August 13, 2012
The Zack Greinke Parlour Game
In 2005, Baseball Prospectus ran perhaps the giddiest, glowingest comment in BP Annual history. It was more than 500 words, and it was about a pitcher who, according to PECOTA, had a 0 percent collapse rate and a 63 percent improve rate:
Since then, watching Zack Greinke pitch has always been both a left-brain and a right-brain pursuit. There’s the text: outs, hits, runs, wins. And then there’s the subtext: artist, provocateur, magician, scientist? There’s the question of whether he’s a mad genius or careless and foolhardy. There’s the pointless yet fascinating contest with Randy Wolf to throw the slowest pitch imaginable. There’s the mystery of a first-pitch ball he threw to Luis Gonzalez in 2008, which PITCHf/x recorded as 44 mph, but for which no publicly accessible video documentation survives. It would be easily ignored as an obvious glitch, except that it’s Zack Greinke, and Zack Greinke is always threatening to do the unthinkable for no obvious reason, like David Blaine.
Every young pitcher has a certain promise, and part of Greinke’s promise was in the parlour game: 62, 94, every number in between. And I wondered: Has he ever actually done it?
But first: Is 62, 94 and every number in between even rare? Well, yes. I’m going to start naming pitchers who started Thursday, just to pin down a baseline. Ubaldo Jimenez is a pitcher. In his start Thursday, he hit 16 different numbers on the gun. Mike Leake is a pitcher, and in his last start he hit 17 different numbers. Chris Volstad hit 11 numbers. Wei-Yin Chen hit 16. Will Smith hit 18. R.A. Dickey hit 16. Josh Johnson hit 18. Doug Fister hit 18. Hiroki Kuroda: 13. Adam Wainwright: 18. Madison Bumgarner: 14.
So that’s our general range. Most pitchers can do a few different things with a baseball, and the execution of these few things varies a bit, which leads to about 15 to 18 different speeds per game. Few reach 20. In Greinke’s most recent start, he hit 24 different speeds.