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August 13, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Zack Greinke Parlour Game

by Sam Miller

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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:

A scouting report will say that he throws his fastball 93-94, but he only throws maximum velocity on maybe a quarter of his fastballs, preferring to throw 88 with precision than sacrifice some command for increased velocity. He changes speeds on all of his pitches, actually; in any given start, he’ll throw at least one pitch at 62, another at 94, and hit most every number in between.

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.

Greinke has made 148 starts in the PITCHf/x era and has thrown at least 20 different speeds in 119 of those games. The only time he has failed to throw at least 16 different speeds was in July, when he was ejected after four pitches. (He threw four different speeds.) Twenty times he has thrown at least 27 different speeds. So, yes, the phenomenon described in a player comment for a 21-year-old is true, even now that he’s 28. 

Alas, there is no 62-to-94 game. In only seven games in the PITCHf/x era has he thrown a pitch that was 62 mph. The biggest obstacle to a 62-to-94 game is that he rarely throws more than one of those super-slow curves in a game and has only once or twice thrown the half-dozen (minimum) that would be required to fill in the low-end of the straight. In his seven games with a 62, there are only two other sub-68 pitches, total. For what it’s worth, he doesn’t settle for 62; he has also thrown six 61s, three 60s, two 59s, a 57, two 56s, a 54, a 53, a 51 and, perhaps, though unlikely, that 44.

If no 62-to-94 game, though, he could definitely throw a 68-to-94 game. On May 1, 2008, he came close: every number from 68 to 95, minus 72. On Aug. 30, 2009, he hit every number from 66 to 96 except for two: 70 and 78. He once hit every number from 76 to 96, and in the same game mixed in 51, 56, 57, 65 and 66—but uncharacteristically left a big gap in the high-60s and mid-70s. The closest approximation of a 62-94 game was probably Sept. 23, 2008, when he hit every number from 70 to 97.

Two more: he has thrown a 100-mph pitch, and (leaving out the mysterious 44) he has thrown a 51-mph pitch. And he has had single-game spreads as high as 42, 44, and 45 mph.

If he did better, and better is one heck of a value-laden term for something that is basically frivolous, it was before 2008. It's not necessarily unlikely. Back then, he threw the bloop curveball a lot more often, according to Rany Jazayerli. (As though you were going to read a piece about Zack Greinke without hearing from Rany.)

He definitely threw his blooper more often when he first came up. I honestly think he might have been bored on the mound - this obviously culminated in him walking away from the game for a while - because he would throw eephus pitches, he would occasionally quick-pitch (he once snuck a fastball past Ivan Rodriguez for strike three before Pudge had his feet set), it was like he was running a science experiment from the mound. He probably threw half a dozen slow curves a game, and every now and then would throw the eephus curve that registered in the 50s.

There’s still a little bit of that, and it sometimes registers as too clever by half. But, for the most part, he has quit throwing the 62. In 2011, he threw 37 pitches that were 65 or slower, but that year was the exception, a little residual merriness. He threw just six in 2010 and has thrown just four this year. It seems clear now that too much was probably made of those bloopers, by him (in his pitch selection) and by us (in our fascination). At least since 2008, it hasn’t been a particularly effective pitch, even as a once-per-game ambush: 35 times it was taken for balls, and 24 times it stole a strike. Seventeen times it was put in play, admittedly with good results (three hits) for Greinke.

Back then, the spread was proof that Greinke had something special, and offered hope that as he aged he would learn to harness it in new and brilliant ways. But—and this is not unique to Greinke; nearly all players end up disappointing us somehow, because we’re monsters—he has probably disappointed us in that sense. He hasn’t really developed into his generation’s Maddux. Despite good health, improved velocity, great control and the broadest repertoire in the game, he hasn’t even developed into his generation’s Kevin Appier, except for that one magical season.

Back when I was writing game stories for a newspaper, I always kept a log of velocity readings, because if a pitcher managed to hit every number I was darned sure going to mention it (even if the copy desk took it out). None ever came close while I was there. If I were there now, I’d have Greinke to watch, and it would make the job more entertaining. But more impressive would have been Jered Weaver’s start on May 2. He hit 70, 71, and every other number up to 91. No, it’s not quite the spread from 62 to 94. But Weaver threw a dazzling, nine-strikeout no-hitter that night. Which, at the end of it, is kind of the point. 

Bradley Ankrom provided stupendous research assistance for this article.

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

Related Content:  Zack Greinke,  Jered Weaver

7 comments have been left for this article.

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