Seemingly any minute now, Zack Greinke will make his free-agency decision. I heard a few times yesterday something would almost certainly happen soon, as Greinke doesn’t want this to drag on any longer. Based on pretty much all reports, we’re destined for one of two realities: one in which Greinke returns to the Dodgers for a fortune, or one in which Greinke goes to the Giants for a similar fortune. In the case of the former, the Dodgers will boost the gap between themselves and the next-best division rival. In the case of the latter, the gap would shrink. You know how great players work.
The real impressive thing about Greinke is how well-rounded he is. He’s an incredible pitcher, sure, and that’s what’s most important, but a part of that comes out of his preparation. He’s also just about unparalleled in terms of his focus, and his control over himself. He pairs his pitching stuff with his pitching intelligence. For a pitcher, he’s become a pretty good hitter, doing plenty to help his own case. And Greinke is an outstanding defender. I don’t think this counts as some sort of revelation — Greinke’s won back-to-back Gold Glove awards, and he’s won those for a reason. But we can go a little bit deeper. Greinke’s terrific in the field. It saves him several runs every year.
To my knowledge there’s no such thing as pitcher UZR, but there is pitcher DRS, dating back to 2003, and you can find it on our site. You find it broken into a few components, and Greinke scores very well by DRS overall. But then, pitcher DRS folds in stolen-base value, as a measure of how well the pitcher controls the running game. Now, just so you know: Greinke is awesome at controlling the running game. He’s super hard to run against, and that shows up in his numbers. That’s another thing he does well. The list goes on. But I wanted to separate that out, to look at just fielding.
So I calculated DRS without the steal component, and then for every pitcher with at least 500 innings since 2003, I put that number over a per-200-innings denominator. The sample numbers 352 players. Here are the top 15:
Dallas Keuchel is up there at the top — he’s also won back-to-back Gold Gloves. He’s deserved to. But this is about Greinke — I’ve written about Keuchel’s defense before, at some point — and we find him just barely outside the top-10. And that puts him in the top 4% of all pitchers observed. Just in case you’re curious, because I know you are, Brandon League is in last, at -6.4. But, all right, back to Greinke. I included another column in the table, showing groundballs per inning. Pitcher defense is in part driven by grounders, because grounders are a proxy for opportunities. Every pitcher above Greinke in the table owns a higher-than-average grounder rate. Greinke’s a little below. So he ranks in 11th place, even though he’s seemingly had fewer opportunities to defend. Makes him all the more impressive.
And for whatever it’s worth, Greinke has shown signs of progress. He’s never been a bad defender. But, I grouped his career into stretches of three seasons. The above defense rating, over time:
- 2004-2006: 3.0 Defense/200
- 2007-2009: 2.9
- 2010-2012: 4.3
- 2013-2015: 5.6
We’re dealing with small numbers and small differences here. A gap of less than three runs. But over the past three years, out of everyone with at least 300 innings, Greinke ranks second in this measure of pitcher defense behind Keuchel. He’s also basically tied with Jake Arrieta. I don’t think there’s any arguing that Greinke is one of the very best defensive pitchers in baseball. And that skill is showing no signs of decline.
Good defense is based upon so many things. Greinke’s been blessed with quick reflexes. If his low error numbers are any indication, he knows when not to try to force plays, and he must be good about getting his feet set. He’s got a good understanding of the fundamentals, and so on and so forth. But Greinke also excels at one simple thing they try to drill into you in high school, if not even sooner than that. A couple shots from last year, showing Greinke’s follow-through:
Now here’s a shot from earlier in his career:
Used to be Greinke would frequently have his leg swing out in front of him. Lots of pitchers do that, and it’s not like Greinke was a bad defender because of it. But now, far more often, Greinke ends up almost square to the hitter, in good position to break left, right, or forward. Every so often he’ll still put something extra on the ball and swing around, but mostly, Greinke ends up ready to defend. It’s one of the side effects of his smooth, controlled mechanics. He doesn’t overthrow, and he puts almost all his energy toward the plate, so he ends up under control and ready to field, and that allows him to make some extra plays most pitchers watch go by.
Defense isn’t what makes Zack Greinke good. Zack Greinke’s pitches are what make Zack Greinke good. But you can think of the defense as an indicator. To be as good as he is requires a certain attention to detail, and control, and precision, and instincts. Greinke wants to be good at everything, and more than that, he basically is good at everything, once you take into consideration that he’s a starting pitcher. All that focus should bode well for Greinke’s medium-term future. He’ll stay only as healthy as his body lets him, and that’s mostly a guessing game, but the on-field version of Greinke is about as good as it gets. There’s nothing more you could ask for; Greinke’s already asked it of himself.
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.