Zack Greinke's resurgence is thanks to one key pitch

0:36 | MLB
The Yankees retire Derek Jeter's jersey
Monday May 15th, 2017

Zack Greinke’s first season in Arizona was an unmitigated disaster. After posting a 1.66 ERA and 0.84 WHIP with the Dodgers the previous season and finishing second in NL Cy Young Award voting to Jake Arrieta, Greinke’s ERA ballooned to 4.37 with the Diamondbacks. His 1.27 WHIP was his worst since 2008, and he was the face of the team’s disappointing campaign after an offseason in which it spent lavishly to compete with the Dodgers and Giants. That’s not exactly what the Diamondbacks thought they were getting when they committed to spend $206.5 million over six years on Greinke and his right arm.

This season, however, the Diamondbacks are getting their money’s worth. Greinke has made eight starts in 2017, pitching to a 2.79 ERA, 3.06 FIP and 1.03 WHIP with 58 strikeouts against nine walks in 51 2/3 innings. Greinke is finding himself once again in his age-33 season, and it’s helping make the Diamondbacks a legitimate playoff contender in the NL.

Something else Greinke’s finding in great abundance once again is the whiff. His strikeout rate sits at 28.4% this season, while his swinging-strike rate is a blistering 13.5%. Should both of those hold, they would represent new career highs for the three-time All-Star. Even in Greinke’s best years, he has never been a strikeout artist. He has fanned at least a batter per inning just twice over a full season, and his career strikeout rate of 21.9% is strong, but well shy of the league’s truly elite strikeout pitchers. This season, though, Greinke is racking up whiffs at a staggering rate. Six weeks into the year, there’s more reason than not to believe his uptick in strikeouts is for real.

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Greinke’s best start of the season came last week. He dominated the Pirates across eight innings, allowing one hit, a Gregory Polanco homer, while striking out 11 and walking one. Greinke took a no-hitter into the eighth before allowing the Polanco jack. He bounced back to send down the next three in order before calling it a night. It marked the second time Greinke struck out 11 batters in his last four starts, and third time he whiffed at least nine in that stretch. Two of those starts, last week’s gem against the Pirates and another against the mighty Rockies, came at hitter-friendly Chase Field.

It’s that last start we will focus on here, because it’s most instructive as to what’s working for Greinke this year. That makes sense, given that it was not only his best start of the season, but one of the league’s most dominant for any pitcher. MLB.com is producing these videos after a pitcher strikes out a ton of batters in one game where they show all of his strikeouts in the same number of seconds. Here are Greinke’s 11 against the Pirates, broken up into two GIFs. See if you can notice a pattern.

Eight of Greinke’s 11 victims were felled by the slider. Greinke is throwing his slider more than ever this season, with the pitch’s usage rate up to 27.2%. From 2008, the season in which Greinke joined a MLB rotation for good, through last year, his slider usage rate was 16.9%. There were, of course, seasons in which he threw it well more than 20% of the time, but never one that approached his affinity for the pitch this season. The results speak for themselves.

All told, 30 of Greinke’s 58 strikeouts have featured a slider as the final pitch of the at-bat. The pitch has a whiff rate of 27.7% overall, and 45.2% when you isolate for swings. Hitters are 11-for-38 against Greinke’s slider when putting it in play, and while two of those hits have left the yard, Greinke can live with that when he’s getting hitters to swing and miss or make weak contact against the slider about 90% of the time they swing.

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Let’s take a look at the slider in action, because it has been a real weapon for Greinke all season, and to hitters from both sides of the plate. First, we can go all the way back to his 2017 debut, when he took a no-decision against the Giants. Greinke wasn’t particularly sharp that afternoon, allowing two runs on four hits in five innings, striking out four and walking two. We can give him a pass for that given his performance since then, especially since it was Opening Day. The slider, though, was already biting. For proof of that, we turn to Buster Posey.

One month later, Greinke met the Rockies for the first time this season. He surrendered three runs on seven hits in six innings, fine numbers given the opponent and ballpark, and struck out nine batters. One of those was Gerardo Parra, who shows us here how the slider is equally as effective against lefties as it is against righties.

Greinke’s slider, of course, doesn’t simply exist in isolation. Part of the reason it’s such an effective pitch for him is the way it interacts with his other offerings. For a look at that, we turn to his second start against the Rockies this season, which came about two weeks ago. Greinke and Nolan Arenado are quite familiar with one another. Including this season, Arenado has 39 plate appearances against Greinke, with the pitcher coming out far ahead. Greinke has held the All-Star and perennial MVP candidate to a .243/.282/.378 slash line with zero homers, five strikeouts and two walks.

Even though Greinke has gotten the better of Arenado in their respective careers, he still needs to find ways to stay ahead of one of the best hitters in the game. That’s what made the sequencing in their first meeting two weeks ago such a work of art. Greinke started the at-bat with three straight four-seamers, including a first-pitch strike.

On the 1–2 pitch, with Greinke in clear command of the at-bat, he broke off the slider. By time Arenado realized it was the breaker and not a fastball, it was far too late.

Like any aging pitcher, Greinke needs to find new ways to succeed as he gets deeper into his 30s. His velocity is down again this season, but he’s off to one of the strongest starts of his career. For that, he can thank his slider.

