIPs below 3.5 every year since 2005. He looks like a fantasy ace, and he’s paid like a real-life one.

But let’s look at his rankings among qualified pitchers since 2008. In ERA (3.41), he’s 24th. In strikeouts per nine, 14th. His walk rate is nice, but his WHIP is 26th over that time frame (probably thanks to a career .308 batting average on balls in play that doesn’t look like it’s going away). He’s played for some crummy teams and some good teams, but his win total is ninth since 2008. That’s probably related to his ability to stay healthy, since he averaged 207 innings a year coming into the season. These things add up to a pitcher that’s an ace in deeper leagues, but more of a first-tier number two in your standard 12-teamers, don’t they. You’d probably want some more top-ten rankings to really hang that ace label on him, and yet here I am, treating him like an ace every pre-season.

It’s okay, I’m obviously not alone. You turn a year older and everything looks fatter, grayer and less firm, and your old decisions all go under the microscope. Let’s not get too down on ourselves.

But, going into this year, I thought. THIS. THIS will be the year for Greinke. He’s headed to the best home park for homer suppression, his team has assembled a lineup behind him, and he’ll get to face the National League West, or The Division Full of Lineups Who Scare Few. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Well, Greinke’s got his second-lowest homer per fly ball rate of his career (7.4%), but the rest wasn’t as helpful as I thought. The Dodgers’ lineup has scored fewer runs than anyone other than the Marlins and Nationals (by one run), and yet the rest of the division has picked up their offensive punch, as the Diamondbacks (4th), Giants (6th), Rockies (first) and even the Padres (7th) all rank in the top half of the National League in runs scored. Greinke has a high-threes ERA and a bad WHIP.

We’ve ignored Greinke’s health, and we shouldn’t. He’s had a good run of health into this year, and past DL stints are still the best predictor of future DL stints. His only DL stint since 2006 was due to fracturing a rib playing pick-up basketball. And now this year he has the broken clavicle from a brawl to deal with. On the podcast, we were left wondering if there were health issues beyond the clavicle or not.

That particular difference — if he’s still hurting in the clavicle, or if he has new pain elsewhere — may seem like semantics, but it’s probably not. The clavicle will get better. If he has other issues, they’ll probably get worse. Let’s run Greinke through Zimmerman’s injury predictor.

His velocity is down (bad), but it’s stable all year. His late-game inconsistency with his arm slot and release points (pictured below) is still as low as ever — something you’d expect from a player with good control numbers, and part of the reason why Billy Beane was probably correct to say that strike-throwers stay healthy longer — so that’s a good thing. And his zone percentage numbers are up recently, even if they are a little down from his career levels (46% this year, 48.2% career, 47+% in four of his last six starts). I don’t see a smoking gun here.

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We’re ignoring a change in his pitching mix that Richard Migliorisi pointed out at the Fantasy Fix: Greinke is favoring a new cutter over his slider. At least, it looks like that is the case on both his BIS and PITCHf/x pages, as his slider is down below double-digits for the first time in his career according to both data sources. BrooksBaseball agrees, and since the slider goes 83 with little vertical movement and the cutter goes 87 with a four-inch vertical drop, it seems likely that the pitches are different and that this isn’t a classification thing.

But we don’t know why this is happening. There are those that think the slider stresses the elbow, and I’m one of them. But there are those that hate the cutter just as much, and depending on which cutter Greinke throws (baby slider or cut fastball), he could basically be doing the same movement with a slight alteration. Considering there’s almost a four-mile-per-hour difference between his cutter and his fastball, I’m guessing it’s a baby slider (true cut fastballs are usually only a mile or two slower than their four-seamer), which isn’t going to save his elbow much wear and tear.

Greinke’s slider has been the best of his career by pitch-type values, but those values can be flawed for this analysis. It was one of his two-strike pitches, and so it probably got many of his strikeouts. But by movement, it’s the flattest pitch he owns. And it’s only getting 8.7% whiffs this year, which is terrible for a slider. It used to get whiffs over 20%, and it used to 86+. Did he drop the pitch because, when he lost velocity, it started to sag as a pitch? Or did he lose velocity because he’s hurting? Or did he scrap the pitch because it hurts?

