The ever-changing Zack Greinke

For the moment, let’s set aside the question of whether Zack Greinke should beat CC Sabathia’s seven-year, $161 million free agent record contract for pitchers this winter (as there are at least ripples of its possibility).

The question of whether he deserves that contract we can answer, in the most literal sense, right now. Consider: 1) he is a great pitcher with a track record of dominance and success, 2) he has absolutely zero peers in this free agent crop, 3) baseball is flush with money and teams are ready to spend, 4) elite starting pitching is the Hope Diamond of the sport 5) Ned Colletti has been given so much freedom to operate by the Dodgers that it’s likely you see him stumbling through the Opryland lobby like this next week at the winter meetings.

That’s five indisputable reasons why Greinke is worth the money, and if you want a sixth and definitive answer, I offer the most enlightening sentence in Economics 101: If someone is willing to pay you X amount of dollars, you are therefore worth X amount of dollars. So that’s settled.

But, of course, this is more than money. If a team does give Greinke a Sabathia deal, it is clear the club is paying for, it hopes, something similar to the 2009 Greinke. That Greinke did this: 229.1 innings, 242 strikeouts, 2.16 ERA, 9.3 WAR.

Oh, the 2012 Greinke was still very good, tossing 212.1 innings across two leagues with 200 strikeouts, a 3.48 ERA and 5.1 WAR. There’s no shame in that line. But there are questions about Greinke – the off-field ones we’ll leave to the doctors and folks actually familiar with Greinke and his medical history, not public speculation about the “pressures” of “certain markets” – and whether at 29 he can still be the same guy he was at 25.

I wondered that, too. How similar is the ’09 Greinke and the ’12 Greinke that clubs are now bidding on? We know what his ERA and strikeouts and WAR and walk rate and homerun rate all say – they tell us a great deal – but do they tell us what kind of pitcher Greinke still is?

For that, we must look a little closer.

*          *          *

I pored over Greinke data from ’09 and ’12, trying to determine his tendencies and approaches – essentially, how he goes about attacking hitters. Let’s break him down, beginning with that crazy-good 2009 season.

Note: All percentages have been rounded.

The 2009 Greinke

Fastball: 54 percent, 37 percent GB, 55 percent FB, 9 percent LD, 13 percent miss

Slider: 19 percent, 48 percent GB, 39 percent FB, 13 percent LD, 46 percent miss

Curveball: 14 percent, 39 percent GB, 53 percent FB, 8 percent LD, 27 percent miss

Changeup: 6 percent, 45 percent GB, 48 percent FB, 7 percent LD, 23 percent miss

Average velocities: Fastball (93.6 mph), slider (85.6), curveball (73.9), changeup (84.2), max fastball (98.7)

This dude was nasty. He was mostly a three-pitch guy – fastball, slider, curveball – but relied heavily on those first two, and those two were SO good that it didn’t much matter. Prior to the ’09 season, Greinke did add a changeup, but he threw only 209 of them all season (probably because, in 48 plate appearances that ended on a change, hitters had a .438 OBP), or 6 percent of his total pitches.

Because Greinke was a young and (relatively) inexperienced pitcher in ’09, and because his fastball-slider combo was just so damn toxic, what we saw was a pretty simple approach.

Against right-handed batters, Greinke threw 56 percent fastballs and 25 percent curveballs on the first pitch, the majority of the heaters being on the outer half. If he got a strike, the 0-1 pitch was likely going to be a curveball away (55 percent were in the zone, so he was just trying to drop it in to steal another quick strike with his third-best pitch) or a fastball inside. If the count was 1-0, you’d likely see a fastball, or he would introduce the slider (17 percent in that count), trying to take advantage of a hitter cheating fastball. 1-1 counts were mostly the same – lots of heaters for strikes, a fair amount of sliders to prey on over-aggressive and/or Cheating Bastards.

Where the core of Greinke comes out is in “true” strikeout counts – 0-2, 1-2, 2-2 (I wanted to eliminate the need to throw a strike – therefore highlighting the counts only where Greinke would be hunting for a K – so I didn’t include 3-2). Here, you’re going to eat sliders (not the good kind that go well with cold beer). In these strikeout counts, Greinke threw 48 percent sliders (with a 51 percent miss rate) and 41 percent fastballs (but only 29 percent inside).

