King of the Mountain: How Zack Greinke Took Control in Coors Field

Zack Greinke has figured out how to pitch well at Coors Field. (via jnashboulden & Michelle Jay)

On April 29 in Chase Field, Zack Greinke gave up three home runs against the Colorado Rockies. The third of these was on his 107th pitch of the game, when he returned to the mound at the top of the seventh to face pinch hitter Alexi Amarista. It could have ended with a strikeout, if Greinke had gotten the call on a curveball that landed in the strike zone. Instead, it was a seven-pitch skirmish that yielded a home run.

This last at-bat of Greinke’s start on April 29 is indicative of how the night had gone: pitches of varying quality mixed with tenacious batters and a little bad luck. That this start could be considered a setback is a function of how great Greinke has been in 2017. He left the game after six innings, when he often pitches seven or eight, walked two batters, when he often walks none, and gave up three home runs, which remains a season high.

He spent several longish innings with runners on base, but he has a way of slipping out of jams, and the three home runs he gave up were the only runs he surrendered. A mediocre start by Greinke standards left his team with an 88.6 percent win expectancy. The events of the ninth inning that sapped that number down to zero weren’t his fault.

Sequencing

The most important thing we can learn from Greinke’s April 29 start is how he puts together a performance that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Despite a slider in this instance that was unreliable, a curve that was sometimes flat, a change-up that was hittable, and a fastball that topped out at 92 mph, he struck out nine. Greinke can execute all of these pitches beautifully, but his talent as a pitcher goes beyond individual pitches. There’s something magic in the medium that connects them, that binds them into a whole. The secret is in his sequencing, which is rarely, if ever, predictable.

If you’re right-handed, and there are two strikes against you, there’s a good chance Greinke is going to try to run you through with the slider. If he’s in a 3-0 count (which he rarely is), he’ll throw a four-seam for a strike. If you’re a lefty, even in the most favorable hitter’s counts, you can’t be sure whether you’ll see his fastball or its fraternal twin at just about four mph slower, the Greinke change-up.

These are the only situations in which a bias has emerged from the data. Studying his opponents and himself, Greinke goes into his starts with well-informed intentions, but because he can improvise as well– recalibrating his approach based on the events of the game as it’s happening–he doesn’t fall into legible patterns. His code can’t be cracked, even if a single pitch can.

In the instances where the individual pitches are executed as beautifully as Greinke can execute them, combined with his unique sequencing, they are utterly confounding to hitters. When his four-seam fastball is obeying his commands, dancing up and down, from one corner to another, in and out of the strike zone, and his slider is spinning tightly and unfurling late, dropping out of the reach of right-handed hitters, you get a game like the one Greinke pitched in Coors Field a week later.

Two-Pitch Strategy

Greinke began the game on May 5 by throwing fastballs–four-seam fastballs, to be precise. Perhaps against the mountainous opponent that is Coors Field, simplicity is the best approach. He threw six of them before he unveiled the slider against DJ LeMahieu. Despite the hit LeMahieu managed to get off the second slider he saw, the pitch was sharp. It struck out Nolan Arenado, and in the crescendo of the inning it struck out Ian Desmond in three pitches: three brutal sliders that triggered three futile swings.

The first inning wasn’t immaculate, but being relatively quick and composed of only two pitch types, it was elegant. A strategy began to emerge, with the four-seam fastball as its foundation and the slider interspersed at unpredictable intervals. It was an immediately potent formula: Five of the six sliders Greinke threw in the first inning produced swinging strikes. The one mistake yielded a single that quickly was nullified.

Why only two pitches? Greinke has five: two-seam, four-seam, slider, curveball, change-up. Six if you count the slow curveball Statcast labels as an eephus, seven if you distinguish the cutter from the regular four-seam fastball.

He used them all in his April 29 start. Perhaps the extremity of Coors Field compelled him to pare down his arsenal. Certainly, the Rockies’ May 5 lineup was weighted heavily on the right-handed side of the plate. The four-seam and the slider are the pitches Greinke prefers to throw to right-handed batters—out of the Rockies on this day, only Charlie Blackmon and Gerardo Parra hit left-handed—but the simplicity is still striking, and it persists.

