The Greinke chronicles

It’s difficult to look at the last three years of Zack Greinke’s career and get any kind of a feel for how he’s progressed as a pitcher. Yes, last year was a breakout for him in more ways than one. However, because over the last three seasons he’s been away from the team, a starter, a reliever and finally, a damn good starter, it’s nearly impossible to do any kind of trend-spotting.

Prior to last year, he had been away from the rotation for so long, in many ways we can say 2008 was his rookie season.

That’s because last summer was his first time since his disastrous 2005 season (5.80 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 4.94 xFIP) in which he spent the entire year in the starting rotation. It was a long trip back to the rotation, and watching him pitch in 2008 was almost like seeing someone pulling past experiences together and becoming whole. He needed that time in the minors in 2006 to learn to love the game. He needed that time in the bullpen in 2007 to learn that pitching can be fun. And he needed that time back in the rotation at the end of ’07 to prove to himself, his teammates and the organization that he possesses the right stuff to be a frontline starter. I hesitate to project anything onto Greinke because he’s so damn difficult to figure out, but all of us are the sum of our parts.

Anyway, to paraphrase Marty DiBergi: Enough of my philosophizing. Let’s rock.

As the Royals reported to spring training at the beginning of the 2006 season, Greinke was an unhappy 22-year-old with a career 4.99 ERA covering 57 starts. He owned a strikeout rate of 5.9 K/9 and a walk rate of 2.2 BB/9 compiled over 328 innings of work. It wasn’t just his pitching that was suffering; his mind wasn’t in the game either. So he left camp (officially for undisclosed psychological reasons) and returned home. It was reported at the time that he was having difficulty adapting to the lifestyle at the big league level and was undergoing counseling in Florida to help him cope. He returned to the organization in mid-April and spent most of the year in the minors where he made 18 appearances in Double-A Wichita with a 4.33 ERA and 94 strikeouts and 27 walks in 106 innings.

After a brief cup of coffee that September, Greinke opened 2007 in the Royals starting rotation as their No. 3 starter behind Gil Meche and Odalis Perez. Greinke pitched well in his first couple of starts, but then struggled. By the time the Royals decided to remove him from the rotation following a loss to Detroit on May 6, in which he allowed six runs in four innings, his ERA stood at 5.71 and opponents were hitting .338/.390/.579 against him. Was it too much, too soon?

Whatever the answer, once in the bullpen Greinke seemed to find himself, becoming a dependable set-up man for Kansas City. He appeared in 38 games as a reliever, with 26 of them coming from the seventh inning on. The bullpen experiment was so successful, there was even some (crazy) talk of making him a closer.

Fortunately, the Royals resisted the temptation to keep him in the bullpen and moved him back to the rotation at the end of August. Because of his time spent in the bullpen, he was eased back into the starter’s role, throwing 48 pitches in his first start, followed by 71 in his second and 82 in his third. Each time, he went one inning deeper in the game. Finally, it all came together for Greinke on Sept. 20 against the White Sox, when he went eight innings, allowing just two hits while striking out 10. With a Game Score of 88, it was his finest start as a major leaguer.

Here’s how his 2007 looked, breaking it down in chronological order of his various roles:

   DATE       GS        IP       K/9      BB/9       HR/9      ERA       BA       OBP      SLG
 4/5-5/6      7        34.2      5.2       2.9       1.3       5.71     .338     .390     .579
5/10-8/20     0        53.1      9.3       2.5       0.5       3.54     .226     .282     .332
8/24-9/26     7         34       8.2       2.6       1.1       1.85     .238     .294     .397

Following up on his strong finish to 2007, last year may very well have been Greinke’s breakout season: He elbowed his way through the chaff and catapulted himself into the elite of the AL. Here’s how he compared among his American League peers in several rate stats:

   Stat    Greinke   AL Rank
   ERA       3.47       10
   K/9       8.1        6
   BB/9      2.5        16
   K/BB      3.3        10
   xFIP      3.88       8

His success stems from his ability to finally harness his potential and translate that into power and strikeouts. When the Royals rushed Greinke through their system and placed him on a major league mound as a 20-year-old, he was obviously still finding his way as a pitcher. At the time, he relied heavily on a combination of fastball and curve. While he seemed to be able to dial up the speed on the heater from time to time, for the most part he lived in the upper 80s/lower 90s range on the radar gun. As he matured physically, the fastball found some giddyup.

However, what seemed to seal the deal for Greinke was the time spent in the bullpen in 2007 where he was able to throw with abandon. His average fastball that year, according to data from PITCHf/x collected by our own Josh Kalk, was 95.6 mph, which represents an amazing transformation. According to the Bill James handbook, 522 of Greinke’s pitches topped 95 mph on the radar gun. However any enthusiasm for his new-found power was tempered by the realization he was pitching (for the most part) from the bullpen. Without the need to pace himself for a six- or seven-inning start, Greinke was able to fire away in his shorter outings.

