When he’s on, he’s nearly impossible to hit; when he’s off, it’s nearly impossible to tell why. Consider his 2011:
May/June: 62.1 IP, 80 K, 12 BB, 8 HR, 66 H, 5.63 ERA, 2.80 FIP
Rest of season: 109.1 IP, 121 K, 33 BB, 11 HR, 95 H, 2.80 ERA, 3.08 FIP
Tuesday night’s start against the Seattle Mariners stuffed all the bewilderment of Zack Greinke into one start — Greinke set a modern day record, becoming the first starter ever to strike out 13 batters in a five-inning start. But in those five innings, the Mariners still managed two walks and seven hits including a home run. It was one of the game’s most dominating starts and yet nine of 24 Angels reached base — a .375 OBP! — and four managed extra base hits.
Again, we are left with more questions than answers.
I don’t mean to suggest Greinke wasn’t good Tuesday. For the most part, he was brilliant, and he was particularly brilliant in the most important moments, stranding eight baserunners (nine if you count his pickoff of Kyle Seager). But even in a start like this one, where his changeup and slider worked so well in tandem with a zipping, lively fastball, there were lapses. That ever-bothersome term “consistency” springs to mind, and it will likely bother him all the way to the bank this winter when free agent negotiations heat up.
The idea that true talent remains constant throughout a full season is a shaky one at best — players play through pain, they make adjustments, they change strategies and tweak stances all throughout the season. And they’re human. We would, however, at least expect true talent to remain constant through just one whole game.
But is that a correct assumption? When Greinke pitched in Milwaukee, it seemed at times like every single mistake pitch he made would not just be a mistake but the worst mistake possible — he would be cruising, and then he would lay a 92 MPH fastball right in the middle of the zone. It would feel as if a different pitcher made the pitch.
On Tuesday, Greinke was cruising, and then he did this in the top of the fourth:
Justin Smoak turned that 92 MPH fastball into a home run.
This is, I think, a convenient answer to Greinke’s questions. Watching the start as a whole, it was nigh impossible to imagine him giving up any runs, much less a home run on such an enticing pitch. Watching that (one-pitch) at-bat by itself, things fall into place.
Unfortunately, as convenient as this idea is, there isn’t much of a way to test it. The idea of a “mistake” pitch is largely subjective. To define it objectively, we would need some measure of how far the pitcher misses the catcher’s glove. Even that might not truly capture it — pitches missing outside the strike zones aren’t the kind of mistakes Greinke (at least hypothetically) gets killed on, they’re the ones that miss within the zone. And could a pitch still be a mistake if the spot was hit but just poorly selected? We are treading on the dangerous terrain of subjectivity, rarely good news for statistics.
Still, curiosity reigns. I took notes on the start, specifically watching for pitches that appeared to be “mistakes.” You can read the notes here.
Out of 110 pitches, I noted 24 that could be construed as mistakes — pitches that appeared to be in a part of the zone as to be particularly hittable — although seven were accompanied by question marks or “could be” notes. Of these 24, we have the seven hits (only Miguel Olivo‘s single was particularly questionable), but also have four swinging strikes, nine fouls, and four looking strikes.
In some cases, it was clear Greinke was leaving the ball to close to the center of the plate. In others, it wasn’t clear if this was simply Greinke’s sequencing — certain first-pitch curveballs, for example, were dangerously near the center of the zone — or perhaps knowledge of the hitter — Greinke was willing to throw multiple fastballs down the middle to Brendan Ryan where he didn’t do so to nearly anybody else.
Having the stuff to be able to pitch in the strike zone is one of the qualities of an ace. The zone contact leaderboard for starters is a veritable who’s who of aces — Cole Hamels and Justin Verlander lead; Jered Weaver, R.A. Dickey, CC Sabathia, Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay (among others) inhabit the top quintile.
At least there is some data to back up this idea. In many cases, this ability to pitch in the strike zone means having the stuff to get away with mistakes. Greinke can do that — his fastball dials up to 95 with movement and his breaking stuff is savage, particularly his changeup against left-handers (just ask Trayvon Robinson). But when that velocity slips into the low-90s and the pitch misses towards the middle of the plate, disaster strikes. Greinke only has an 89.5% zone contact rate since 2010, right between Trevor Cahill and Jeff Karstens, 83rd of 126 qualifiers.
As I watched Greinke carve up many of the Mariners hitters he faced Tuesday, it was clear that a big part of his success comes from sticking to a specific plan of attack against hitters. Against hitters on either side, Greinke routinely attacked the outside corner, mixing in changeups against the lefties, curveballs against the righties and the changeup against both. He showed how capable he was of executing this attack, too — living on the corners, pitching in a way where if the pitch missed, its natural movement would carry it outside the zone instead of back into a dangerous area. But occasionally it would miss the wrong way, and therein lied the problems.
Zack Greinke is most certainly a good enough pitcher to handle these mistakes. For all this racket above, Greinke still gave up just the one run on Tuesday and he continues to have a good-to-great season depending on if you prefer his ERA (3.42) or his FIP (3.05) as the starting point for your discussion. But with his 2009 Cy Young, his ever-excellent peripherals and his impending free agency, the question of just how good he is and how good he can be is a pertinent one. Is he a true ace, a number one in scouting parlance? Or is he one of the excellent but less select borderline pitchers, those who entice with greatness but don’t sustain it on the level of a Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson or Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez?
I think there are good reasons to believe Greinke can get to that level again as he was in 2009. At only 28 years old, he should still have many fine years ahead of him. He controls strikeouts, walks and home runs as well as any pitcher in the league.
But for the last three years, glaring mistakes have eaten away at the reputation earned by his Cy Young season. Tuesday’s start against Seattle showed both sides. It displayed both Excellent Zack and Struggling Zack in one tidy package, and as long as Struggling Zack remain in full visibility, these doubts on his ability to return to the top flight will remain.
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