The Three Keys to Zack Greinke’s Scoreless Streak

The last time Zack Greinke allowed a run in a game a game that counted the regular season was June 13, when Justin Upton hit an eighth-inning homer. Even that solo shot was subject to an instant-replay review, and before that, Greinke had allowed just one run in the first. But people care about what’s come after that. What’s come after that have been six starts, spanning an out shy of 44 innings. Over those innings, opponents have batted .129; over those innings, opponents have scored not any runs. The Dodgers actually found a way to lose one of those games, but this is a streak that forces you to focus on the individual. Generally speaking, the name on the front is more important than the name on the back. But we’re all allowed to forget that, when someone’s doing something incredible.

Greinke doesn’t own the longest scoreless streak ever. Nor will he soon, probably. The odds favor the opponents being able to do at least something, and all it ever takes is one swing, on even a pretty good pitch. But we can’t declare the streak over until it’s over, and for the time being, Greinke is closer than he’s ever been. All eyes will be on his performance the next time he’s out there, because he still has a chance at an impossible record. It’s fair to wonder: how has Greinke gotten this far? How has he rattled off more than 43 consecutive scoreless innings? As best as I can tell, there are three general keys.

Zack Greinke is a good pitcher

You don’t want to forget this one! This one is maybe the most important one. If you’re trying to explain a long scoreless streak, you need to first consider the identity of the pitcher pulling it off. Chances are, the pitcher is good, because the better a pitcher is, the lower the probability of a run scoring in any given frame. Imagine two pitchers, named Pete and Steve. Pete holds the opponent scoreless in 80% of his innings. Steve holds the opponent scoreless in 75% of his innings. That seems like a pretty small difference, but Pete is twice as likely to go on a 10-inning scoreless streak. He’s about four times as likely to make it to 20, and seven times as likely to make it to 30. These things add up fast.

Greinke was predisposed to an extended scoreless streak, on account of being good at his job. Over the previous year, right before this streak even began, Greinke had a 2.41 ERA, with a sub-3 FIP and a sub-3 xFIP. That’s the statistical proof. Here’s the non-statistical proof. You know Zack Greinke, right? You know how he’s pretty good? Yeah. This isn’t some nobody coming out of nowhere, or Kyle Lohse.

Zack Greinke has had some luck

Sorry, but, duh. It’s always there. Zack Greinke’s true talent isn’t a 0.00 ERA. It is a very low ERA, but it is not the lowest possible ERA. Consider that Greinke has allowed just 19 hits, facing 152 batters. Not a single fly ball has left the yard. When there have been runners in scoring position, hits have been further suppressed. Luck doesn’t always look like a line drive being snared at full extension — sometimes luck is just a batter taking a worse swing than usual at a hittable pitch. Luck is always present, in all forms. Greinke’s been the recipient of more good than bad.

One particular manifestation: the opponents. Greinke just shut down the Nationals, who’ve been hurt pretty bad by injuries. The start before that, he faced the Phillies, and the start before that, he faced the Mets. Going back still, there were the Marlins, without Giancarlo Stanton. And there were the Cubs, and it all started against the Rangers, but against the Rangers in a National League ballpark, so they didn’t play Prince Fielder. They didn’t have Adrian Beltre or Josh Hamilton. It’s been a kind slate. This isn’t to take anything away from the achievement — it’s just, the stars have been aligned, so to speak.

Zack Greinke has been better

Our third key focuses on Greinke’s talent level. As discussed with the first key, Greinke’s ordinary talent level is high, but lately it has been even higher. Or at least, there have been real performance differences, that have nothing to do with luck or opponents or anything. Let’s draw from Brooks Baseball and Baseball Savant, and compare the streaking version of Greinke to the earlier 2015 version of Greinke.

