I’ll start this one like I think I’ve started another, probably also about Shane Greene. Who remembers? Last summer, while working on an article for The Hardball Times Annual, I talked to Brandon McCarthy about the significance and implementation of contemporary data. It was a long interview and a lot went into the article, so I’m not going to sit here and spoil everything, but McCarthy noted something he learned immediately upon joining the Yankees. Right away, they told him about the value of an elevated fastball. Even though McCarthy was more traditionally a sinker-baller, he found that he could get easy outs sometimes going hard and up, with hitters geared for pitches down. Adding one new level made hitting exponentially more difficult.
As the conversation went on, it turned to then-Yankees sensation Shane Greene. Maybe “sensation” is over-selling him, but he came out of nowhere, and he was throwing gas. Greene was whiffing a batter an inning, powered by a mid-90s sinker that he kept down by the knees, and as we neared the end, McCarthy made one more point. The Yankees had given Greene very simple offseason instructions: he was to improve his ability to throw a fastball up.
Greene wound up traded. He wound up traded in early December, as the Yankees paid the price for a shortstop. We don’t know how that deal is going to turn out, since the major pieces involved are still very young, but the Tigers are certainly pleased by what they’ve seen from Greene to date, and beyond that, it appears Greene took the Yankees’ advice to heart, even as he was leaving them. What Shane Greene was, he hasn’t been yet.
Here, let’s take a quick look at McCarthy, first. A year ago, McCarthy threw a third of his fastballs at or above the vertical center of the strike zone. So far this season, McCarthy’s rate has leaped to 55%, giving him a year-to-year increase of 22 percentage points. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 100 fastballs, that’s the second-biggest increase in the majors. Chris Sale‘s in third, and Clayton Kershaw’s in fourth.
But I haven’t told you who’s in first. Well, I have, just not explicitly. Who is this article about? Last season, no starting pitcher threw fewer high fastballs than Greene. Just a quarter of his fastballs were at or above the vertical center of the strike zone. This ranked him close to reliever Joe Smith, who, yeah, you know what he’s like. Now move ahead to Greene’s first three starts of the new year. So far, he’s thrown 60% of his fastballs up there, giving him a year-to-year increase of 35 percentage points. That’s not just a greater bump than McCarthy’s; it blows McCarthy’s bump away. Greene has gone from an extreme low-ball pitcher to a fairly extreme high-ball pitcher, and while he’s not Tyler Clippard, this is quite the adjustment.
Especially for someone who throws a sinker. Greene’s talked about his four-seamer before, noting that it can be a weapon upstairs. That’s true, but Greene has moved up both his fastballs. His average sinker this year is higher by a little more than eight inches. His average four-seamer is higher by a little more than nine inches. This is coming from Brooks Baseball, who I trust. Hold your fingers out in front of you. Try to eyeball what eight or nine inches looks like. Better yet, measure! Those are big increases in average height, given the limited dimensions of the strike zone.
Time to pull from Baseball Savant. Shane Greene’s fastballs a year ago, and Shane Greene’s fastballs this year:
That makes things, I think, pretty obvious, and while this blends both of his fastballs together, they’ve both done similar things. The sinker’s gotten higher, from a lower starting point, and the four-seamer’s gotten higher, from less of a low starting point. When you have just three starts of evidence, you always have to keep in mind sample-size randomness, but Greene has thrown enough fastballs now that his plan should be overwhelming the noise.
And, Greene has moved from throwing 39% two-strike fastballs to 51% two-strike fastballs. Here is where those fastballs have gone, and this time I’m not using the heat-map option because of the small samples:
I shouldn’t need to tell you what you’re seeing. A year ago, there was the occasional high two-strike fastball. This year there have been mostly high two-strike fastballs. Greene has very clearly received and applied the Yankees’ message, even though he’s changed employers. And perhaps this is something the Tigers have also encouraged — doesn’t seem like they’ve discouraged it — but it was the Yankees that got Greene started.
This shows up in another area. Last year, out of 185 starting pitchers with at least 50 innings, Greene ranked 182nd in zone rate, at 41%. This year, out of 94 qualified starters, Greene ranks 12th in zone rate, at 53%. His first-pitch strike rate is up, his overall strike rate is up, and his rate of pitches thrown ahead in the count is up. Interestingly, Greene hasn’t yet sacrificed any of his groundball rate, and though his strikeouts have gone backwards, the average contact suggests the strikeouts will eventually be there. Meanwhile, he’s gone from 3.9 pitches per plate appearance to less than 3.4. Greene’s been attacking, and he hasn’t had issues keeping his other pitches down. More than a year ago, Greene has put opponents on the defensive. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t good last year; just means this year he’s trying to be differently effective.
Greene has shown that he can be successful nibbling around the lower edge. He was good at that, and it wasn’t all because of the receiving skill of Brian McCann. But the Yankees suggested a way for Greene to be better, even though they ultimately turned him in for something else. And Greene’s become a different pitcher, even with the same body and the same pitches. Every pitcher will tell you the fundamental thing is establishing the fastball. Greene has been establishing the fastball, in a different place. You don’t see that very often, but the game’s always evolving. Hitters expect Shane Greene somewhere around the knees. So why give them what they’re looking for?
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.