Which is the real Zack Greinke?

Zack Greinke is confusing. Two years ago he put up the kind of jaw-dropping numbers that come along only about once a decade. Last season he was still pretty good, but there wasn’t anything about him to make you sit up and take notice. He’s going to be on the market this winter and teams looking to trade for him are going to wonder which pitcher they’re getting.

Let’s dispense with the formalities quickly. All the underlying numbers agree that Greinke was not as good in 2010 as he was in 2009. I’ve never been a fan of looking at changes from just one season to the next, though. I believe looking at a player’s entire career can show trends and abilities that might be missed looking at only one or two seasons of data. Looking at ERA, FIP and xFIP over his career, we see mostly the same things. ERA varies the most (as it will), but they pretty much all agree that 2009 looks like Greinke’s career year.

That wouldn’t be so surprising. Plenty of pitchers peak early, but Greinke has always looked so promising, and no one wants to give up hope. Justin at True. Blue. Meh. did some interesting work on this in June. He wonders if there’s a mechanical issue with the curve, which was posting a much lower value and breaking less than in 2009. There was reason to hope, though. He points out that Greinke was giving up more homers than normal (this normalized as the season played out) and leaving fewer runners on base (this did not).

When we look deeper, it gets bleaker.

Looking at PITCHf/x from the last two years, he doesn’t look like the same pitcher at all. He’s suddenly throwing a two-seamer almost 30 percent of the time, his changeup use has more than doubled (up to 12.2 percent now) and his fastball, slider and curve are all being used less.

Why has Greinke made these changes? I don’t know, but if we look at a longer trail of data, it starts to look like he’s compensating for diminished abilities. His velocity seems consistent, a good sign, but frankly, his curveball and slider just don’t move like they used to. And this isn’t a one-year aberration. The movement of these two pitches, especially the curveball, has been declining for years now. Four years ago, his curveball was breaking 8.1 inches horizontally, now it’s down to 4.5. His slider had a 5.7 inch horizontal break, but now it’s only 2.9, and the decline has been steady for both pitches.

What’s more, the values on all of his pitches (except his changeup which went from bad to somewhat less bad) have really fallen compared to 2009. The worst part is that, except for his troublesome curveball, the 2010 values really aren’t out of line with his career numbers.

This is a sad story, but it’s hard to deny. I keep looking at the numbers, trying to find something that will tell me that Greinke is poised to bounce back. I do think he’ll post somewhat better numbers next year due to a better strand rate, but I don’t think he’s going to blow our minds again.

I hear sometimes about the belief that Greinke can turn it on whenever he wants. Maybe he can, I don’t know. What I do know is that, looking at the numbers, looking at what his pitches do, it’s hard not to see someone whose skill set is changing from that of a fantastic pitcher to that of one who is “only” very good. I think that’s what you can count on next year. He certainly isn’t going to hurt a team, but he’s not going to dominate like the 2009 Greinke.

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  1. Jason Linden said...

    RZ – Yeah, I know exact numbers are not the best tool. What I was trying to point out is that, if you look at Greinke over the last several years, his breaking pitches are very clearly changing. It’s a really steady trend, actually. And, I think, probably reflects a change in his skill set.

    Michael – True. Blue. Meh. is a Royals blog. I used some of their research when I was putting this article together. It should have been linked. Sorry about that. Here’s the url to the particular article I used: http://truebluemeh.blogspot.com/2010/06/whats-wrong-with-zack-greinke-anyway.html

  2. Peter Jensen said...

    He’s suddenly throwing a two-seamer almost 30 percent of the time,

    This is entirely due to MLB Gameday’s changes in pitch classification.  Sliders also had a smaller change in classification that affect the year to year average numbers. 

    This is a very poorly researched article.  Jason, if you are going to continue to present research using Pitch Fx data you are going to need to learn to do pitch classification of your own and not rely on MLB’s classifications.  Even if your pitch classifications are not as good as Mike Fast’s are Harry Pavlidis’, at least they would be consistent from year to year.  You also need to learn how to normalize the data for changes in Pitch Fx calibration which occur both between parks and within parks over time.  Greinke seems to have very different numbers on his breaking pitches home and away.  They may be real, due to mound differences, but they also may be artifacts due to differences in Pitch Fx calibration.

  3. Jason Linden said...

    Peter – You’ve got me on pitch classification. The two-seamer bit is particularly embarrassing as it was the result of my remembering something I’d read incorrectly, but not going back to check it. I’m still learning with this data.

    I do think the movement numbers are pretty legit, though, looking at four year graphs of every game (I am doing this right now), there’s a really clear downward trend in the movements of his pitches. There are, as you say, differences depending on where he pitches, but they clearly do not move as much now as they did several years ago.

  4. Dan said...

    Decent article.  After having watched 95% of Greinke’s games the past two years you can tell he’s becoming a different pitcher, but to say his skills are diminishing would be a vast overstatement.  Maybe by Pitch F/X data it looks that way, but by watching him, he’s just choosing to focus on different things to build him pitching art. 