Streaking Greinke has thrown his four-seam fastball a whole tick faster. He’s thrown his sinker a tick faster, and he’s thrown his changeup almost two ticks faster. The curveball’s a little faster; the slider’s the same. Greinke’s stuff has picked up, which isn’t uncommon as the season gets further and further away from spring training.

And then there’s what Greinke has done with the stuff. Every pitcher would tell you there’s more to pitching than velocity. Every pitcher would tell you he’d rather throw well than throw hard. Greinke’s velocity has gotten better, and his location has gotten better. We can never know exactly what a pitcher intends to do with his pitches, but the following heat-map .gifs are informative nevertheless.

Here’s where Zack Greinke has put his fastballs:

The clouds — if you want to call them that — split apart. Over the course of the streak, Greinke has thrown his fastball mostly glove-side, up and near the edge of the plate. He’s tucked a few more fastballs arm-side, around the edge, and there’s almost nothing over the middle. With all the new information we have, we’ve been able to confirm a very simple and age-old concept: pitches over the middle get punished more often than pitches that aren’t over the middle. Greinke’s been better about avoiding mistakes.

Greinke’s changeups:

This one isn’t nearly as remarkable as the fastball one, but I want to be complete. The changeup location has remained pretty consistent. Curveballs:

For Greinke, the curve is more about stealing strikes than putting batters away. You see less of a spread during the streak, with more curves collected around the arm-side edge. Fewer of them over-thrown. And finally, sliders:

That’s a beautiful grouping. Plenty of sliders, tucked into that corner. The slider is mostly a weapon against righties, and Greinke has good command over whether he throws the slider off the plate, or so that it catches a bit of the plate. Because it sometimes catches the plate, it can’t be dismissed. Greinke knows exactly what he’s doing with that pitch, and his assortment is cruel.

In almost any count, against both types of hitters, Greinke might throw a fastball, a breaking ball, or a changeup. He has two different fastballs, and two different breaking balls, and he trusts each and every one of his weapons. The slider generally goes to one area. The changeup generally goes to another area. The four-seamer generally goes to another area still, and the same could be said of the curve. So it’s almost impossible to guess, and pitches can’t be easily eliminated.

Which means, as a hitter, you’re looking to hit a mistake, somewhere over the plate. Before the streak began, Greinke ranked in the best 30% in avoiding pitches down the middle. During the streak, he’s ranked in the top 5%. It’s a difference of barely two pitches a game, but that’s two would-be opportunities, going somewhere else. The difference between being good and really good is the execution of a fraction of your pitches. Greinke has been fractionally better, and he was already terrific. Before the streak, 23% of his batted balls allowed clocked in at at least 100 miles per hour. He’s dropped that to 15%, since. By locating a tiny bit better, and by throwing a tiny bit harder, Greinke’s achieved a new level of performance.

It’s peak Greinke, probably unsustainable Greinke, but this is what he can do when he’s at the top of his game. And if he stays at the top of his game a little while longer, he could break a hell of a record. Greinke’s own explanation:

Here’s how he describes this run he is on: “Just not making a bunch of mistakes and making good pitches.”

Basically.

We hoped you liked reading The Three Keys to Zack Greinke’s Scoreless Streak by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Bryce Harper
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Bryce Harper

Don’t forget getting six or seven extra inches of strike zone.

Well-Beered Englishman
Guest

I expected that to get a mention under “has had a lot of luck”. But maybe he’s had other games where that luck was absent.

Bill
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Bill

Scherzer was getting the exact same calls, but even with the same generous strike zone Scherzer gave up a run and Greinke didn’t…

kdl
Guest
kdl

If we were talking about a specific game, and how one team was helped or hurt by the zone, this would be a perfect comment.

But we’re talking about Greinke going on a string of scoreless innings. The fact that Scherzer got the same zone in that game is a red herring in this conversation. Both pitchers being helped to suppress runs doesn’t mean Greinke wasn’t helped.

I don’t know that I ‘buy’ Harper’s complaint. But if we’re going to comment on it seriously…