We don’t know these things, but they are a hint that there’s possibly more going on than the clavicle. Because velocity was down before the brawl, and this cutter/slider thing might have started last year, when the pitch appeared on most radars. And yet some have pointed to this cutter usage as a positive — it’s another pitch, and it’s probably better than his slider is currently. This is how starters evolve and deal with velocity loss better than relievers.

So I’m still not sure of myself, even at this old age. I’ll scold myself for perhaps valuing a good starter as a great one. And I’ll admit that there’s a lot of risk in buying low on a pitcher that broke his clavicle and is down two miles per hour on his fastball and is trying to move forward without a pitch that was once his best non-fastball offering.

But I’ve also gotten pretty good at deluding myself over the years. And so I’ll still look at his good whiff rate, his always-great control, dreamcast on a healthy Dodger lineup, and pronounce him an interesting buy low. At 29 turning on 30 though, I’d be a lot less interested in keeper leagues until I was sure he could still deal zeroes with this new mix, and this new velocity.

And yes, as I turn 34, that’s a depressing thing to write. At least I don’t have to do the prospect writeups.




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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


11 Responses to “The Things Zack Greinke Makes Me Think About”

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  1. Pops says:

    Like you… I’ve always been a Zack Greinke apologist. It’s probably because I saw him realize his potential and was lucky enough to own him during his breakout seasons in KC. Those were good times, weren’t they, Zack? Memories. Anyway… happy birthday, over – the – Internet friend.

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  2. Fatbot says:

    I’ve tried my best to fight the Greinke hype here, so it’s nice validation to see the experts finally jumping on the bandwagon of truth about him (even if belated). Instead of repeating, you can find my relevant comment at http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/a-thing-zack-greinke-might-be-missing/

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  3. Dro says:

    I think it’s still far too early to draw any conclusions about Greinke for this year…I think he’s still getting on track from the clavicle injury, and we need to give him more time.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the Dodgers defense is pretty bad overall, so that won’t help things much.

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  4. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Greinke has not been an ace of any kind since 2009, unless you want to point to his 2011 FIP (I’ll point out that he has consistantly underperformed his FIP: Matt Cain outperforming his FIP is a skill, Zack Greinke underperforming his FIP is a skill).

    I drafted him after he fell two rounds as a #3 starter this year because I felt I could dump him off as a value pick. Unfortunately, his underperformance has meant I can’t dump him off easy, so he’s been a real drag…

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    • Wobatus says:

      Or his xFIP and siera in 2011, best in baseball. And since is the roto division, 6th in wins, 7th in overall Ks (plus first in k%, and you could plug in someone when he was out at beginning of the year), 15th in whip. OK, 34th in ERA, but he was a decent number 2 in fantasy in 2011.

      In addition to the velocity loss, his first pitch strike percentage is lowest of his career this year, 55%, right around Lincecum and Wily Peralta. Another injury sign? Or is he nibbling more with the lost velo?

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      • Ruki Motomiya says:

        Isn’t “Decent number 2″ not an ace…? It’s a number two.

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      • Wobatus says:

        There are only 4-5 guys who have been aces every year the last 3-4 years. Since 2010, conveniently omitting his best year, he is 8th in xFIP and 11th in siera. This is rotographs of course, but even here ERA shouldn’t take such precedence in projecting. The results haven’t been as good as the peripherals, but he has generally pitched like one of the top 12 starters in the game. Unfortunately it looks like he has slipped somewhat.

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    • Archibaldcrane says:

      Actually he is overperforming his FIP this season…

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  5. Migs says:

    Well done, Eno. Well done. Thanks for the mention of my article.

    I own Greinke in what was a nice buy low situation (even though I knew the warning signs).

    Now…If I’m wrong, I look stupid, but if I’m right, my fantasy team takes a beating.

    Me oh my oh.

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  6. jdugood says:

    This was a very well written article. Thank you for posting it.

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  7. JT says:

    Spending one and a half years with the Brewers has a tendency to make pitchers underperform their FIP

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