Donald Zackary Greinke has burst into the second half of the season with alacrity. Since his 13th start (6 IP, 2 ER against Cincinnati on July 8th), Milwaukee’s 90th game of the season, Greinke has thrown 67.1 innings with a 2.41 ERA, striking out 73 batters against just 18 walks. Basically, Greinke has been everything he was supposed to be when Doug Melvin pulled the trigger on the blockbuster trade that will define the Brewers’ 2011 season. Given his struggles in his first 13 starts, one could even argue that adding the real Greinke — one whose results matched up with the fantastic process of his first half — would be akin to adding a CC Sabathia at the trade deadline.
Coincidentally (note: this is not a coincidence), CC Sabathia’s first start as a Milwaukee Brewer was also the 2008 team’s 90th game. The results for both the 2008 and 2011 teams after getting ace quality pitching from an ace quality starter were both good, but the 2011 team stands alone. Since July 8th, this year’s Brewers are 33-12, 3.5 games better than the Phillies for the best record in the NL and four games better than the AL-leading Red Sox. After Sabathia’s July 8th start (creepy!) in 2008, the Brewers only managed a 40-32 record despite Sabathia clearly establishing himself as the game’s best pitcher over the last three months of the season.
If anything, the quality of this Brewers team has robbed Greinke of any opportunity to put together the kind of performance juxtaposing excellent pitching with utterly clutch performance CC Sabathia presented in 2008. Of course, the Brewers needed Sabathia’s complete game, one run (zero earned) start against the Cubs in game 162 to make the playoffs.
But even on pure performance, regardless of the fact that Greinke will have the luxury of pitching in a stress-free September barring a complete collapse, Greinke’s post-break 2011 still pales in comparison to Sabathia’s unconcious destruction if the National League in July, August, and September of 2008.
Sabathia started 17 games for the Brewers down the stretch, recording an 11-2 record (the Brewers were 14-3 in these games) and compiling a 1.65 ERA. In a run environment nearly a full half-run higher (2008 NL ERA: 4.29, 2011 NL ERA: 3.84), Sabathia’s stretch is still almost a full run better than Greinke’s post-break excellence. He completed seven games, three of them shutouts. The superlatives are already there, in plain view, before we look at the advanced statistics. But let’s do it anyway.
Sabathia’s park and league adjusted ERA, ERA+, checked in at 255, a number not approached since Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA season, when he posted a 268 ERA+. Another way to look at this is with ERA-, a more intuitive measure, as a pitcher’s ERA- can be read as the percent of runs he allows compared to the league average. That is, Sabathia’s 39 ERA- as a Brewer means he only allowed 39% the amount of runs as the league average pitcher (compared to Bob Gibson’s 38 in 1968). Sabathia posted a 2.44 FIP to go with it, a 57 FIP-, both measures that would consistently rank at the top of league leaderboards.
Most impressively, I think, is CC Sabathia’s win probability added as a Brewer. Joe Posnanski published a piece Monday on statistics and stories, and WPA features prominently as one of the best story statistics. I am inclined to agree, even though it’s not terribly predictive and it’s not perfect in how it assigns credit, when we talk about value, we talk about adding win probability. And sure, maybe Mark Kotsay won’t have a +1.3 WPA in most eight game stretches, but you can’t argue that he wasn’t awesome for that stretch that Ryan Braun was out, somehow, some way.
Sabathia compiled a +3.3 WPA in his 14 starts, which would put him on pace for a stunning +7.1 mark for the entire year. These are numbers unheard of from pitchers — even great starters are limited in terms of WPA because their teams will put them too far ahead to impact a game, or they won’t throw enough innings. No starter since 2008 has gone above 7.0, and only (ironically?) Zack Greinke in his Cy Young season of 2009 has eclipsed 6.0, finishing with +6.1.
Sabathia was tremendously great in terms of process, in terms of results, and in terms of timing. Zack Greinke is showing us just how good of a pitcher he is right now, in 2011. But lest we forget, CC Sabathia combined all three aspects of pitching in a phenomenal way that we just hadn’t seen before. And even with fantastic talents like Greinke around, that combination of circumstance, talent, and performance might not be seen again any time soon.