It turns out the move to the back to the rotation on a full time basis didn’t affect his velocity too much. His average fastball last summer was clocked at 94.2 mph.

Greinke has evolved into a true four-pitch pitcher with a curve, slider and change to complement his heat. Most of us have heard about his curve and his ability to throw it slower than an old lady driving a Cadillac to the grocery store. While the curve can be great fun, the slider has become a deadly weapon as well. Last year, while it was his third “favorite” pitch in terms of amount of times he threw it, Greinke used it as a complement to his fastball when jumping ahead in the count and with frequently positive results. The chart below illustrates his use of his slider as his “out” pitch and his success.

  Count    Fastball   Curve     Slider    Change    OPP BA
   0-2       47%       17%       34%        2%      .140
   1-2       49%       20%       28%        4%      .112
   2-2       57%       13%       21%        9%      .183
   3-2       69%       12%       14%        5%      .211

While you may feel that it’s a no-brainer (“Duh, he held opponents to a low batting average when he jumped ahead”) realize that Greinke’s numbers compare favorably with the elite starters. Guys like A.J. Burnett, C.C. Sabathia and Johan Santana all have similar opponent batting averages when pitching with two strikes. Pitchers like Brian Bannister and Daniel Cabrera do not. We shouldn’t underestimate the ability to seal the deal. It’s a large part of what makes the great ones so great.

Look at the chart above once again, this time knowing Greinke started hitters with a first pitch strike 62 percent of the time last year. It was an aggressive Greinke on the mound last summer and again, his first pitch strike rate compares favorably to other top American League starters, ranking 12th overall.

The numbers here are important because they shows that Greinke is maturing as a pitcher. In the past, when he would jump ahead, he would try to be cute, breaking off a ridiculous curve or grooving a fastball to challenge a hitter. It rarely worked. In his rookie season, opponents hit .262 against Greinke when he jumped ahead in the count 0-2.

(The exception might have been Richie Sexson. In 2005 in an early season game against the Mariners, Greinke started the first baseman off with two fastballs that were in the lower to mid 90s. Sexson looked at both for strikes. The third pitch was a looping curveball that hit about 60 mph on the gun. Sexson swung and missed, but it was like watching that Bugs Bunny cartoon when Bugs throws the slow pitch to the palooka who swings three times before the ball crosses the plate.)

Now, Greinke has junked the really slow curve in favor of a snappier breaking pitch and a sweeping slider. For the first time in his career, he stayed aggressive throughout his opponents’ at-bats and the result was a positive bump in his strikeout rate.

As you can guess from his high strikeout rate, Greinke’s success stems from his ability to avoid contact. Last year according to data collected by FanGraphs, hitters made contact when swinging at Greinke pitches thrown inside the strike zone 85.8 percent of the time. That may sound high, but consider the median for AL starters is roughly 90 percent and the average major league hitter makes contact on over 88 percent of pitches swung at in the strike zone. Greinke’s contact rate was the sixth lowest among AL qualifiers.

On pitches outside of the zone, he was equally difficult to hit. Batters made contact 59.8 percent of the time when swinging at pitches that would have been called balls (with a perfect umpire calling a perfect strike zone.) Median is around 65 percent.

It all came together on Jan. 26, when the Royals and Greinke held a press conference to announce he had signed a four-year extension valued at $38 million. The deal represents a positive step for a team that has grown accustomed to seeing most of its quality, home-grown players leave at the first whiff of free agency. By agreeing to the contract, Greinke becomes the fifth current Royal locked in through at least 2011. Four of the five who signed long-term (Greinke, Gil Meche, David DeJesus and Joakim Soria) will be counted on to form the base the Royals hope will become the foundation of a contender. (The fifth guy signed through 2011 is Kyle Farnsworth. We’re not going to discuss that contract.)

It’s an important step for both Greinke and the Royals. It’s important for the Royals because general manager Dayton Moore knows he must draft well and lock in his young players at a favorable rate if his team is ever going to contend. And it’s important for Greinke because for the first time in his career, he has long-term security and an enormous obligation to perform to expectations.

The Royals have now cashed out Greinke’s final two years of arbitration and also locked him in through his first two years of free agency. This has the potential to be an extremely fair deal. The Royals get four years of Greinke’s prime at a fair rate while Greinke, who will be 30 by the time this deal expires, will have the opportunity to make even more money down the road. It’s a good move for both a young player who is improving and an organization hopeful of eventually pulling itself into contention in the AL Central.

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