Shane Greene, Committing to the Changeup

The projections on Shane Greene have been pessimistic since he was in high school. The story goes like this, courtesy of our own Kiley McDaniel: leading up to the 2009 MLB draft, Greene was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, on the roster at Daytona State Junior College, and was virtually unknown.

Greene’s father talked a Yankees area scout in Florida into watching Shane pitch, and the scout was so impressed that Greene was added to pre-draft workouts, and subsequently taken in the 15th round. To say that his road to the majors is unique is an understatement; arms like Greene’s rarely go unnoticed nowadays.

After a five-year minor league stay and a trade from the Yankees to the Tigers, here we are. By now, you’ve probably heard of Greene’s first two starts of the season, the second happening just last night, in which he has pitched a combined 16 innings while giving up zilch. Yes, it’s immensely early, and Greene only has a short track record of any success at the major league level. However, he appears to have made some tweaks to his repertoire that merit our attention.

Greene has always profiled as a sinker/slider type with serious platoon problems: the owner of a career FIP split of 4.34 versus left-handers and 2.79 versus righties, his struggles against opposite-handed batters is due mainly to him not having a good out pitch against them. His peripherals tell the story — a fantastic strikeout minus walk rate against righties, and not so much against lefties. I’ll let a table say the rest:

2014 vs. LHH vs. RHH
K% 16.6% 31.1%
BB% 9.9% 6.7%
WHIP 1.59 1.21
FIP 4.52 2.93
xFIP 4.17 2.61

That’s obviously a massive split, which is why he’s resorted to some interesting and unorthodox combinations of pitches while in the majors. As detailed by Eno last August, Greene has a lot of pitches, but eventually settled on a repertoire of sinker/cutter/slider and pitching backwards to combat his problems against lefties, much like Tyson Ross. It’s not too much of a surprise most scouts have seen his endgame as a reliever.

This is why the news that’s been brewing since spring training of a new-and-improved changeup is a big deal. If more effective, it would hope to give him a real weapon against left-handed hitters and narrow that platoon. It would also go a long way toward making him a successful starter for the future. From Greene, during spring training:

“I’ve been trying different changeup grips my whole career, and toward the end of the season last year I found one that I got pretty comfortable with, and I just knew going into the offseason I was going to have to work on it. Grabbing the ball or grabbing a fastball every time is easy, but grabbing that changeup, it’s a little different, especially when my whole career I’ve changed it like every month or so. Just getting used to the grip, really, was the biggest thing for me.”

After two starts of real results in 2015 and PITCHf/x data, we can see for ourselves: Greene is using the new changeup a lot more than he used his old one. Let’s take a look at his pitch usage between last year and his two starts this year:

Year FA% FT% FC% SL% CH%
2014 14.2% 37.1% 27.7% 16.3% 4.7%
2015 17.5% 36.1% 21.7% 12.7% 12.0%

A little more changeup and fastball this year, a little less cutter and slider. To illustrate how he’s trying to use the changeup, there’s this: Greene has yet to throw one against a right-handed hitter in 2015. It’s currently just a weapon against lefties. Overall, 7% is a sizable jump in changeup usage from year to year if it does prove effective enough to stick around as a go-to pitch. That part of the equation has yet to be seen, and everything has to be taken with a grain of salt this early. However, let’s see what we’re dealing with in respect to Greene’s changeup by looking at some GIFs.

Here’s Greene’s old changeup, from a late August start in 2014:


The issue with his changeup has never been shape: it has always had arm-side run and nice drop. He just has never been comfortable throwing it, constantly tinkering with the grip while he was with the Yankees. Now that he’s finally found a grip he likes, he seems comfortable throwing the pitch in almost all situations. Take a look at how his changeup usage patterns have changed from last year to this year:

Changeup Usage vs. LHH 2014 2015
All Counts 8% 29%
First Pitch 4% 32%
Batter Ahead 2% 25%
Even 7% 31%
Pitcher Ahead 15% 27%
Two Strikes 10% 8%

Strangely, he’s still not trying to use the changeup very much for strikeouts against lefties, instead preferring to lean mainly on his above average cutter. It’s obvious, however, he’s now become more comfortable utilizing the changeup in a variety of different ways. Now let’s take a look at a few examples of his changeup this year:

Here’s one to Kennys Vargas from his first start this year:


And another to Gregory Polanco from last night:


While the movement profiles are very similar between the years, the biggest change that stands out so far in this small sample size is the velocity difference. Greene has thrown his changeup over a full MPH slower in the past two starts in comparison to last year, flashing a full 10 MPH difference from his fastball at times. That has also carried over to his slider, which he’s throwing almost two MPH slower. His hard pitches haven’t lost velocity, so stretching that difference between the hard and off-speed pitches might improve the effectiveness of both.

Greene could completely lose a feel for this changeup and junk it in the next few weeks. That’s the issue with looking at small sample sizes and trying to infer predictive outcomes. The low BABIP and BB% are sure to regress, and Greene won’t blank every team he faces. The fact remains, however: Shane Greene is a pitcher with a great sinker and at least one above average breaking pitch. In a very successful two starts to open the season, he’s shown commitment to throwing a new pitch — one that might address his most glaring weakness. That’s interesting, and something to watch for moving forward.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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7 years ago

Interesting. The Tigers have had some success lately with changing pitch selections. Sanchez made a jump when he started throwing that filthy changeup more, Porcello made his leap when he throw more breaking stuff, and Simon has almost entirely dropped his four seamer, which is a change that they made with Fister too. I bet every team does this, and it’s not a perfect correlation, but I’d love to see more stuff like this

7 years ago
Reply to  Daneeka

This is a good point! They seem to have a better track record than most of improving pitchers they bring in, at least in the past 5 seasons or so. Pocrello and Fister went from mediocre to good, and Scherzer and Sanchez made the even more impressive leap from good to great. Not sure how much this has to do with luck/randomness, camraderie within the pitching staff, and/or pitching coach effectiveness, but it will be interesting to track going forward nonetheless!

7 years ago
Reply to  Daneeka

I don’t think you can credit the Tigers with changing Greene’s pitch selection. He displayed this shift in the last two or three starts with the Yankees last year. He even said in the quote in this article that he found a change-up grip he was comfortable with at the end of last year.

Your point still stands about team’s changing pitch selection (or other attributes), and I would also like to see similar articles detailing changes in pitchers when they switch teams.