The Diamondbacks signed Zack Greinke in the 2015-16 offseason hoping to find that #1 pitcher to push them over the top. The team paid an exorbitant $206.5M for Zack Greinke over 6 years. Greinke delivered roughly 2.5 WAR in 2016, making only 26 starts due to oblique and shoulder issues. A slow start and a bad finish contributed to a 4.37 ERA over the 2016 season, which wasn’t what you’d expect from a $200M pitcher.
Flash ahead to 2017 Spring, his velocity was down to 87-90 MPH and in the regular season it’s jumped up to an average of 91 MPH. Usually with a 33-year-old pitcher with declining velocity, he has to either reinvent himself or he’ll be out of the league after not very long. In the case for Greinke, he’s been depending more on his slider to get outs in 2017. His slider has seen an uptick in use, along with the 4-seam fastball and Greinke is using the change-up less. Even though the average movement of the pitch hasn’t varied much, Greinke has had a lot of recent success with it.
The slider has generated a whiff % of 24.88% in his first 7 starts, the highest mark since his Cy Young season in 2009. Against the Pirates, his slider made a lot of Pirates hitters look awfully bad at the plate as he took a no-hitter into the 8th inning and struck out 11. Since his slider and change-up have been effective at missing bats, Greinke’s swinging strike rate has jumped to 13.5%, which would be a career high. That’s also led to Greinke boosting a strikeout rate of 28.4%, his highest mark since 2009. Greinke may not throw mid 90s like he did back then, but he’s still pitching at a very high level.
The Diamondbacks signed Jeff Mathis in the offseason and he’s been behind the plate for every Zack Greinke start this year. With Mathis behind the plate, Greinke has only given up 2 runs in 2 starts and failed to pitch 6 innings in both of them. That success line includes an outing where he gave up only 2 runs at Coors Field over 7 innings in a Dbacks win over the Rockies. It’s pretty clear that those two have developed a good rapport over the course of the Spring and the early portion of the season. Part of the challenge of catching Greinke is being able to think along with him on how to pitch a game. Mathis has been up to the challenge and as a result has been key behind a resurgent season from the Diamondbacks Opening Day starter.
Due to the diminished velocity, Greinke has to live more on the very edges and the areas just outside the fringes of the strike zone. Part of getting hitters outs is to make them chase out of the zone when ahead in the count. Greinke has been very good at that, generating an O-Swing rate of 35.2% which is right on par with his 2016 rate. Since Greinke gets a good tunneling action between all of his pitches, with both his slider and change-up breaking in opposite directions horizontally, the pitches are tougher to pick up. When Greinke is commanding the fastball, slider, and change-up, he is a tough read at the plate because they all look the same coming out of his hand. As a result, batters often have guessed wrong and swung through a lot of his pitches.
Even though I ultimately believe Greinke might not be worth the $200M contract, it’s also too early to write him off as a difference maker. Greinke might not have the stuff to blow away hitters, but he beats them by out-preparing and out-executing his opponents. With a solid backstop that can keep up with Greinke in terms of handling the flow of the game and attacking hitters and a resurgent slider, Greinke is pitching back at an Ace-like level. Home runs are the main concern left, but when he’s piling up strikeouts and limiting free passes, that usually means those homers are solo shots. I don’t know how much longer Greinke can continue to pitch at this current level, but while he still does it is must-watch entertainment.