I. Zack Greinke had a fine season last year, and many baseball analysts are expecting him to have an even better one this year, predicting regression in his BABIP, HR/FB%, and LOB% to bring his solid 3.83 ERA closer to his outstanding 2.98 FIP, or his league-leading 2.56 xFIP (for a primer on what these acronyms mean, see here). Greinke’s out of character luck results were entirely a product of the first half of his season. At the close of play on July 8, his last start before the All Star Game, Greinke’s .349 BABIP, 15.9% HR/FB%, and ghastly 56.4% LOB% were enabling him to manage the neat trick of carrying a 2.98 FIP and a 5.45 ERA, prompting this piece from me. Those numbers were begging for regression, and sure enough, over the second half of the season, he maintained his 2.98 FIP, but this time with a .305 BABIP, an 11.2% HR/FB%, and an 80.7 LOB%, allowing him to outperform his peripherals with a 2.59 ERA. In general, second half statistics are not more reliable than full season statistics to predict performance going forward, but I think two caveats are worth noting in this case: one, Greinke’s improvement was based almost entirely on improvement in numbers that we would expect to improve through sheer regression to the mean; and two, in a recent article on MLB.com, Greinke discussed making adjustments to his delivery in the second half of the year.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Zack Greinke’s FIP is that he’s aware of it. In 2009, he earned permanent admiration in the sabermetric community when he was quoted as saying, “that’s how I try to pitch, to keep my FIP as low as possible.” He certainly seemed to be doing this in the first half of last season, when his low FIP was powered by a stunning K/BB ratio that sat at 6.19 going into the All Star break. The funny thing about that is that it seems logical that a player attempting to maximize his K/BB ratio will pound balls in the strike zone, perhaps tending to catch too much of it and get hit hard. I was going to write about this last year, but I found out Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus had already written about it nearly two years before I planned to, and did a better job than I would have:
Consider the following thought experiment. Suppose that I am a pitcher and I decide to repeatedly throw low outside fastballs on the black for every single pitch. Few hitters will be able to club this pitch out of the park, but if I did it consistently enough that hitters knew that old Swartz always throws outside fastballs in every count on every pitch, then hitters would start taking the ball the other way. The result would be a lot of line drives, as hitters prepare to tee off on my predictable pitch. Of course, the second that I surprised a hitter with a cutter inside, they would be caught off-guard-and would be unlikely to hit a line drive if they swung. If I never did that, then my line-drive rate would be very high and my BABIP would persistently be well above .300. Thus, I would be a pitcher who could control my BABIP by making it high.
Of course, what pitcher would want to control his BABIP by being predictable enough to have a high line-drive rate and a high BABIP as a result? No normal pitcher trying to minimize his ERA would do this. However, a pitcher attempting to minimize his FIP might repeatedly throw those outside fastballs. They would rarely walk hitters, and occasionally they would strike some hitters out, and few hitters could hit home runs against them. Thus, there may be a very large difference between pitching to minimize your FIP and pitching to minimize your ERA.
It seemed plausible at points last season that Greinke was indeed pitching to minimize his FIP when he should have been pitching to minimize his ERA. While, as I noted earlier, he was able to maintain his FIP while lowering his ERA in the second half of the year, he came about that FIP in a different way. Rather than the 6.19 figure, his K/BB was “only” 3.52 (still excellent) in the second half. He was able to maintain his low FIP by allowing fewer home runs, which occurred partly through the natural regression in his HR/FB%, but also through an increase in his ground ball rate, which sat at 50.6% in the second half, up from 43% in the first. The sample size is not large enough to know whether Greinke was consciously changing the way he pitched (perhaps through the aforementioned adjustments), or whether this was just normal variation. We can be certain, however, that over his 15 second half starts (nearly 100 IP), the only unusual thing about Greinke’s pitching line is how dominant it was.
II. Even to casual fans, Zack Greinke is known as an unusual ballplayer for his off the field demeanor. Certainly, his well publicized struggles with social anxiety disorder contribute to this, but his aloof personality and strange humor in interviews solidify the impression. Greinke does not desire media attention; he only speaks to reporters on days when he pitches, and he famously refused to pose for the SI cover photo he was featured in, later claiming he hated being on the cover because it lead to more autograph requests. This paints a picture of an athlete who shies from the spotlight, except there is one place where Greinke does not shy away: on the field, where he has a reputation for being extremely competitive. He insisted on being traded away from a rebuilding team. He broke his rib playing a pickup basketball game when he refused to give up on a rebound. Zack Greinke seems to be as intent on dominating on the field as he is on fading in the background off of it.
I believe that sports derive their meaning from the way people interact about them. To win a World Series is meaningful because baseball fans agree that it is, and baseball fans do so agree because of the World Series games they have seen themselves, and have heard about from older generations. To speak of it conjures up images of Carlton Fisk jumping up and down, Kirk Gibson pumping his fist, Craig Counsell dashing home, and more. Without this larger cultural history, what is the World Series? For that matter, without this shared understanding, is baseball itself ever anything more than a game played by grown men who presumably could be doing something more productive for society?
And yet, perhaps baseball doesn’t need to be more than that. It makes sense that players want to win championships to be on magazine covers and earn their place in the hearts and minds of fans, but this doesn’t seem to be Zack Greinke’s motivation. He just wants to strike people out and win baseball games because he can. I may be wrong, but it seems to be that he doesn’t want to win the World Series because he knows how meaningful that is in American culture. I think he wants to win it for the same reason George Mallory wanted to climb Mt. Everest: because it’s there.
III. Anyone who has delved into higher mathematics has had the experience of finding a little piece of Truth, of peeling back the curtain and glimpsing a bit of the machinery that makes the universe work. Sometimes this discovery is easily relatable to our everyday lives, which seems to legitimize it, and cause it to gain broader acceptance, at least in certain communities. On the other hand, sometimes this discovery is only knowable as an abstraction, something that seems inherently unreal. This can lead to a certain loneliness, of realizing there’s only a small group of people in the world who can truly understand the import and meaning of something you’ve learned. And yet, whether one person or a billion can understand it, that doesn’t make it any less real, that doesn’t make it any less existent, and that can be its own victory.
Sometimes a number is just a number, but to the right person, it can be so much more meaningful than that. Sometimes a strikeout is just a strikeout, but to the right person, it can be so much more meaningful than that.