Heading into Monday night’s contest against the Houston nine, it seemed like every previous start by Zack Greinke proved to be fodder for either extreme in the “sign him / don’t sign him” debate. If you’re like me, last night’s start was PERFECT: finally, a “guts” outing for Greinke, combining a’lil’bad and a’lil’good, one that favored no side in the clearly-season-long debate about his contract.
While only Dusty Baker might call 116 pitches over 6 frames efficient, Greinke struck out 9 Astros for all that effort. Furthermore, the pitcher flat-out clamped-down during most of his jams, allowing him to limit the damage to 2 runs (despite allowing 8 hits and 2 walks).
If there’s an underlying story to Greinke’s performance during last night’s 6-5 made-to-order nailbiter victory, it’s the right handed ace-in-waiting’s shiny new cut fastball. Headed into Monday night, Greinke selected his cutter nearly 20% of the time, which is quite remarkable given that he hardly ever threw a distinct cutter in the past (of course, in the tradition of old-school Greinke, he probably threw the cutter more than reported, simply because he had a penchant to change speeds on everything and do little things to switch-up batters).
Compared to his previous starts, Greinke selected that cut fastball even more frequently during last night’s start. Compared to only 12 sliders, Greinke selected his new moving fastball 30 times. Although he did not throw the pitch for strikes at an overwhelming rate, the kind of strikes he yielded are rather interesting. 15 of Greinke’s 30 cutters yielded strikes of some sort; 12 of those 15 strikes were contact-based (including one hit). As a result, Greinke’s cutter broke down to 12 contact-based strikes, 2 swinging strikes (1 strikeout), and 1 called strike.
What does this matter? Well, Greinke clearly was using the pitch to (a) set up outs with his other pitches, and (b) yield contact-oriented outs (3 groundouts, 2 flyouts). Even though he only threw the pitch for a strike half of the time, one gets an aggressive feeling from the pitch. Hell, if the batter didn’t give the defense an out to play off the cutter, Greinke could just blast ’em with a fastball or slider.
This type of addition to Greinke’s arsenal is significant because of the relative decline of his slider over time. Greinke’s sharp breaking ball was the star of his repertoire during the 2009 season, and it was also his best pitch in 2008. Even though Greinke yielded positive value from the pitch during 2010 and 2011, it was nothing like his elite season with the slider. His slider once again looked to be a less-valuable offering during his early season starts.
One of the most significant outcomes of last night’s start for Greinke was the swing-and-miss role for his slider. While he coaxed batters into ball-in-play outs with his cutter, Greinke dropped approximately 7 MPH to his slider and yielded swinging strikes. He only selected the pitch 12 times, but yielded 9 strikes from the breaking ball, including 5 swinging third-strikes and 1 popout.
I find this to be thrilling news, given the measurements that previously ranked Greinke’s 2012 slider as one of his least valuable pitches. Here we see a second benefit to his cutter: Greinke can use his slider as a second change-up, working from his strong moving fastball to his sharp bender. If you think of Greinke’s job as one of changing speeds, disrupting timing, and changing the batter’s eye level, Greinke’s cutter/slider combination adds another “plane” to the strike zone, compared to his other fastballs/change up. While his fastballs and change up spin-in against righties, his cutter and slider spin to the other side of the zone. In this regard, his cutter is significant because it shows batters another pitch that moves-in against lefties. Now Greinke effectively has fastballs and change-ups that move to any and all parts of the strike zone.
For the season now, we might divide Greinke’s selections in the following way:
Rising fastball (92+) / sinking fastball (92+) / change up (85+): 54.6%
Cutting fastball (90+) / slider (84+) / curveball (71+): 45.4%
What makes Greinke’s arsenal so rad this year is that he actually appears to be using six different pitches (seven if you count his slow curve), with three selections moving in against righties, and three moving in against lefties. Again, this allows Greinke to throw fastballs and change speeds to any area of the strike zone.
STRIKE ZONE CONSPIRACY?
All things considered, last night Greinke received a “bad” strike zone that was desirable:
Greinke threw just over 60 pitches that needed to be called last night. Home plate umpire Andy Fletcher called a pretty good zone, making 7 bad calls (4 balls, 3 strikes) and 3 borderline calls (2 balls, 1 strike) on Greinke’s pitches. While the wrong ball calls occurred up in the zone, the bad strike calls occurred low and outside of the zone, giving Greinke an added bonus for working low in the zone. If you’re going to get a bad strike zone, this is the one to get.
Images: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1156778-zack-greinke-milwaukee-brewers-sp-aims-to-remain-perfect-at-miller-park; TexasLeaguers (copyright 2009-2012, Trip Somers)
References: FanGraphs, TexasLeaguers (2009-2012, Trip Somers); MLB.com (MLB Advanced Media).