Thursday April 16th, 2015

Every week this fantasy baseball season, Michael Beller will break down what's working and what's not for select pitchers. This week, he analyzes the Tigers' Shane Greene.

Two starts into the season, Shane Greene is rewarding fantasy owners who bought into his breakout potential. Greene is 2-0 and has gone eight innings both times out. In his first start of the year, he held the Twins to one unearned run on four hits, fanning five batters and walking one. He took the ball Tuesday against Pittsburgh and was even better, shutting out the Pirates for all eight frames and surrendering just three hits, two of which were infield singles. He needed only 81 pitches to get through his eight innings, and no Pirate reached second base with him on the mound. Greene likely would have been able to post the first complete game shutout with fewer than 100 pitches of the season, had Brad Ausmus sent him back out for the ninth inning.

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Greene enjoyed a successful half season with the Yankees last year, amassing a 3.78 ERA, 3.40 xFIP and 81 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings. It was his first taste of the majors, and nothing in his professional career before that suggested he’d ever be more than a staff filler. The Yankees selected Greene in the 15th round of 2009 amateur draft. He progressed steadily through the minors, but never made even one top-100 prospects list. When he made his major league debut last season, he was already 25 years old, hardly the age of a star in the making. And yet Greene has had his most consistent professional success in the majors.

With his two starts this year, Greene is still just shy of 100 innings pitched for his career, so we’re not quite ready to make any grand pronouncements. He’s also not just a mirage who has been blessed by with an excellent sample size at the beginning of his career. Greene has a strong handle over his entire pitch library, as well as an understanding of how he wants to attack hitters to both sides of the plate.

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Greene’s repertoire includes five pitches. He throws both a four-seam fastball and sinker, though he prefers the latter, especially to righties. He also throws a cutter, slider and changeup, with the cutter his preferred out pitch. His four-seamer sits in the mid-90s, with an average velocity a touch above 94 mph, according to Brooks Baseball. It may have taken him five years to get to the majors, but he’s not a soft tosser. However, it’s the interplay between his cutter and slider, as well as the expert command he has over his sinker, that make him so effective.

Let’s first take a look at the cutter and slider, and how he used the pitches on Tuesday. One driver in his performance, as is typically the case when he pitches well, was that he was able to keep the Pirates completely off-balance with his cutter and slider. The two pitches have similar movements, both cutting away from righties and into lefties. The plane and depth of those movements, however, are quite different, as you can see in the tables below. The first is horizontal movement, while the second is vertical, measured in inches. The measurements are courtesy of the invaluable Brooks Baseball,

Year Slider Cutter
2014 6.65 3.97
2015 7.86 3.85
Year Slider Cutter
2014 2.56 2.60
2015 1.24 3.13

As you would probably guess, the slider is much more sweeping, whereas the cutter travels in more of a darting path. As such, Greene’s average slider is about 80 mph, while the cutter checks in between 87 and 88 mph. In essence, Greene’s slider is to his cutter as a typical pitcher’s changeup is to his four-seam fastball.

Let’s check it out in action. The following is from an at-bat against Corey Hart with two outs and no one on in the fourth inning. In Hart’s first plate appearance, he didn’t see the cutter or the slider. Green started him out with a sinker and a fastball, before coming back to the sinker to induce a groundout to third. This time, he kicks things off with the cutter.

While that pitch moves like a tight slider, it’s actually a cut fastball that Greene will throw to both righties and lefties. We know it’s a cutter because it doesn’t have a ton of horizontal movement. It does, however, make haste on its way to the plate, darting away from the hitter at the last second. When Hart starts his swing, the pitch looks like it’s going to be right down the middle. By time his bat is in the hitting zone, the pitch has moved to the outer third, forcing an empty swing.

With the count at 0-1, Greene really has his entire repertoire at his disposal. He’s probably not going to throw an 0-1 change to a right-handed hitter, but Hart’s in a position where he can’t guess. Greene opts for the slider, and that is wonderful for our purposes here, because getting these two pitches back-to-back makes it easy to see how he can use them akin to your typical four-seam/changeup combo.

This is a particularly filthy offering, especially coming on the heels of an 87 mph cutter. Greene’s slider breaks a bit earlier than his cutter, and it’s altogether possible that Hart diagnoses cutter when he sees this pitch make a similar horizontal move, albeit earlier on its path to the plate. However, this pitch is traveling at just 79 mph, and has another five or so inches of horizontal movement. The end result is a harmless cut that never had a chance of making contact.

It’s this 1-2 punch that makes Greene such a tough pitcher, and he doesn’t just use them in conjunction in the same at-bat. He’ll set a hitter up in one at bat with the cutter or slider, and then come back with the other to the same guy later in the game. For that illustration, let’s turn to Andrew McCutchen’s first two trips to the plate on Tuesday.

After starting McCutchen off with a four-seamer off the plate at 94 mph, he comes back with the slider. Despite being behind in the count, he somehow draws a bit of a defensive swing from McCutchen, as the 2013 NL MVP skies the pitch lazily into rightcenter field for the final out of the inning.

McCutchen led off the fourth inning in his next at-bat, having last seen the slider. So what does Greene start him with here? You guessed it, the cutter. McCutchen takes it for strike one.

This is an important pitch in the sequence for reasons beyond getting Greene ahead in the count. Now that McCutchen has seen both the cutter and slider, it plants the thought in his head that both are possible. Greene threw him the slider in a 1-0 count the first time around, but he throws it again here after getting up 0-1. After two more pitches, including a sinker, the count is at 2-2. McCutchen has seen Greene’s entire repertoire, except the change, which, again, he’s not going to throw very often to righties. He comes back with the cutter, spotted perfectly on the outer third. McCutchen grounds it back up the middle, and Greene makes a nice play for an easy 1-3 groundout.

As was the case in all three of these at-bats, Greene is regularly going to turn to the cutter or slider for outs. It’s the sinker, which he throws just shy of 40 percent of the time, that is the foundation for his success. Greene loves using the sinker against righties, especially on the first pitch, to get him up in the count. However, one thing he doesn’t do is miss with the pitch in a vulnerable spot. The following is the pitch’s zone profile, dating back to his 78 2/3 innings with the Yankees last year.

Red is an apt color here, because all the red you see does a good job depicting the way Greene burns up right-handed hitters’ hands with the pitch. They aren’t doing anything with that offering in that location, except shaking out their hands for the next minute or two if they make contact.

Greene’s fantasy owners may be a little upset that he has just eight strikeouts in his first 16 innings, but with this repertoire and his command, the whiffs will come. He fanned more than a batter per inning last year, and while he probably won’t repeat that feat across a full season in the majors, he should get to 7.5 K/9. With the strong Detroit offense behind him, Greene’s set to be a top-30 fantasy starting pitcher in 2015.

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