Zack Greinke has never been a fireballer. His highest average velocity across a season came in 2007, just barely scratching 94.0 MPH. That was good for 17th best in baseball that season, and it also came largely as a reliever.
However, he has had some fireballer in him. Between 2007 and 2014, Greinke got up to at least 96 multiple times and topped out in the 98-99 range until 2010. He’s also never been a guy that walked batters at a high rate.
As a rookie, Greinke walked under 5% of batters, the lowest mark for a rookie in Royals history, besting Dan Quisenberry, the best strike thrower in Royals history. Greinke’s rookie season was a top-10 strike-throwing season in franchise history.
Greinke has always been a command-first, beat-you-by-knowing-more-about-baseball-than-you pitcher even at his peak. So to say he reinvented himself would be perhaps a step too far.
So here goes: Zack Greinke re-invented himself in 2022. He re-invented himself in the same way that Apple re-invented the cell phone. Was the first iPhone the same species of device as the RAZR? Yes. Was it something entirely different though? Also yes.
Greinke looked at a baseball universe that was more dependent on the strikeout than ever, more dependent on velocity than ever. He saw older pitchers like Justin Verlander extending their careers by digging their heels deeper into spin rates and advanced methods to keep their arms firing very fast fastballs, and said “no, I don’t think I will.”
And it worked.
Well, like I said, not much. The Greinke model stayed the same. His days of sitting 92-93 with his fastball have long been over. He hasn’t averaged even 90 MPH on his fastball since 2017. He didn’t walk anybody and outsmarted batters. That didn’t change.
It just got way more extreme. Just two years ago, Greinke struck out 24.5% of the batters he faced. He got swings and misses on 10.6% of his pitches. Since 2008, his average swinging strike percentage has rested at 10.3%. In the last four seasons, it rested at 10.3%.
In 2022, both numbers plummeted. The guy that struck out a quarter of the batters he faced in 2020 struck out just 12.5% of the batters he faced in 2022. Since his return to baseball in 2007, just his 2021 season comes within even 5% of that number.
Since 2000, there have been 2400 pitching seasons where the pitcher pitched at least 130 innings. 9% of those pitchers struck out batters at a slower rate than Greinke. Of those pitchers, just 30 came in the 2010s or 2020s. Only 11 had a lower ERA than Greinke.
If you scroll through the list of pitchers with a K% at 12.5% or lower, you will notice a lot of high ERAs. It’s hard to get guys out when you are unable to strike batters out. It’s easier when you also don’t walk anybody. Only 7% of those 2400 pitching season featured a BB% that was lower than Greinke’s 4.6%.
So nothing really changed. Greinke has never overpowered hitters. He avoids walks like the plague. That stayed the same. It was just far more extreme because a light strikeout guy turned into an almost never strikeout guy.
What Were The Results?
ERA is a very flawed stat. If you are looking to prescribe what a pitcher will do in the future, ERA is a bad stat. However, if you are evaluating results, ERA works fine. It is what happened. Sure, it is like the quarterback win in the sense that it’s very dependent on other players, especially when you aren’t striking people out, but hey! The job of the pitcher is to prevent runs. And ERA is about run prevention.
In that respect, Greinke’s results were not what you would expect from guys with his profile. He posted a respectable 3.68 ERA, with a 111 ERA+. He was a high-wire act. His performance increased as runners got on base. With the bases empty, he surrendered a .331 wOBA and a .758 OPS. With runners in scoring position, he surrendered a .278 wOBa with a .644 OPS.
His expected numbers also aren’t friendly. His 4.03 FIP is a bit lower than you’d expect, but his xFIP was 4.54 and his xERA was a whopping 4.78, over a run higher than his actual ERA.
Was his run prevention success sustainable? Probably not. Greinke has always been as good, if not better with runners on base than with the bases empty. But he’s never had this steep of a difference. He allowed lots of base runners.
With that said, Greinke isn’t your average pitcher. If Brady Singer had numbers like this to go with his run prevention results, I would be screaming regression. And yeah, I think Greinke will regress if he comes back. But you also get the feeling with Zack that it is all part of the plan. This is who he is and who he has been. He has always outsmarted hitters.
My gut says that 2023 will be Greinke’s last season because the negatives from 2022 will bite him in a way they didn’t this season. My gut, and the numbers, say there will be negative regression to the mean.
But if any pitcher is going to continue figuring out how to get hitters out, despite the lack of physical tools, it’s going to be Zack. If anybody is going to be productive throwing 85 MPH fastballs, it’s going to be Zack. If anybody is going to be inevitably pitching in Kansas City’s new stadium in 10 years as a 48-year-old, it’s Zack.