Jeff Mathis

Maybe it became apparent during warmups that Greinke was on that night, that the four-seam was under strict command, a condition in which the one pitch could contain multitudes, that the slider was singing beautifully, that it would lure right-handed batters to crash against the rocks. Increased slider usage has been a trend for Greinke in 2017, and reportedly some of the credit for this goes to his battery mate, Jeff Mathis. Perhaps he and Mathis knew, before the game even started, that these two pitches were working so well they wouldn’t need any others.

The catcher’s contributions to Greinke’s performance in Coors Field, and his resurgent season as a whole, are real but impossible to define in their totality. A quantifiably talented pitch framer, Mathis’ impact in terms of preparation, game calling, and Greinke-whispering is likely substantial, but it crouches in the shadowy realm of speculation. Who can tell where pitcher ends and catcher begins? The camera doesn’t capture every shake and nod of Greinke’s head, but with Mathis behind the plate, he seems to shake less and nod more.

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Illusory Slider

Greinke’s second inning on May 5 began with Mark Reynolds, one of the home run perpetrators of the previous week. If he had been watching the bottom of the first, seeing the four-seam paint the edges of the zone and the slider slide away from the bottom outside corner, Reynolds may have thought he would be safe laying off the slider and waiting for the four-seam, or maybe something else, if he could tell them apart.

Such a plan though, if he had one, didn’t avail him. Greinke turned the pattern inside out, throwing his slider for strikes and his four-seam outside the zone to confuse the issue. The result was a strikeout on called strikes, all three of them sliders. Reynolds objected to the call on the last, his legs already carrying him to a base on balls before he whipped around to the umpire in disbelief. The call was good, though; the pitch hit the corner.

There’s something else about Greinke’s slider that makes it hard to hit, aside from its ability to oscillate between ball-that-looks-like-strike and strike-that-looks-like-ball. As Fox Sports Arizona analyst Bob Brenly tells us, “Zack Greinke doesn’t have traditional slider spin. It’s not easy to recognize when he throws a slider. Most guys when they throw their slider, we talk all the time about the ‘dot’ that you see on the baseball because of the rotation, it’s kind of a spiral football, and you see that dot on the ball. Greinke’s slider doesn’t look like that.”

Weak Contact

The four-seam and slider were getting strikes at a 48.5 percent rate, but only a third of Greinke’s outs in the game would be strikeouts. He doesn’t have a fastball with speed so overpowering it’s almost impossible to hit as it streaks down the middle, or funky mechanics that confuse the batter’s eye. He relies on his defense to field the sliders that dribble off the bottom of the bat, or the elevated four-seamers that ricochet off the top.

In a place where the meeting of bat and ball is magnified by the empty air, and the vast expanse of the outfield swallows defenders, any sort of contact is dangerous, but Greinke did exceptionally well at stifling exit speed and keeping the ball on the ground. Despite some cold hands in the infield in the second inning, the defense wouldn’t fail him, and Greinke himself is an excellent defender. Field outs were an important weapon in his attack on Coors Field.

Thinking on the Fly

The third time through the order commenced at the bottom of the sixth. Blackmon’s third appearance started with a four-seamer, but Greinke missed his spot.

“You may have noticed Zack Greinke slapping himself in the right thigh there after missing with that first pitch,” Bob Brenly told us. “He has this entire at-bat planned out in his head, and by missing the outside corner by an inch, it threw off his program. Mad at himself out there on the mound.”

Greinke stepped off the rubber and took a moment to regroup. What he threw next was a slider that didn’t look like a slider but a miniature curve that connected with Blackmon’s bat in the bottom arm-side corner, and it resulted in a weak ground ball and an easy out.

There’s no way to tell how his 1-0 plan against Blackmon differed from his 0-1 plan. We can assume, though, from the moment Greinke took to look down and rub his toe in the dirt of the pitcher’s mound, that there was some significant difference, that he was weighing the experiences of Blackmon’s previous at-bats, the pitches he’s already thrown him, and how likely he was to swing at the next one.

