To a certain extent, it seems like almost the entire market is waiting on free-agent starter Zack Greinke to make a decision. Greinke seems to be choosing between the Dodgers and the Rangers. If Greinke goes to LA, Texas might turn its attention to Josh Hamilton. If Greinke goes to Texas, Hamilton will end up elsewhere. As Greinke makes his decision, Hamilton makes his decision, and then things become clearer for Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Justin Upton, and so on and so forth. Greinke needs to choose an employer before the rest of the big-ticket acquisitions can identify their own.
As we’ve talked about, Greinke’s the available free-agent ace, so long as your definition of “ace” isn’t “Justin Verlander or above”. He’s going to get paid accordingly by someone, with a shot at beating the CC Sabathia contract. Being that Greinke is exceptionally talented and still not very old, the appeal is obvious. He’s ready to help in the regular season and he’s ready to help in the playoffs. There is a thing about Greinke, though, that’s worth exploring in greater depth than we have.
I guess there are several things about Greinke that are worth exploring in greater depth than we have. Here, we’re going to focus on Greinke’s catchers. In writing about Greinke and Anibal Sanchez the other day, I mentioned that Greinke has spent a lot of time throwing to Jonathan Lucroy. Pitch-framing research has identified Lucroy as one of the very best in the business. Early indications are that Martin Maldonado is also quite good, and he caught 11 of Greinke’s games in 2012. Greinke was a Brewer for a year and a half, and over that year and a half, he threw to some spectacular pitch-framers. Over the rest of his career, he has not. If you believe that the pitch-framing research is onto something, then this is definitely something to explore.
If catchers can have an effect on called balls and called strikes, then it stands to reason one should try to isolate pitchers from this effect, at least toward the extremes. In a way we’re going to try to isolate Zack Greinke. We’re going to look at Greinke’s called balls and called strikes between 2008-2012, during the reliable PITCHf/x Era. We’re going to use simple data that’s entirely available here at FanGraphs.
We can see how many strikes Zack Greinke generated. We can also calculate how many strikes one should have “expected”. You expect all zone pitches and all out-of-zone swings to go for strikes. By comparing this “expected strikes” total to the actual strikes total, you can learn, and with Greinke, we see some remarkable data. I’ll try to lay this out as best I can:
Diff/1000 refers to the difference between strikes and expected strikes per 1000 called pitches. LgDiff/1000 refers to the league-average difference between strikes and expected strikes per 1000 called pitches. Vs. League refers to the difference between Zack Greinke and the league average. Greinke has averaged just over 1800 called pitches a year over the last five years.
With the Royals and with the Angels, we see Greinke in the neighborhood of league-average. With the Brewers, he’s way way above. As a Brewer, the difference between Greinke and the league average was 54 strikes per 1000 called pitches, by this analysis. As a non-Brewer, since 2008, the difference between Greinke and the league average was five strikes per 1000 called pitches, by this analysis. That seems fairly substantial, and this demonstrates that Greinke doesn’t have some special ability to get strikes called on should-be balls. That happened for him in Milwaukee, but because it didn’t happen for him elsewhere, it suggests it wasn’t so much about Greinke, and was more about someone or someones else.
Unsurprisingly, Greinke spends a lot of his time working the edges. Here’s Greinke throwing to right-handed batters over the last two years, via Texas Leaguers:
And Greinke against left-handed batters over the same span:
Greinke spends so much of his time in the low-away quadrant, and that’s where a catcher can really make a difference. The more a pitcher hovers around the borders, the more the pitcher needs to depend on other people. Lucroy and Maldonado helped Greinke get some calls he might not have otherwise deserved. Greinke’s other catchers over the years haven’t done him quite so many favors.
This shouldn’t be interpreted as asserting that Zack Greinke isn’t actually all that good. Greinke was amazing in 2009, with Miguel Olivo behind the plate. Greinke was effective with the Angels, and his strong numbers with the Brewers weren’t due entirely to the backstops. It’s also possible this analysis has a fatal flaw and doesn’t actually mean anything. Maybe Greinke earned those extra strikes. Maybe Greinke has improved his command, and is more often given the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of the catchers, Zack Greinke is a good bet to be the best starting pitcher available.
But this sure seems like it ought to be a consideration, because neither the Dodgers nor the Rangers have a Lucroy or a Jose Molina behind the plate, as things stand. The evidence doesn’t love A.J. Ellis as a framer, and Geovany Soto is merely fine. Greinke’s going to be a massive investment, so these teams need to figure out exactly what he is, and what he is is a guy who seems to have benefited from some talented receivers. It’s on the Dodgers and the Rangers to figure out how good Zack Greinke truly is on his own.