A Thing Zack Greinke Might Be Missing

In advance of the trade deadline, the Angels seemed poised to make a run, and that was before they traded for Zack Greinke. The Angels traded for Zack Greinke and at least on paper, that made their starting rotation laughably awesome. Even though the trade might’ve had more to do with the playoffs and signing Greinke long-term, the Angels still had to finish well in the regular season, and there was little reason to believe Greinke wouldn’t help them do that.

Greinke hasn’t helped them do that, at least not yet. He very easily still could — there’s a lot of season left — but so far the Angels are 1-4 in Greinke starts, and he’s averaged about a walk or a hit batter every other inning. He’s allowed 22 runs in 32 innings, and all in all he just hasn’t looked like the same Zack Greinke capable of posting comical strikeouts and walks. Greinke’s another player for whom the Angels are crossing their fingers, where the idea was that Greinke would be a player they could take for granted.

What follows isn’t intended to explain everything that has gone wrong. I think the best explanation for what’s happened with Greinke might be Baseball!, just as that’s the best explanation for how Chris Davis earned a win over Darnell McDonald. What follows might not actually explain anything, but Greinke’s struggles provided a convenient opportunity to bring this up and I’m nothing if not opportunistic. Actually that isn’t true, one could never be nothing. By definition, one is always something. I am something, and possibly opportunistic. All right, moving on.

This is a post about Greinke’s adjustment from pitching for the Brewers to pitching for the Angels, and it draws upon something I’ve written about before. I’ll explain the concept again for people who don’t like having to click on links to get their explanations.

We know, exactly, how many pitches a pitcher has thrown, and how many of those pitches went for strikes. By using data that’s available right here on FanGraphs, we can also calculate what you might call Expected Strikes. We have information on pitch total, we have information on zone rate, and we have information on out-of-zone swing rate. Using the PITCHf/x plate-discipline data, very simple math can lead us to an expected strikes total, which we can then compare to the actual strikes total. We can do this for players and we can do this for entire teams, and the results are revealing. Toward either extreme, one finds enormous differences.

Zack Greinke’s numbers as a Brewer, obviously, were outstanding. He was one of the most effective pitchers in the National League, and there’s a reason why the Angels saw him as a splash. But Zack Greinke also seems to have benefited from an extraordinary number of what we’ll call “extra” strikes. Compared to the league average, in 2011, Greinke got 28 extra strikes per 1000 pitches, which is a lot of strikes. Compared to the league average, in 2012 before getting traded, Greinke got 35 extra strikes per 1000 pitches. Greinke found himself near the top of the leaderboard in this particular statistic, and it follows that this was among the reasons for Greinke’s tremendous success.

What might explain all the extra strikes? The first thing that came to mind for me was pitch framing, as Greinke has thrown a lot of pitches to Jonathan Lucroy, and Mike Fast identified Lucroy as an excellent pitch framer. Lucroy got hurt this year, and Greinke pitched to Martin Maldonado as well, but this could be a strength of Maldonado’s too. It might not all be about pitch framing, and it might not at all be about pitch framing. But whatever the answer, Greinke seems to have been getting a boost during his time with Milwaukee.

And now? Please bear with me, because Greinke has started just five times with the Angels, throwing 551 pitches. This is not a real meaningful sample, but as long as we’re here, the same calculations as above put Angels Greinke at five extra strikes per 1000 pitches, compared to the league average. Still fine — still technically better than fine — but down quite a bit, on the order of multiple pitches per start. A strike or a ball here and there seems almost inconsequential, but it’s not really like that. Each extra strike or ball makes a run-value difference.

And if we’re going to stay with the pitch framing idea, Fast’s calculations weren’t real high on Chris Iannetta. They were actually the opposite of that, and while it’s too soon to say that that’s a major factor, it does make sense that Greinke would have less success throwing to a less-effective defensive catcher. And this doesn’t even touch on pitch calling, which might or might not be an additional factor.

Greinke’s extra strikes might return, as they might have more to do with Zack Greinke than with Zack Greinke’s catcher. A few extra strikes or balls wouldn’t explain the whole difference between Brewers Greinke and Angels Greinke. And Greinke’s been successful without a ton of extra strikes before. Relative to the average, with the Royals in 2008, Greinke came in at -5 extra strikes per 1000 pitches. In 2009, +11, and in 2010, +5. You might remember that Zack Greinke won the Cy Young in 2009. Dude was fantastic.

But then, Zack Greinke’s Royals days are behind him, so, who knows? There’s very compelling reason to believe that pitching is about both pitching and catching, and there’s very compelling reason to believe that Greinke’s catching is worse now than it was in Milwaukee. It should make some sort of difference, and so it should be some sort of consideration.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Great work Jeff.

This whole extra strikes per 1000 pitches is fascinating.

Turks Teeth
10 years ago
Reply to  Chris

It’s a shame that it’s misapplied here, however. This is how bad memes start. Pitch framing is an interesting subject, and its analysis is in its infancy, but the last thing it needs is microscopic sample sizes and hasty, opportunistic interpretations.

Some more details:

* Iannetta has caught Greinke for only four games total.

* Greinke pitched to a 3.81 ERA over those four games, getting tagged with a loss in only one of them. (Greinke’s 2011 ERA with the Brewers? 3.83)

* In the game he “lost”, Greinke struck out eight over 7 IP, walked one, and gave up only 2 ERs, but the Angels offense was shut out by Tampa pitching.

* The # of “extra strike” calls Greinke has received in those four games is slightly above league average, by Sullivan’s own estimation.

* In the remaining three games, the Halos won one, and the other two were lost by the bullpen.

* 8 of 12 ERs surrendered by Greinke over those three games were surrendered by the longball.

* In the only game Iannetta did not catch, Greinke surrendered 6 ERs with Bobby Wilson receiving, and had his worst game.

So Greinke pitched well enough over his short time with Iannetta receiving, but his offense got shutout in one game, his bullpen blew it for him in two others, and he won the fourth. The great majority of runs he gave up were largely his own doing — they were homeruns, not iffy strike calls at the edge of the zone. That’s as likely due to readjustment to the AL as anything else. And the one game he didn’t pitch with Iannetta behind the plate was his worst by far.

Let’s hypothesize more about the impact of pitch framing on Greinke after his new catchers have had a little more than two weeks’ familiarity with him. Even if we were to take this tiny sample at face value — which would make us rather silly — we’re talking about 23 extra strike calls per 1000 (+28 vs +5). Or: two strikes per game. Certainly not enough to account for Greinke’s disappointing start with the Angels.