    The main thing is the 2 seam fastball which you aptly noted.  That pitch is turning to be a dominant pitch for him as it sits around 93-94 with some real good movement which has induced many more ground ball outs and he specifically uses it for that purpose behind in counts or in a situation where a ground ball is needed (men on base).  His GB% went up from 40% to 46%, the highest in his career.  In 2009, he rarely used it and when he did it sat 90-91 mph.  Is that really diminishing skills, I’d say no.

    His 4 seam definitely looked better in 2010 vs. 2009 as I saw him dial it up to 99 and 100 when he wanted to on many occasions and generally sat 95-97, whereas in 2009 it sat 94-96 and rarely would touch 98.  Again, not really diminishing.

    His change-up is now an average to plus pitch on occasions vs. his past years where it was a useless, show me pitch.  In 2010, I saw him really use it well against both left and right handed batters and it could develop into a bigger strikeout pitch in the future for him.  This was his second biggest improvement from 2009 apart from his 2 seam FB.

    Overall, his year was definitely down from 2009.  Main reason I saw, he just wasn’t as crisp hitting his spots on the corners like in 2009 and batters were definitely laying off his slider more vs. 2009, hence K% down, strand rate up, BB up, giving up more hits in hitter’s counts and ERA up.  Maybe 2009 was a career year, but at age 26 with 4 full seasons (not consecutively, and some emotional issues in between) I would hardly make the conclusion that his skills are diminishing and he’s compensating.  Maybe just by looking at data and averages you could make that case, but good analysis should be done with looking at the bigger picture of what he’s doing and some actual observations of live pitching.

    Unless 26 is the new point at which pitchers start aging (I strongly disagree as does Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee), I would have to say that once he puts together the dominant change up he’s said he’s wanted to have for the past couple years, and learns the craft of all of his pitches, I can honestly project another Cy Young in his future, and potentially more than one.  He’s that good, and not just in the “very” good sense, but in “one of the best” senses.  I can’t wait to see what he does at 30, 31, 32 if he stays healthy.

  5. Jeffrey Gross said...

    Interesting article Jason. From a fantasy perspective, this gives me increasing skepticism about him going forward.

    One comment, however, @Dan:

    Which Zach Greinke have you been watching? I just took a quick browse over his career game log of pitching velocities and I found no instanced of 100 MPH, let alone him dialing “it up to 99 and 100 when he wanted to on many occasions.” Where did you get this data? Cuban league Radar guns? Steve Phillips eyes?

  6. Jeffrey Gross said...

    In fact, the fasted pitch I can find that he ever threw came on either 7/20/07 or 8/01/07. And that was 97-98 mph.

  7. Jeffrey Gross said...

    sorry. not to spam, but i was wrong. Looking at my own link, I find Greinke’s fastest fastball to have come in 2010. He touched 99 one game (and he seems to have hit 98 in two other games in his career)

  8. Grant said...

    You guys are retarded.  Zack got hit early because the league adjusted to him.  He adjusted back.  Secondly, Jason Friggin’ Kendall was calling his pitches.  Thirdly, Zack just didn’t really give an EFF.  All he cares about now is winning.  He took the Cy Young down, so that’s all that is really left for him. (Winning)  Zack will do fine where ever he gets traded to.  Let’s face the music people.  Zack is a goner.

  9. Dan said...

    The radar guns I was watching were from the actual games on FS KC for home and whatever the game was on for the road, so yes I would agree that radar guns are all different and Pitch F/X would definitely show changes.  Maybe the gun FS in KC uses will show 100, but only be 97 on Pitch F/X.  I apologize for not digging into all statistics at a much deeper level for my random Greinke post on THT.  But the Fangraphs player page shows my point, velocity up in 2010 vs all other years even if TV doesn’t translate well to stored databases.

  10. Dan said...

    Looking at 2007 isn’t a great indicator as he was in the bullpen most of the year, but it does show what he can do if he wants to.

  11. Jeffrey Gross said...

    PS, I have a buddy who works the guns for a major league team and I can say for a fact those things are not always pointed right…scouts reports are a better source in my mind.

  12. Dan said...

    No worries.  I just know what I saw watching almost every pitch for 2 years from him and I know I saw 99 and 100.  I also know those things aren’t accurate all the time but they definitely were not Cuban guns and my eyes were not Steve Phillips’.  I have been known to over exaggerate in my life at least once a day, but I try not to do it on a site where I know people would call me out on it in 2 sec.

  13. Nick Farrell said...

    Jason- I found this article very interesting. I think the potential positive explanation is this, which is moderately corroborated by interviews with Greinke with respect to his own analysis of who he is and where he’s going: Greinke, as a student of pitching, sees value in his long term durability, and put a lot of focus in the off-season on developing his change-up (Dan commented about this), probably at the short-term expense of his other breaking pitches, and a bit of his command, since he wasn’t working on throwing them as much. Curves are generally fickle (see Zito, Barry), and there’s a correlation between degree of slider usage with injuries.

    I expect the change-up to only get better, and the curve to possibly. I think that as he he gets older and the change-up becomes more innate to him, the other pitches (particularly the slider) won’t suffer, and his command, though it may never be what it was in 2009, will improve to something somewhere in-between. But that’s just a hypothesis and there are certainly alternative, valid explanations.

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