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September 28, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Zack Greinke and the Case of the Missing Strikeouts

by Craig Brown

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If 2008 was Zack Greinke’s breakout campaign, his Cy Young performance in 2009 was validation he belong in the top echelon of baseball’s starting pitchers.  His efforts in those two seasons moved him up draft boards and auction lists, and had fantasy owners looking forward to another successful summer with the young right-hander anchoring their rotation.

Then 2010 happened.  

It’s been an ugly and frustrating season for Greinke.  While advanced metrics indicate his performance is not that far off his 2008 and 2009 seasons, his fantasy stats beg to differ.  Check out his primary fantasy numbers, along with his SIERA from each of the last three seasons.

Greinke’s 2009 season was the product of a prolonged hot start (he owned a 1.10 ERA in his first 82 innings and didn’t allow a home run until June) and equally strong finish (he posted a 1.54 ERA and 75 strikeouts over his final 70 innings.)  His final numbers as shown in the above table were so much improved over his 2008 season that it was widely believed he would have a difficult time repeating his ’09 performance.  PECOTA agreed, predicting a weighted mean of a 3.23 ERA and 1.19 WHIP to go along with 205 strikeouts in 202 innings of work.  If you had asked me at the beginning of the season, I would have thought that PECOTA was pretty much spot on in Greinke’s case.

It turns out we were both wildly optimistic.

Greinke features a fastball that lives around 93 mph, a sharp slider and a curveball he can throw at varying speeds and angles.  All three are plus pitches.  Greinke’s success in 2009 was largely based upon the maturation of that killer slider, complimenting his fastball in such a way hitters were often stymied at the dish.  He punched out 26.5% of all batters, the third best rate among starters in the AL. His 9.5 SO/9 was also the third best in the league and represented a career high.  

From Texas Leaguers, here are how his pitches broke down in 2009 when thrown for strikes:

It’s fairly easy to see… His slider was his best pitch in 2009.  He got a ton of swings when he threw the pitch and almost a quarter of those swings completely missed the ball.  It was also the pitch of his that was least likely to be put in play.

This season he moved away from a recipe that made him so successful.  Here are his pitch types broken down by percentage of times thrown.  The columns won’t add up exactly to 100% because of occasional unclassified pitches.

For some reason, Greinke threw fewer sliders and curves and turned more to his change in 2010.  It’s an odd decision given his change is the weakest of his four pitches and the slider has traditionally been either his first or second best weapon in his arsenal. Keeping that in mind, here’s how each pitch has fared in 2010 when thrown for strikes.

His slider is still his best pitch as far as getting hitters to chase, but overall he’s throwing it for fewer strikes.  Part of this has been an adjustment by hitters who early in the season made a conscious effort to lay off his slider that broke out of the zone.  Also, he's throwing over double the number of change-ups from last year and that pitch is being put in play almost a quarter of the time when the batter swings.

The effect of his change in approach can be seen in his results.  Here are the five most common plate appearance resolutions for Greinke in 2009:

Strikeout - 26.5%
Groundout - 15.9%
Flyout - 15.7%
Single - 14.4%
Walk - 5.4%

Compare those to his results from this season:

Groundout - 19.2%
Strikeout - 18.8%
Single - 16.9%
Flyout - 13.5%
Walk - 5.8%

Because his strikeout rate is down (while his walk rate is stable) Greinke is allowing more balls in play this year (71%) than any year since 2005.  His current ground ball rate of 46.3% is a career high, which would normally be a good thing.  Except in Greinke’s case it’s not so, as he plays in front of the worst defense in the AL.  The Royals Defensive Efficiency rating of 0.676 ranks them just ahead of the White Sox as the team with the collective Iron Glove.  Their infield defense has especially been atrocious with guys like Wilson Betemit, Yuniesky Betancourt and Billy Butler lacking the range and reflexes to consistently make plays.  Errors aren’t the best way to measure defense, but it may be worth noting that 17 times this season runners have reached base because of a recorded defensive miscue against Greinke.  That’s the highest number against any AL pitcher by far.  Second place belongs to the Rangers Colby Lewis who has had 12 runners reach via an error.  That's one reason his SIERA of 3.74 is a half run better than his real ERA

Then, there's Greinke’s mental makeup.  He’s now gone on the record twice about his unhappiness with the progress of Dayton Moore’s “Process” and how he’s been lacking motivation at times in 2010.  With a strikeout rate of 5.8 SO/9 in 31 September innings, to go along with a 6.68 ERA, it certainly feels like he’s waving the white flag.  As the Royals seem to be stuck in a perpetual youth movement, the losing environment surrounding Kansas City certainly takes its toll.  

Greinke turns 27 next month and will be entering the third year of a four year contract.  Next season, if he returns to his slider and throws fewer change-ups, there is no reason he can’t recapture his strikeout prowess and the overall success he had from 2008 and 2009.  At the same time you should keep in mind; Greinke’s miserable 2010 season speaks to the dangers of overvaluing good players on bad teams. 

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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