Ode to a Pitcher: Young pitchers, study Zack Greinke and learn something

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Zack Greinke is a legitimate pitching savant.

I’ve probably listed seven or eight different big league pitchers as my favorite. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, maybe even Jacob deGrom. Those guys are great. Really. But my heart has settled on Zack Greinke. (For now.)

Oh, Zack.

There’s something about Greinke, my dudes. He manipulates batters with every trick in the book. He messes with timing — how about I just hold this leg lift here for a few extra beats? — and spins 70 MPH curveballs. He pitches to every inch of the strike zone and can work any batter in any count.

He’s a pitcher’s pitcher, even at an age where his raw stuff isn’t what it once was. Greinke in his prime was extraordinary; he’s still quite good, but in a different way. His pitching intelligence might be unmatched across the sport, even among coaches. Greinke is a savant. He can read batters and make adjustments that seem unattainable to mere mortals like myself.

(Side note: Zack Greinke is probably a worthy Hall of Famer. More on this later. Some of you just slammed your coffee down. I don’t care. He is. Peak matters and Greinke’s best years are stellar.)

Let’s watch Zack cook the Milwaukee Brewers in a recent start. I talk a lot in these Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns about sequencing, tunneling and messing with timing. Well, Greinke is the master. This will be fun.

Greinke is Sorceror Supreme, probably

Let’s start with a fun stat. Greinke, 35, averages 89.7 MPH on his four-seam fastball. The spin is good, not great. He throws the fastball more than anything else. Based on xwOBA — remember, xwOBA is generated from batted ball data to estimate the potential production — how valuable would you bet his fastball is?

That’s downright chilly velocity in this era. (Hi there, Gerrit Cole. What’s up, Max Scherzer?) You can safely bet Greinke’s command of the fastball is elite, and his approach will be flawless. Still, barely breaking glass with solid spin.

What do you think?

The answer is … it’s a solid pitch. The xwOBA off Greinke’s fastball is .307. (It’s a valuable pitch by Fangraphs, too.)  Pitching is nothing more than upsetting timing. Greinke does that. He succeeds. Plain and simple. Velocity helps with that, but it isn’t mandatory.

Our fun begins with Keston Hiura. After you watch this, you might wonder why the heck I bothered showing you a one-pitch out. Well, here’s why. Smart pitchers get one pitch outs. Greinke tossed that four-seamer over the plate and let Hiura float it to right field for an easy out. Could be dumb luck; maybe given a second chance Hiura drills it to the gap. Who knows? This time, Greinke won.

What’s the best out? The easiest one.

Hiura Pitch 1 FB

Next up is Eric Thames. Greinke — note the pause after he takes the ball from the glove — runs a fastball to the outside corner for strike one.

Thames Pitch 1 FB

I love this. Sure, it misses. Who cares. Greinke’s floating curveball is a pitching delight, and unlike all the candy in your desk, these morsels aren’t making you sick. I sometimes wonder if pitchers like Greinke sometimes do stuff like this just for their own amusement. What does Zack Greinke have to prove? He’s richer than the Pope, has a Cy Young and is going to Cooperstown. Why not spin a 70 MPH curveball? Why not mess around with a freaking eephus?

Zack Greinke is the best.

Thames Pitch 2 CRV

Greinke’s first two pitches to Thames were away. Ah, so what to do now? Hmm. How about a changeup off the inside corner. Thames is ready and rips it foul. Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly was set up away — maybe Greinke missed? Not sure — but the pitch was a bit too low for Thames to drive.

Thames Pitch 2 CH

This series tends to focus on the elite. These guys don’t mess around. You fall down 0-2 or 1-2 to the Verlanders and you go down. Same here. Facing Greinke in a hole ain’t fun. He might not bludgeon you with pure awesomeness like in the past, but the results are the same.

Classic sequencing. Two away, one in, one away. Greinke shows the fastball, then goes subatomic with the curve and buries a changeup below the knees. Now the fastball — in much the same spot as the opening pitch — looks harder than it is, in great part because Thames knows he has to cover the whole plate.

Pitching. It’s amazing. Two down.

Thames Pitch 4 FB

Tyler Saladino steps up with two down in the second inning and fouls off a fastball for strike one. The location is a bit scary, to be honest, but again Greinke gets by.

Saladino Pitch 1 FB

Obviously, Greinke doesn’t need my help. He throws another fastball in much the same spot — a classic strategy — and Saladino again fouls it off. Greinke is well aware that Saladino isn’t much of a power threat — he’s slugging less than .250, even after mashing grand slams in consecutive days against the Cincinnati Reds — and uses that to his advantage.

I can tense up all I want about the location of those two fastballs, but Greinke has firm control of the count and has a wealth of options to get the out.

Saladino Pitch 2 FB

Greinke dials up another fastball, but this one runs too high for ball one. Hmm. It sure seems like everything has been up in the zone. I wonder if that will matter. Hmm.

Saladino Pitch 3 FB

It mattered! Greinke buries the slider down and in. It’s a great looking pitch, but hey, credit to Tyler Saladino for laying off it. That’s impressive.

Look at how the slider drops, man. Wow. This is a well-sequenced breaking ball, but Saladino survives. He earned another pitch.

Saladino Pitch 4 SL

Greinke, perhaps fed up that Saladino had the gall to not whiff at his beautiful slider, comes back with an incredible fastball, dotted right on the outside corner, for strike three. Saladino looks to the umpire for help, but no dice.

Turns out that velocity doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. It helps — a lot — but it ain’t mandatory. It’s all about the usage. Greinke changes speeds and moves into and out of each quadrant of the strike zone so much that batters are rarely — if ever — comfortable against him. Greinke is a professor. He’s doing so much that goes unnoticed. Young pitchers, study this man. Study everything. Study how he moves around the mound, study how he manipulates his delivery and release point, the way his approach to certain hitters evolves throughout the game and how he controls the game.

Greinke is a master. Three outs.

Saladino Pitch 5 FB

But seriously, he’s a Hall of Famer

Let’s use Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement here, for the sake of argument. Greinke, as I write this, is at 69.8 WAR. That puts him above Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Jim Palmer. If Greinke musters another 10 or so WAR before he’s done — might be pushing it, but who knows? — he enters the territory of Tom Glavine and Nolan Ryan.

It might seem jarring to think of him in that way, especially with Ryan. Boy, does baseball ever lionize Nolan Ryan. But remember, Greinke’s best seasons were unbelievable. Not just good — among the best seasons in the league those years.

In 2009, Greinke threw 229 innings with a 2.16 ERA. He struck out 242 and walked 51. Stellar. Then, he goes to Los Angeles and produces this ridiculous three-year run:

2013: 177.2 innings, 2.63 ERA, 148 strikeouts, 46 walks

2014: 202.1 innings 2.71 ERA, 200 strikeouts, 43 walks

2015: 222.2 innings, 1.66 ERA, 207 strikeouts, 40 walks

That’s four excellent seasons. Greinke’s career totals might not even impress the old school guys, but he’s one of the game’s great pitchers and he should go in the Hall.

 

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