So as a right-handed hitter facing the ’09 Greinke, here’s the deal: If you’re not a Cheating Bastard, you can mostly eliminate the slider early (if you are, you deserve your fate), knowing you’re getting a fastball or a “show-me” curveball. It’s best to hit one of those. But if you do get into a true strikeout count, you can eliminate the curveball and, because only about a third of Greinke’s fastballs are inside, you can also mostly eliminate the inner half (it’s more likely you get an elevated fastball). Your two options: Sit slider, knowing that’s Greinke’s out-pitch, and hope he hangs one, or sit on the away location, looking to serve something the opposite way for a single. Of course, those aren’t great options, but at least the at-bat is reduced to only a couple choices (by the way – Greinke knew hitters could do this, and he was OK with it. Why? Because he was the best pitcher in baseball. That’s why.)

For left-handed hitters, it wasn’t necessarily more difficult – they did hit 77 points of OPS better than righties – it was just a little more complex, with Greinke having an extra advantage early and lefties having an extra advantage later in counts.

On the first pitch, Greinke would pound fastballs and curveballs away, and if he got to 0-1, he had that changeup to dangle for a cheap out (17 percent with a 46 percent swing rate), or he’d throw a heater inside – but this was more about re-opening the outer half than it was about beating a left-handed hitter inside. At 1-1, Greinke could throw any of those three pitches, but it would almost certainly be away (he threw 45 percent fastballs vs. LHB in this count, and only a quarter of those were inside). The early advantage for Greinke against lefties is that they had to deal with three pitches instead of two, and while they could sit away, they couldn’t eliminate the inside location. He had options.

This gets fun against lefties in true strikeout counts, because Greinke turns back into the I’m Good And Damn If I Don’t Know It Greinke, leaning heavily on his fastball-slider combo. But here’s the essence of the battle: Greinke pounds his slider down-and-in to lefties while keeping his fastball away, so they can’t eliminate a pitch and they can’t eliminate a location, as Greinke has the velocity to blow you away if you totally disrespect his second option. What lefties CAN do is some damage on Greinke’s best pitch, the slider. Because a right-on-left slider naturally breaks into the bat rather than away from it, even someone with a slider as good as Greinke’s has to be careful to bury it down or bury it in (preferably both). If he misses over the plate at all, or it flattens out at all, the pitch is spinning there in a happy zone for lefties, where they can turn-and-burn on it*.

*Public Service Announcement: This is why it’s important to research your pitchers before going to a game. If you know a righty has a good slider and throws it against lefties, and you are sitting on the first-base side, you NEED to know this. Nobody wants four seams with a bite of hotdog.

One last note on the 2009 Greinke: Because the approach for right-handed hitters was much simpler, I assumed they would wait Greinke out more often than lefties, sitting on something specific until they got it. Turns out, 34 more at-bats against righties ended within the first three pitches. This could be due to any number of things – including factors we can’t infer from these numbers – but there’s at least one simple theory: RHB knew their lives were nothing but hell if they got to two strikes, with mid-90s away and a brutal slider breaking away from their barrel, so they took the first bailout they could find. Lefties at least had a chance of getting lucky with two strikes.

The 2012 Greinke

Fastball: 52 percent, 48 percent GB, 33 percent FB, 19 percent LD, 13 percent miss

Curveball: 17 percent, 53 percent GB, 30 percent FB, 17 percent LD, 26 percent miss

Slider: 13 percent, 54 percent GB, 30 percent FB, 16 percent LD, 48 percent miss

Cutter: 12 percent, 37 percent GB, 34 percent FB, 30 percent LD, 22 percent miss

Changeup: 6 percent, 73 percent GB, 15 percent FB, 13 percent LD, 30 percent miss

Average velocities: Fastball (92.3), cutter (89.2), slider (83), changeup (85.5), curveball (73.4), max fastball (96.2)

Well, a number of things jump out right away here.

  • Greinke has added a cutter (there were traces of it in the ’09 data, 1.5 percent, but that seemed fishy to me, and it’s possible that harder, flatter sliders could be logged as cutters by the cameras). Cutters are good, of course, but that LD figure should immediately tell you a story.
  • Greinke has lost 1.3 mph off his average fastball (and 2.5 mph off his max), but his is still a plus pitch in the 91-96 range.
  • While his fastball velo has declined a touch, he’s still missing bats at the same rate with the pitch while getting a lot more groundballs and a lot fewer flyballs out of it.
  • His miss rate on the curveball is about the same, it’s slightly better on the slider and is noticeably better on the changeup (while throwing it at the same rate).
  • His groundball rate on every secondary pitch has improved considerably, with his changeup treating the groundball like a guy suddenly going free underneath his jeans. Wait, I can do this? THIS IS AWESOME!
  • His average slider has lost 2.6 mph, as it’s a little less of a power pitch and more of a breaker with a bit more depth (but equally as good)

What we see in the Greinke that is four years older is a much more complex pitcher. Oh, sure, he’s still about his fastball and his slider, and the later will forever be his out-pitch, as it should be. But no longer can hitters on either side dial in on singular pitches or locations as much.

