Dissecting Zack Greinke’s 2010 Season

This afternoon, Zack Greinke takes the mound for the 24th time in 2010 [Ed Note:  Greinke went 8 innings and surrendered 1 run in a no-decision that the Royals lost 2-1 in 10 innings].  Greinke survived (if that is the right term for remaining in Kansas City) the trade deadline, but recent comments about his frustration on KC’s apparent lack of progress in rebuilding have raised questions about Greinke this year, as well as his future in Kansas City.

The buzz amongst some fans is that the 2009 Cy Young Award winner is having a disappointing year, and on the surface the numbers appear to support that contention – Greinke enters today at 7-11 sporting a 4.14 ERA.   It would seem that perspective on Greinke’s 2009 season is skewed – in the past 30 years, baseball has seen only 6 starting pitchers post a season above 9 WAR (most recently Pedro Martinez’s ridiculous 2000 season).  Of course playing for a bad small market team tempered exposure, but the year Greinke posted was otherworldly in 2009.

As if often the case, a deeper look into this year reveals a more complex story.  A quick comparison between 2010 and Greinke’s 2008 season (where he delivered an all-star level 5 WAR year, good for 15th in all of baseball) is instructive:

2008 202.1 8.14 2.49 .318 9.1 % 3.76 42.7 % 75.2 %
2010 (YTD) 152.0 7.64 1.95 .312 8.5 % 3.77 43.8 % 64.5 %

Greinke strikes out slightly fewer hitters this season, but he has also brought his walk rate down, is allowing fewer homers and getting slightly more ground balls.  The only number that stands out in a meaningfully different way is Greinke’s unlucky strand rate, which would explain the difference between his FIP numbers and his actual ERA.

Digging even deeper, we can take a look at what hitters are doing against Greinke in terms of swinging both inside and outside the strike zone.  Again, comparing 2008 and 2010:

Season Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2008 46.20% 59.80% 85.80% 79.50% 53.10% 62.00% 9.30%
2009 44.90% 56.10% 87.50% 77.70% 47.90% 62.40% 9.90%
2010 (YTD) 46.30% 71.40% 91.00% 84.30% 47.00% 61.60% 7.00%

Hitters are making significantly more contact against Greinke – both on calls inside the strike zone and outside the strike zone (though the contact on balls outside the zone appear to have increased more dramatically, something that Greinke probably appreciates).  Swinging strikes have dropped in a corresponding manner.   What is interesting, of course, is that despite the increases, Greinke has continued to produce at the 2008 level.

Why are hitters having more success putting the bat (if not the barrel) on the ball?  Below is a table showing Greinke’s pitch selection over the past three years

Season FB SL CB CH
2008 61.5% (93.3) 18.8% (85.3) 12.0% (74.4) 7.7% (82.0)
2009 59.4% (93.7) 20.2% (86.1) 14.3% (73.8) 6.1% (84.1)
2010 62.3% (93.2) 16.4% (86.9) 10.0% (73.4) 11.3% (84.1)

So, the numbers tell us that Greinke is shying away from his curve and slider this year, while throwing more changes (and basically a similar number of fastballs).  Moving over to the PitchfX data, we begin to see the reason for the altered approach.:

2008 11.1 1.1 -3.7 5.4 7.2
2009 10.6 0.6 -4.6 5.2 6.2
2010 10.7 2.2 -1.9 4.8 8.6

The above table shows that the vertical movement on his curveball is down significantly.  (Similarly, though less pronounced, is the increased vertical movement but decreased horizontal movement of Greinke’s slider).  The data of course doesn’t tell us why the change in Greinke’s breaking stuff exists, but velocity charts would indicate that there are no physical problems dictating the change (aside from a general lack of command or sharpness on the breaking pitches)

Given this mountain of data, what can we conclude?  First and foremost, our expectations with respect to Greinke are colored by a failure to understand the historical context of his 2009 campaign.  Second, Greinke is pitching at least as well, if not better than his breakout 2008 campaign.  Third, it would appear that the one chink in Greinke’s armor this year has been a lack of ability to command his breaking pitches, which has forced him to rely more heavily on a fastball/change combination that is resulting in slightly more contact than previous years.  While Greinke is due a raise to $13.5M for 2011 and 2012, there is absolutely no reason to believe he won’t still be a bargain over the next two seasons.


About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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