Pitchers to watch this week

Chris Archer, Rays

Archer has predictably rebounded this year, pitching to a 3.04 ERA, 2.80 FIP and 1.13 WHIP with 59 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings. He had his best start of the season his last time out when he spun eight shutout frames with 11 strikeouts against the Royals. If the Rays decide to make Archer available this summer, he’s going to be the most sought-after pitcher on the market, and with good reason. He has a tough week ahead, taking on the Indians on Monday and Yankees on Saturday.

Dallas Keuchel, Astros

Keuchel may not be pitching quite as well as he did in 2015 when he won the AL Cy Young Award, but he’s throwing the ball better than he did the year before that when he amassed a 2.93 ERA, 3.21 FIP and 1.18 WHIP with 146 strikeouts in 200 innings. Keuchel has allowed two or fewer runs while pitching at least seven innings in six of his eight starts this season. In one of the two that he didn’t, he tossed six shutout innings with nine strikeouts in a win over the Yankees. Keuchel is back, and that’s a big reason why the Astros are already lapping the field in the AL West. He’ll take the ball once this week, opposing the Marlins on Tuesday.

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Zack Wheeler, Mets

Wheeler is coming off his best start of the season, in which he allowed one run on two hits and four walks in six innings, striking out four in a win over the Giants. Wheeler’s performance this year has been uneven, which isn’t a surprise after he missed two full seasons due to multiple arm injuries, so any positive sign is encouraging. The two best things he has going for him this year are his velocity and strikeout numbers. Wheeler’s average fastball sits at 95.5 mph, and he has fanned 29 batters in 32 1/3 innings. Wheeler is scheduled for two starts this season, against the Diamondbacks on Monday and the Angels on Sunday.

Danny Salazar, Indians

Salazar has struggled mightily this season. He has pitched into the seventh inning just once in his seven starts, and has allowed four or more runs three times. Add it all up, and Salazar has a 5.20 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 36 1/3 innings. The silver lining, though, is that he has fanned 53 batters, resulting in a 3.54 FIP. We know Salazar can miss bats, and that’s going to keep any pitcher in most of his starts. There’s still far more reason to believe in him as a strong fantasy option than there is to fade him. Salazar is slated for one start this week against the Rays on Tuesday.

Rich Hill, Dodgers

Hill is set to return to the Dodgers rotation on Tuesday after spending more than a month on the DL because of a blister. The Dodgers initially toyed with placing Hill in the bullpen upon his return, but with Kenta Maeda freshly on the DL due to a hamstring injury, he’ll have at least a few turns to try to lock down a rotation spot. That makes these next two starts huge for Hill. Maeda had bounced back from a rough start to the season, allowing five runs while striking out 21 in his last 20 1/3 innings. Alex Wood has been excellent since joining the rotation, amassing a 3.33 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 34 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings. If Hill can’t match up to those two, he could head to the bullpen when Maeda returns. He’ll get one start this week, likely against the Giants on Tuesday.

Prospect Watch

Jeff Hoffman, Rockies

The Rockies sit in first place in the NL West, holding a 1.5-game lead over the Dodgers. While they’re swinging the bats well, led by Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Mark Reynolds, their pitchers have been surprisingly effective. The Rockies rank third in the majors in pitcher fWAR, trailing the Dodgers and Indians. The bullpen has done a lot of the heavy lifting, but their starters still rank eighth in the majors in fWAR. That’s certainly better than most would have expected during the preseason, especially when you consider that Jon Gray has spent most of the season on the DL.

Jeff Hoffman could ultimately contribute to that bottom line as a regular member of the rotation at some point this season. He made his first start of the season over the weekend, allowing three runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings, striking out eight and walking two. The Rockies sent him back to Triple-A Albuquerque after the start, but it might not be long before we see him in the majors for good.

Hoffman made six starts with the Rockies last season, pitching to a 4.88 ERA, 6.27 FIP and 1.72 WHIP in 31 1/3 innings. He has been better at the Triple-A level this year, though, totaling a 3.71 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 34 innings. His four-seam fastball is an electric pitch, averaging better than 95 MPH. He also features a devastating curveball, which the Dodgers learned about over the weekend.

The problem for Hoffman, however, is one of opportunity. Tyler Chatwood and Tyler Anderson are locked into the rotation. Youngsters Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland are both off to excellent starts in their rookie years. Jon Gray experienced a setback while rehabbing his broken foot, but he’ll still be back at some point next month. So long as those five players are healthy, Hoffman will be stuck in the minors. If he does get to the Rockies for good, he’ll be worth a look in all fantasy formats.

Two-start Pitchers

Carlos Carrasco
Chris Archer
Yu Darvish
Stephen Strasburg
Marco Estrada
Wade Miley
John Lackey
Brandon McCarthy
Sean Manaea
Jaime Garcia
Kyle Freeland
Derek Holland
Joe Musgrove
Zack Wheeler
Chad Kuhl
Jimmy Nelson
Eduardo Rodriguez
Andrew Triggs
Jesse Chavez
Bartolo Colon
Phil Hughes
Yovani Gallardo
Jason Hammel
Luis Perdomo
Dan Straily
Tom Koehler
Chase Anderson
Matt Boyd
Matt Bolsinger
Matt Cain
Ty Blach
Clayton Richard
Zack Godley
Bronson Arroyo
Chase De Jong
Mike Pelfrey

GIF of the Week

Lance McCullers tossed six shutout innings in a win over the Yankees last Friday, striking out seven batters. Here’s one of those strikeouts. Yes, that is a 90-mph changeup.

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