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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.

greinkelategame

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.