With righties now, Greinke is still likely to throw a fastball or curveball away on the first pitch, but there’s the threat of the cutter that wasn’t there in ’09. If hitters want to be Cheating Bastards on the fastball, then they also have to deal with the reality of a 12-hopper to shortstop as pieces of maple sprinkle all over the infield grass.

In 0-1 counts, a righty used to be able to sit fastball away or curveball. Here is what Greinke does now: 46 percent fastballs (with 40 percent of those inside), 21 percent curveballs, 20 percent sliders (with a 59 percent strike rate but only 29 percent of them in the zone), 11 percent cutters. If you get to 1-0, you can gamble a little more on a fastball, but there’s still an 11 percent chance you see a slider or cutter (on top of a 14 percent chance you get a curveball). That’s the thing – you can’t eliminate pitches on Greinke early in the count anymore. In ’09, there were about three choices early in counts against righties: fastball away, curveball away, fastball in (with occasional sliders). In ’12, there are five: fastball away, fastball in, curveball away, slider away, cutter away.

In true strikeout counts, Greinke still goes hunting with the slider, he’ll still elevate the fastball, but he’ll also change speeds with the curveball. And as Greinke gets more comfortable and consistent with his cutter, here’s his next trick (that he’s already showing signs of): When he wants to be a little bully, he’ll throw an 89-91 mph cutter at a right-handers hip and bring it back to the inside corner. And God help the next decade of right-handed hitters if he starts commanding that.

Being a left-handed hitter now against Greinke is like being sentenced to death but given the courtesy of choosing the method of execution. Oh, gee, thank you kind sir, I’ll take Colonel Mustard and the revolver! He has many more weapons to work with early, so if you can extend the at-bat, then his approach simplifies – except the “simplified” choices are still a plus fastball or plus slider. Early, you have to fight fastballs on both sides of the plate, curveballs and changeups away, sliders and cutters in.

There is one wrinkle Greinke had in ’12 against lefties that will, with time and command, turn into a huge weapon. He pounds his cutter inside in all counts, except when he gets to two strikes. In those true strikeout counts against lefties, he’s now throwing 17 percent cutters with 55 percent of them being away – meaning he’s trying to be a little bully again by starting the pitch off the plate, making the hitter think it’s a ball and give up on it, only to bring it inside the backdoor for a called third strike. (I know, it’s really not fair.)

One thing that’s important to note is that in ’12, we saw Greinke’s HR/FB rate skyrocket (10.2 percent compared to 4.5 percent in ’09). That’s likely due to a number of things – ranging from small (moving to the AL in the second half) to large (inconsistent command across a number of pitches – but I think one of those large factors is his increase in cutter usage.

He’s throwing the pitch about as often as his slider, but it’s not nearly as good and he’s not consistent enough. He leaves them over the plate to righties, pulling them a bit when he’s trying to get it inside, and the only thing worse than a slide breaking into the barrel of a lefty is a crappy cutter doing the same thing. Cutters, in general, are firmer than sliders and don’t have the same tilt or depth to them (nor should they) – they are designed to have just a little sharp movement that allows them to avoid the barrel of the bat. So when they aren’t sharp or don’t cut or miss over the plate, what you’re now throwing is a flat, juicy mid-to-upper-80s pitch that doesn’t have any of the life or action that even an upper-80s fastball could. So, yeah, those get pounded in the big leagues, and we see that in the pitch’s line drive rate.

But it is possible that this increased use of the cutter that likely deflated Greinke’s stats a little last season could pay off big for him in the coming years. He needs to throw it to develop the pitch and command it, and when he accomplishes that, we may see some of those 2009 Greinke numbers again.

*          *          *

Now, about that should Greinke get Sabathia money question. Look, there are stats that are hard to argue that suggest Greinke is no longer the pitcher he was four years ago. Those stats also play a large role in determining salary.

And pitching approaches and tendencies don’t mean anything if the cold production numbers aren’t there at the end. So this isn’t a case that Greinke is better than he was in 2009.

But I think there is an argument to make that hitting against Greinke is more complicated now than it ever was, and in time, “complicated” should morph into “difficult,” because it’s not as if Greinke is making changes to his approach to hide declining stuff.

Greinke still has a young man’s stuff, but he is now combining it with a more complex plan, a concoction of physical brilliance and intellectual mastery that drives a big buck on the open market.

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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