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The past week to 10 days has seen a return to past glory for a pair of veteran right-handed, with both Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright providing optimism that their respective seasons can be salvaged. A veteran southpaw has not been so lucky, and though Francisco Liriano’s last two starts came in week nine of the season (he was skipped this past week), he is scheduled to pitch today and all eyes will be on his performance and any potential adjustments that he makes.

Zack Greinke
Greinke was lit up consistently through the first two months of the season. He gave up runs in every one of his first 11 starts, including a pair of starts with seven earned runs apiece and five total turns with four or more earnies surrendered. The one bright spot was that he was able to chew innings, with 6.0 or more innings pitched in 10 straight starts as the calendar flipped to June. But his last two starts have been more reminiscent of the perennial Cy Young contender that the Diamondbacks paid a king’s ransom to acquire in the offseason.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

June 7

9.0

0

3

0

2

2

104

June 2

7.0

0

4

0

0

11

103

Both of Greinke’s last two outings have come against American League teams, his only two interleague starts so far this year, adding a dose of intrigue but likely being an inconsequential side note. More interesting is the disparate counts of walks and strikeouts when contrasting the two outings. The 11 strikeouts that he posted against the Astros in Houston were his most in a single game this season by a healthy margin, as his previous high this season was eight Ks (accomplished three times), and it was just the control artist’s third start this season with zero walks allowed. In comparison, his shutout of the Rays in his last outing was the fourth time this season with just a pair of Ks to show for a start.

The Astros have made a lot of pitchers look good this season, with a lineup that has struck out 40 more times than any other team in the majors, so the outlier K count may have been circumstantial based on Greinke’s free-swinging opponent. The fact that his strikeouts slowed down to a crawl in his following turn adds fuel to this idea, which is further solidified by the fact that Greinke has dodged between being a K-per-inning guy and a two-K-per-game pitcher throughout the season.

The difference wasn't pitch-speed, as the right-handed threw slightly harder (by a fraction of a tick) in his off months than he did in the two gems of June. General pitch location has been similar in his good starts as well as his bad recently, typically avoiding the middle of the strike zone, keeping his changeups and sinkers to the arm-side of the plate and his breaking pitches down and to the glove-side. He has woven in some additional breaking pitches when comparing his last two starts to the previous few, but his heavy use of sliders and curves earlier in the season casts doubt on the idea that his improvement is rooted in pitch usage. Adding to the confusion, Greinke’s release point has continued to be a bit erratic for a control artist, even in his good starts.

Maybe I'm missing something, and perhaps the cause of his improvements runs deeper than mechanics or something that Pitch f/x can detect, but it's tough to see a repeatable pattern of improvement here. Greinke has struggled to hold velocity deep into games, even in his good turns, frequently spiking 93-94 mph fastballs in the first couple innings but rarely topping 92 once he gets past about 50 pitches. I still see plenty of room for improvement, and Greinke certainly has the track record to do so, but one has to wonder if his last two starts are less of an indicator that “he's back” than has generally been accepted.

Francisco Liriano
Liriano has struggled all season, but the last two turns have been particularly ugly. Things got so bad that the Pirates skipped his scheduled start on Wednesday despite having a stretched rotation from five games in a four-day span. Pittsburgh called up Jameson Taillon to take Liriano’s spot in Wednesday’s double-header, an excellent internal option that few teams can boast, but the Pirates need Liriano to cure what ails him in order to hang with the Cubs in the tough NL Central.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

June 3

3.3

7

10

1

4

2

76

May 29

6.0

5

6

2

4

6

100

Each of the last two starts were interleague matchups for the Pirates, facing the Rangers and then the Angels. Liriano's last start received a game score of 12, his lowest of the season, trailing even his eight-run beating against the Cubs in May 13. Despite the shaky overall performance, the Pirates had left Liriano in the game for a very precise pitch count up until the game against the Angels, recording between 94 and 100 pitches in eight of his first ten starts, with the outliers sitting at 90 and 109 pitches, respectively. But it only took 76 throws and 3.3 innings of Liriano’s last game before manager Clint Hurdle pulled the plug.

