Chris Capuano and Shane Greene have not given up an earned run in the last two Yankee games, and it’s just like Brian Cashman must have drawn it up. A veteran lefty who hadn’t started all year and a sinker-slider righty that put up an ERA in the high fours in Triple-A this year — of course it’s working out.
Capuano has a track record that suggests he’s not too far from his true talent level, but Greene’s rest-of-season ERA projections (by ZiPs at least) are two runs higher than what he’s showing right now. Given his minor league numbers, we know why that is. But given what he’s doing now, is there a chance he might beat those projections?
First, let’s do the reasons why not. They’re easier to point out.
As a sinker-slider guy, he’s got the obvious platoon issues. His FIP against lefties before today’s game (4.96) is two runs higher than his number against righties (2.81) and that’s because of the platoon splits on his favorite pitches. His strikeout rate versus righties (30.3%) is almost three times better than his work against lefties (10.0%). Not a good sign.
Greene’s minor league record also does not suggest that he’s a great starting pitcher. Even with the flaws inherent with stats like ERA and WHIP, his 4.39 ERA and 1.48 WHIP are not the stuff dreams are made of. And his peripherals weren’t much better once he hit the high minors. This year, his 19.2% strikeout rate was just below average for Triple-A (19.3%), and his walk rate wasn’t much better (8.8%, average was 8.9%). At 25 years old, he was slightly younger than the 27 year old average, but the year before in Double-A, he’d been exactly the average age.
Looks like an average pitcher — in Triple-A.
It’s not a huge sample, but 37.1 innings into his rookie season, Greene’s been better than average in the big leagues. At least by ERA, his FIP is almost perfectly average. But after being lackluster in Triple-A, a major-league average starting pitcher would be a good outcome for him.
Are there any comps for him out there? Obviously Justin Masterson comes to mind. Let’s look at other pitchers that throw some combination of a sinker, slider and cutter most of the time. We have to include the curve ball because PITCHf/x calls Greene’s breaker a curve some of the time.
All of these guys throw a sinker and a breaker more than 80% of the time, and generally, this group feels right — other than perhaps Corey Kluber, who has a a good change. One thing that might be surprising is that Masterson actually throws twice as many four-seamers as Greene!
But the other thing that comes to mind when you look at this list is that the most successful of the group have curve balls. Curveballs often have reverse platoon splits, and a sinker/slider/curve combo is a proven pitching mix.
Because he doesn’t have a curve, it’s possible that Greene’s been going to a cutter more often against lefties. The cutter breaks less in the horizontal direction and therefore might offer some deception off his slider. But an inch difference in horizontal movement seems like a tough position to stake your future platoon splits upon.
Maybe. The one thing you might have noticed in the last few starts is that Greene is actually throwing the breaking pitch more often his fastball. The announcers in his last outing even credited a mid-game turnaround to a visit from the pitching coach in which he was told to use the slider to get to the fastball — to pitch backwards.
If we instead look for a comp that throws a breaker more than 40% of the time, our comp list looks like this:
That’s a much more exciting list. For the more marginal guys on this list, success can come from something akin to the Jesse Chavez / Jake Arrieta school of success. As long as Greene’s arm stays in one piece, there’s nothing to say that using a heavy-whiff inducing cutter/slider in fastball counts isn’t a sustainable strategy.
Other than platoon splits. That second group only has a modest .5 split in their FIPs against lefties and righties — if you take Erik Johnson’s small sample out of it. But there are a ton of curve balls on the list, too. Really, Greene’s trying to be a right-handed version of Brett Anderson. Or maybe the starting version of Sergio Romo (48% slider, 12% sinker, 32% four-seam, 5% change-up, career).
Let’s call all of Greene’s curves sliders and re-run the list, sorting by slider plus cutter usage.
We finally have our best comp for Greene. Tyson Ross. Both righties throw hard (93+), throw four-seamers around 20% of the time, and sliders around 40% of the time. Both have been called future relievers, both have fairly large platoon splits. But Ross has found a way to make his work (3.84 FIP vs lefties, 3.22 vs righties), and so he (along with perhaps lefty Drew Smyly) offers a measure of hope for Greene.
There is perhaps a path for Greene’s success. It’s just very rarely traveled.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.