It’s easy for me to fall down the Zack Greinke rabbit hole (watch as I write over 1,000 words about the fool). I find him fascinating in a borderline unhealthy-but-not-really-so-don’t-go-judging-me-like-that kind of way. He’s an interesting guy and a fantastic pitcher, is all. Let’s try and stay professional about it. Today while surfing the internet for baseball related information, something I’m wont to do, I came across yet another reason to stare at Zack Greinke’s player profile. This reason came in the form of RotoGraph’s Jeff Zimmerman and one of his 10 Bold Predictions for 2012. His fourth prediction concerns Greinke, and posits that he will finish the season as a top three fantasy pitcher. We’ll soon examine why this may indeed come to pass, but it’s safe to say that top three fantasy pitchers usually fare pretty well in Cy Young voting. So does Greinke really have a shot at reaching such heights this season?
Last season, Greinke managed an ERA of 3.83 in 171.2 innings, marks that aren’t going to cut it when it comes to post-season awards. However, there are a number of reasons to be hopeful about an improved performance from Greinke in the coming season, some of which Mr. Zimmerman has already been kind enough to spell out for us. A qualifying starting pitcher, Greinke finished last season first in K/9 (10.54), xFIP (2.56) and SIERRA (2.66). Both xFIP and SIERRA work on a similar scale as ERA and attempt to strip noise and misfortune from the equation. Both estimators suggest that Greinke pitched markedly better last season than his ERA would suggest, meaning if he could get a few things to break back towards his favor this season (a few less flyballs falling for home runs would really help, and seem likely given the HR/FB mark of 13.6 % last season was the highest of Greinke’s career), he could really put together an impressive resume.
The strikeout rate of 10.54 per 9 innings tends to stand out. It was the highest mark of Greinke’s career and a very pivotal reason why the more advanced statistics favor him. The spike could be attributed to a number of reasons—we can see an uptick in slider and curveball usage from Greinke last season, perhaps an adjustment made due to a slightly declining fastball velocity, or maybe a conscious choice by Zack to further diversify his offerings to batters. It’s also hard to ignore Greinke’s switch from the American to the National League, a change that allowed him to face generally weaker offenses in total, and also face pitchers attempting to hit (translation: easy strikeouts). If it’s not obvious by now, I like Greinke’s chances to continue his success in making batters swing the bat and miss the ball.
It should also come as no surprise that these defensive independent metrics like Greinke better than ERA. The Brewers had some really bad defensive players on their team last year. Replace those guys with competent gloves, and many hits never come to fruition. Many of Greinke’s career high groundballs (47.3%) also find less holes through the diamond, and become sweet and simple outs. Last season, Greinke posted very pedestrian numbers on balls in play (.318 BABIP) and stranding runners (69.8 LOB%—not great). Taking some inevitable positive regression into account along with a few more outs made by the defense, the agentless wonder should see an improvement in these areas and to his overall performance. With Prince Fielder, Casey McGehee, and Yuniesky Betancourt all off to boot grounders and throw wide for other baseball teams, there could be a bit of addition by subtraction when it comes to the Brewers infield defense. Matt Gamel, Aramis Ramirez, and Alex Gonzales are far from sure things with the leather, but it’s not irresponsible to assume a slight upgrade to the teams overall defense with the changes that took place. Better defense means more easy outs and an improved Cy Young candidacy for Greinke.
I watched a lot of Greinke starts last season. Almost all of them, I would venture to say. I love him and he was on my fantasy team, what are you going to do? If you’ll allow me a bit of irresponsible and anecdotal analysis, I’d like to offer another theory on why Greinke could see some improvement in performance and numbers going into next season. Watching Zack pitch, he seemed to grow weary of the substandard defense behind him, and perhaps even change his approach slightly with men on base as a result of it. Bear with me, because the sample isn’t huge, but Greinke exhibited a noticeable rise in both FIP and xFIP from empty bases to runners on (2.75 and 2.26 to 3.31 and 3.00) and again with runners on to runners in scoring position (3.31 and 3.00 to 4.63 and 3.44). For what it’s worth, Greinke has never shown such extreme splits such as these in previous seasons. His walk totals also grew by month as the season wore on, going from 6 walks in each of May and June, to 9 in July, 11 in August, and 13 in September. That’s not the most intense math ever done, but we still have a bit of a picture forming, perhaps, as long as you’re willing to trust my admittedly fickle and limited memory and intellect. I submit to you, that Zack Greinke may have altered his approach with men on base and later in the season, knowing that the defense behind him was inadequate and prone to mistakes. He looked tired and disinterested most of the time on the mound, and especially in high leverage situations, many of which came to pass as a result of some butchering being done with the glove behind him. Granted, Greinke most always looks tired and disinterested, that’s why he’s so rad, but I’m telling a story here, so go with me. To my eye, Greinke seemed to go after strikeouts much more with runners on, aiming for corners and working around the middle of the plate, trying harder to generate whiffs than weak contact. On a number of occasions Greinke chose to pitch from the windup even with men on base, a puzzling decision to say the least. We see pitchers do this from time to time when they’re having trouble with their mechanics and so on, but it’s also recognized that most pitchers perform better from the windup than the stretch, and it’s possible Greinke opted for this approach in order to better his chances at the high leverage strikeout when the game situation demanded it. This approach, when unsuccessful, lead to more walks, more costly hits, and more runs scored. All bad things for people who throw baseballs for a living. With a few adjustments by the defense as well as the pitcher, not to mention a bit of regression back to career norms, we could see an improvement in these numbers and better results for the Brewers and Greinke going forward. Please take all the amateur analysis in this paragraph for what it is and with a large grain of salt.
A full season from Greinke pitching at a similar level as last year could prove invaluable to the Brewers in a closely contested division. We probably all remember that last offseason Greinke was getting heated on the basketball court and breaking ribs (of course he was), events that lead to a decrease in innings to start the season and perhaps a period of adjustment for Greinke on the mound as he healed to full strength. Free of such silliness, with the same talent he’s always had, at full strength with his full arsenal of pitches, and with some fortune turning the other direction, we could all very well be discussing Zack Greinke as the best pitcher in the National League come September. I certainly hope we are, if only to see what he’ll say about the whole thing.