Liriano’s pitch-plot against right-handed batters in his last start looks as if he was on that day, generally staying away from the middle of the strike zone, favoring the outer edge and burying several of his pitches. On the contrary, right-handed bats went 9-for-16 with three walks against Liriano.

Perhaps more troubling was that the biggest knock of the night came courtesy of the only left-handed bat in the starting lineup, as Kole Calhoun finished 1-for-2 with a home run, a walk and an RBI groundout against Liriano. The left-hander left consecutive fastballs in the middle of the plate, the second of which was a sinker served on a platter for Calhoun,

A general lack of pitch command has dogged Liriano throughout his career, and yet despite the inconsistency, he continues to line up differently on the rubber based on the handedness of the opposing hitter, sliding closer to the first base side of the rubber against lefties to add a wrinkle to his ability to repeat the release point. A key to Liriano’s success is in burying the slider, but he has had serious issues with elevating pitches this season and doing so in hitter’s counts, resulting in a whopping 12 homers allowed this season in just 61.7 innings pitched; the rate of 1.8 HR/9 is more than double his career rate, and the frequent free passes have contributed to seven of the 12 homers being of the multi-run variety.

He’ll start today’s game against Carlos Martinez and the Cardinals, giving us an immediate opportunity to see whether Liriano has addressed any of his issues, so look to see if he is hitting spots in the lower third of the strike zone with his fastball and burying the slider when he gets to two strikes.

Adam Wainwright
Things were looking pretty bleak for Waino just a couple weeks ago, but his last two turns have reins noted hope that he can rediscover the ace of his past. Similar to Greinke, Wainwright’s successful outings had been few and far between during the first two months of the season, but the onset of June brought his two best starts of the year.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

June 9

6.0

2

2

0

1

9

78

June 3

7.0

2

5

0

1

6

103

Wainwright had been awful in April yet serviceable in May, with eerily similar results in five of his six starts on the month. In each of the five turns, the right-hander had pitched 6.0-7.0 innings, given up 3-4 runs on 5-7 hits and punched out 4-5 batters. He hadn’t struck out more than a half-dozen hitters in any one of his first 12 starts, which is what made his most recent outing and the nine punchouts against Cincinnati so intriguing. He gave up a season-low two hits in the Cincy start, and he cleared six frames with incredible efficiency, throwing just 78 pitches in the process. He had surrendered three or more runs in 10 of his first 11 starts, but since the dawn of June he has kept under that hard deck for each of the last two starts.

Wainwright’s fastball was simply hammered over the first two months, with a .389 batting average and .706 slugging percentage in the 85 at-bats that ended on heat. His other pitches were hit hard as well, but the fastball was most egregious .317 ISO), and his inability to rely on secondaries added fuel to the fire. He has seen better results on all of his pitches over the last two starts, and though his raw velocity hasn’t improved (in fact, it’s dipped his last two starts to late-April levels), he has improved the cutter with an additional 1.8 inches of vertical drop when comparing his last two starts to the first 11, giving him a Z-score of -1.54 in that dimension to go with a Z of 2.16 on the horizontal component of a cutter that he uses more than 30 percent of the time.

Confusing the issue is that Wainwright has gotten away with some hittable fastballs in the zone in his last two starts, and his signature curve has actually had less depth over that stretch than it did during the first two months of the season. Similar to Greinke, I see a pitcher who has put together a couple of strong starts on the backs of one high-strikeout game and some good results on balls in play. The last two starts from Wainwright have offered a ray of hope that he can emerge from his funk, but the relative modesty of Waino’s last two turns combined with his weak opponent in the 9-K game (Cincy) leave one wanting to see if the good games were a true stepping stone to achieving past success or merely the consequence of a few good bounces and some bad swings.