If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck, Zack Greinke’d Have No Luck at All | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

(In this article, I assume the reader is familiar with defense independent pitching statistics, namely FIP and xFIP. If you aren’t, here and here are good places to start.)

Lost in the commotion of the Brewers stunning 8-7 win over the Reds last that is the fact that Zack Greinke, continuing the theme of his season, again posted a stunning K/BB ratio, striking out 10 and only walking 2, but got unlucky enough with balls falling for hits in play and flying over the fence to allow 4 runs. Granted, 2 of those runs ended up unearned after Mat Gamel was charged with an error (shocking, right?) for his misplay in the third inning, but they were the consequence of Zack Greinke loading the bases with a line drive single, a HBP, and a walk, so he certainly deserves some of the blame there. This result is frustrating because by defense independent pitching statistics, Greinke has been arguably the best starter in baseball this season; in fact, his xFIP is the second best of any starter since 2002 with at least 50 IP, after Stephen Strasburg last year. However, time and time again his results fail to match his performance, leading many Brewers fans to doubt sabermetric justifications of his season and assume he’s just not pitching well. Indeed, going into this post, I was originally planning on throwing up a laundry list of every theory I could come up with to explain Greinke’s struggles other than just bad luck. However, in the process of doing research, I found one statistic that has convinced me more than ever that the majority of his problem is, indeed, just exceptionally bad luck.

Let’s start with the basics. Greinke has a 2.98 FIP, a sparkling 2.15 xFIP, and an unsightly 5.45 ERA (the ERA is with Greinke only allowing 2 ER last night; Fangraphs appears to have not updated that yet). He is, unsurprisingly, getting poor results in two of the most common “luck” stats; he’s sporting a .349 BABIP and a 15.9% HR/FB ratio. These two numbers tend to be around .300 and 11%, respectively, so clearly Zack is getting no help there. However, believing in defense independent pitching theories does not necessarily mean that Greinke is blameless for these numbers; Dave Cameron wrote a great piece about this on Fangraphs a few weeks ago; in short, a pitcher can have a high or low BABIP for multiple reasons, not all of which are out of the pitcher’s control. Just because the pitcher may control whatever is producing the anomalous result doesn’t mean we should expect it to last, however. So, whenever Zack Greinke’s bad luck with balls in play and the home run ball are brought up, Brewers fans, quite rightly, point to the fact that he’s thrown several balls that caught way too much of the plate and have gotten hammered. It seems absurd to chalk up his BABIP and HR/FB to “bad luck” when he’s throwing so many hittable pitches. Honestly, I don’t really disagree with this.

However, here’s the thing. Even if we grant that Greinke has been way too hittable and “earned” his .349 BABIP and 15.9% HR/FB ratio, his ERA should not be OVER THREE RUNS HIGHER than his xFIP. If you don’t believe me, look at 2003 Randy Johnson. He had a 3.04 xFIP, a .348 BABIP, a 16% HR/FB ratio, and a 4.26 ERA. Look at that again. He had worse peripherals than Greinke, a worse HR/FB ratio, and a BABIP nearly as bad, but a better ERA. Here’s four more pitchers who can make similar claims:

2007 Felix Hernandez 3.27 .333 15.0% 3.92
2007 Randy Johnson 2.84 .328 12.5% 3.81
2010 James Shields 3.54 .342 13.8% 5.20
2009 Jordan Zimmermann 3.35 .332 12.2% 4.63

Each of those pitchers had a worse xFIP than Greinke, similarly bad luck stats, and a better ERA. It’s not Greinke’s BABIP and HR/FB ratio that are killing him; it’s his LOB%, i.e., the number of runners on base he’s stranding. After last night, that’s sitting at 56.4%, worst in the game for starting pitchers with at least 30 IP, and far short of the number in the mid-70s we’d expect to see. The problem is less that Zack is giving up hits and homers, and more that he’s giving them up with men on base.

Whenever a pitcher is having trouble with men on base, it’s natural to think that he may be having trouble pitching out of the stretch. Indeed, during last night’s game, fill-in color commentator Jeff Cirillo pointed out that Greinke was actually pitching out of the windup with the bases loaded, suggesting that perhaps he’s feeling less comfortable pitching out of the stretch. Thankfully, Fangraphs has splits for pitching with runners on base, so we can explore this more. Here’s what they say:

Split K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP HR/FB xFIP
Bases Empty 12.54 1.70 1.28 .349 15.4% 1.96
Men on Base 11.25 2.25 1.41 .349 16.7% 2.40

Hmph. Well, he’s pitching a little worse with runners on, but not significantly so. What’s more, his BABIP is actually the same, and his HR/FB ratio only ticks up a little, so he doesn’t seem to be getting more hittable pitching out of the stretch. This seems like an unsolvable mystery…except Fangraphs offers another split that’s surprisingly enlightening:

Split K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP HR/FB xFIP
RISP 13.21 4.02 2.87 .444 29.4% 2.63

Whoa. Somehow, when a runner gets to second base, Greinke starts getting hammered, and nearly 30% of his fly balls start going over the fence. This is the stat I referred to earlier that made me suspect more than ever that Greinke’s main problem is bad luck, because I see two possible explanations for this:

1) For some reason, the presence of a runner on second base makes Greinke hugely more hittable.

2) Greinke has seriously bad luck.

I imagine some people will point to his anxiety disorder as an explanation for 1), but this hasn’t been a problem for him in the past, so I’m not buying that. You could construct a scenario where Greinke is very streaky, and is either setting batters down left and right, or being extremely hittable and letting them get to second base and beyond. That’s semi-plausible, and may be partially supported by the fact that his walk rate goes up significantly with RISP…but his strikeout rate goes up as well, which seems to argue against it. I think the most likely explanation for this is just bad luck.

So, to sum up, you can theorize all you want that Greinke has earned his BABIP and HR/FB ratio by throwing too many pitches in the middle of the zone, and you may be right. But even if that’s the case, he should be looking at an ERA closer to 3.50 than 5.50, and if he’s got an ERA around 3.50, I don’t think anyone’s talking about how disappointing his season has been. In fact, rather ironically, I think if Greinke’s ERA were around 3.50, people would be excitedly expecting his BABIP and HR/FB ratio to regress, rather than looking for reasons he should own them. Greinke’s real problem has been that, somehow, the presence of a runner on second base causes the baseball to start flying out of the park at a startling rate when he’s on the mound. You can believe that this is caused by him being a worse pitcher when a runner moves to second base, or you can believe it’s caused by bad luck. Personally, I’m going with the latter.

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