Maybe he was recalling ground ball rates and heat maps and other elements of the front office’s scouting report. We can’t tell from afar how deep the rabbit hole goes, but we can clearly see that there is a rabbit hole, and that he pops in and out of it probably more than any other pitcher.

Four-seam Location

LeMahieu’s third appearance is a master class on four-seam location, despite one that went wild. You’d think a patient batter like LeMahieu wouldn’t be easily fooled in his third time through the order by a pitch he’s seen 10 times, but the four-seam hasn’t lost any of its glamour.

In this instance, it travels between three spots: a little above the heart of the zone, off the middle of the outside edge, and along the bottom border. It is there that LeMahieu seemed to be looking for a slider with the count 2-2, and he swung under a pitch that this time didn’t break but stuck straight as an arrow to the bottom border of the strike zone, as his bat hit nothing but air.

Greinke used four-seam location to good effect throughout the game, but most notably against LeMahieu and Arenado.

The four-seamer works by constantly changing location, but in an erratic way, and not always inside the zone. Greinke will throw a strike on the outside edge, so that next he gets a swing on a ball. He’ll throw a deliberate ball so the next batter takes a strike. He’ll throw so many fastballs in a row that the batter starts looking for the slider, and then Greinke gets him to swing under another fastball up in the zone. When he actually does throw the slider, it’s all the more deadly for how much confusion the four-seam has caused.

In seven innings in Coors Field, Greinke gave up two runs, struck out seven, and walked no one. Out of the 97 pitches he threw, 53 were four-seam fastballs, and 38 were sliders. Fourteen of the four-seams were called strikes; 10 of the sliders were whiffs.

The performance was no accident, but it was a delightful anomaly. The right-handed lineup led him to lean on the four-seam and slider on a night when, due to the mysteries of air and gravity, the sinews and neurons that compose a pitcher’s talent, the four-seam and slider were emerging from Greinke’s hand perfectly formed.

Greinke would pitch another game in Coors Field on June 20. Once again, he pitched seven innings, got seven strikeouts, and allowed no walks and one home run, but it wasn’t a quite a repeat of May 5. Some lefties have been folded back into the lineup. The four-seam and the slider still dominated his repertoire, but he threw curveballs and a few change-ups as well. A few percentage points shift from foul balls to balls in play, and three hits on May 5 turn into nine on June 20.

On July 1, Greinke pitched against the Rockies on his own turf again. Armed with the experience of facing their lineup in Coors, but without the high-altitude handicap, he pitched another brilliant game against them. His pitch selection influenced by the approach in Coors, he threw many more four-seams and sliders than he did in his first Chase game against the Rockies, to wonderful effect.

The teams are scheduled to play two more series against each other in September, and with both teams jockeying for Wild Card spots, it’s likely they’ll be forced to battle for a spot in the playoffs. Doubtlessly, Greinke will be the Diamondbacks’ choice to face the Rockies in the one-off cage match, provided the team has the luxury of lining its rotation up for such an eventuality. He has experience seeing them in both venues, and while there is always danger in overexposing a pitcher to a lineup, Greinke may be more immune to the effects of exposure than most starting pitchers. Even if a batter were to guess accurately every pitch Zack Greinke is about to throw, there’s no guarantee he’s going to be able to hit it.

References & Resources


Jan likes writing, scouting, and watching baseball. She is studying Statistics at Eastern Kentucky University and plans to become a data analyst. She also works for the EKU baseball team as Special Assistant to Head Coach Thompson.
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Dave Fleming
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Dave Fleming

This was one of the very best baseball articles I’ve read this year. Terrific insights into one of my favorite pitchers in the game, and to one of my favorite conundrums (how to play baseball in Coors). Thanks for this!

Stephen
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Stephen

I have to agree with Dave. Wonderfully written, amazing article.

David
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David

This is pathetic.. while a GREAT piece of writing — very informative — how has Greinke in essence “conquered” Coors Field?? He doesn’t pitch half of his games there. He throws maybe two or three a year at that ballpark. How about an article on how the Rockies young pitching staff overall has taken on the beast known as Coors Field, and thus far survived favorably.

While I give Greinke all the credit in the world for his wonderful pitching and comeback from anxiety, it’s not like he’s a Rockie and pitching continuously well at Coors.