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The Art of Nothing

Aug. 03, 2015
Aug. 03, 2015

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Aug. 3, 2015

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The Art of Nothing

It took a historic scoreless streak for the world to realize what big league hitters know all too well: A restless, curious mind and an always-evolving arsenal of pitches has made Zack Greinke better than ever

This is an article from the Aug. 3, 2015 issue

Painstaking point by painstaking point, Georges Seurat took two years to paint his signature work, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Zack Greinke, the pointillist of pitching, took seven years to perfect the odd pitch he copied from a journeyman reliever.

With all five of his pitches Greinke has the best pinpoint control since Seurat. Dot by dot the Dodgers righthander crafted one of the three most impenetrable runs of pitching in the live ball era, joining fellow Los Angeles righthanders Don Drysdale (1968) and Orel Hershiser ('88) as the only pitchers in the modern era to make six straight starts without allowing a run.

While the brute force of velocity has become the preferred coin of the pitching realm, Greinke, 31, and six years removed from his Cy Young Award season, is a better pitcher than he's ever been—with the least speed on his fastball, down from an average of 94.4 mph in 2007 to 91.5 this year.

Greinke is a thinker, a dabbler, a tinkerer, an inventor and a scholar. He has an almost photographic recall of the more than 30,000 pitches he has thrown in the big leagues. He prefers to watch video of other pitchers rather than himself—but only pitchers who throw one of his five pitches better than he does, so that he can deconstruct their technique, as if sequencing a genome, to see what can be learned.

Impeccable as his craftsmanship is, more remarkable still is that it exists at all. Greinke did not choose pitching; pitching chose him.

"I didn't want to [pitch]," he says.

And where would Greinke rather be, if he were not joining only Drysdale and Hershiser in a century of pitching history?

"Probably catcher," he said. "That would be the best position."

The reluctant pitcher has earned $113 million, and with an opt-out clause after this season, he can forgo the $71 million the Dodgers owe him over the next three years for free agency and the opportunity to live in the financial neighborhood of Max Scherzer (seven years, $210 million).

"There are no guarantees in baseball, especially with pitching," says Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, "but Zack is the surest bet there is. He can beat you with several pitches; he has already made adjustments without the same velocity; he's so athletic, his mechanics are perfect; and he's an awesome teammate. He reminds me of Mike Mussina with how he constantly finds new ways."

FIVE DAYS before Opening Day of the 2008 season, a gift arrived for Greinke, though he did not know it at the time. In a trade with Colorado, the Royals obtained Ramon Ramirez, a 26-year-old reliever who had already made stops with the Rangers, Hiroshima Carp, Yankees and Rockies organizations, and from Kansas City would bounce among the Red Sox, Giants, Mets, Rays, Mariners, Orioles and the Mexican League. Batters would hit only .222 against Ramirez in '08, and Greinke, who had a 4.63 ERA to that point, marveled at how his new teammate did it: with a 92 mph fastball and an 88 mph changeup. Thrown so hard, the changeup defied the conventional wisdom that a pitcher should create the widest separation possible between the speeds of those two pitches.

"That changeup was amazing," Greinke says. "Me and [fellow Royals starter] Brian Bannister were like, Man, we need to try to throw that pitch."

Greinke's changeup at the time was his fourth-best pitch, behind his fastball, a wipeout slider that would become the backbone of his 2009 Cy Young season, and a decent curveball. (Greinke also throws an occasional sinker.) His changeup was a traditional off-speed pitch, floating in at 83 mph, about 11 mph slower than his four-seam fastball.

"I tried throwing slower for a long time," he says. "And it got usable, but it never got good. So I worked on another one, and it had a lot more potential."

What bothered Greinke about the traditional changeup was that he could not get it to behave consistently. It wasn't pinpoint. And when it hung over the plate, it became a home run pitch. So, inspired by Ramirez, he began throwing his changeup harder and experimenting with different grips. He finally cracked wthe equation this year: Hold it like a two-seam fastball but throw it off your middle and ring fingers—not your index and middle fingers—as hard as possible.

The result is a Frankenstein of a pitch: a two-seam changeup that looks like a sinker but dives like a split-fingered fastball. Greinke has thrown 427 changeups this year—a career-high average of 21 per start—while allowing just one extra base hit (a double) and a .196 batting average, per Brooks Baseball.

"That pitch is always in the back of my head," says Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, a .287 career hitter but a .133 hitter off Greinke in 15 at bats. "First of all, you don't know when he's going to throw it. It could be 3 and 1, and he'll throw it. Even if I look for it, I can't really hit it for some reason. And if I do look for it, I may get [a fastball at] 93, 94, so I'm in trouble either way. He is the toughest righthanded pitcher I've ever faced."

The velocity gap between Greinke's four-seam fastball, which has lost speed, and his changeup, which has gained speed, has narrowed every year for four consecutive years. It has shrunk to a 3.5 mph differential this season.

Asked to explain this apparent paradox, Greinke says, "Would you rather throw a pitch that's 88--90 or a bad pitch that's 80? I just try to make it move. We just kept working on grips and throwing it and hoping it sinks as much as possible. The plan was to get ground balls with it. My two-seamers weren't any good.

"With this one, even if the changeup was O.K., my command of it was above average. That made an average pitch a better than average pitch just for command reasons."

THE STREAK, which ended Sunday in New York after 452/3 scoreless innings, began June 18 at home against Texas (seven goose eggs) and continued on the road in Chicago against the Cubs (six) and in Miami (72/3), back home against the Mets (seven) and Phillies (eight), and then on the road in sweltering humidity in Washington (eight on a season-high 119 pitches, including 33 changeups). He faced only 14 batters in that stretch with a runner in scoring position and retired every one of them.

"I don't really think about it," Greinke said of the streak two days after the sixth shutout start in a row. "I don't want to work on something too much and then mess up when I'm doing good. There are ways to go about having a really good outing, but that could mess you up for two or three outings away if you use too much energy in one game. That [Washington] game was one I felt like I might have used too much effort."

(The streak, which ended via a hit batter, an outfield error and a fielder's choice hit by opposing pitcher Jacob deGrom, included two unofficial interruptions: a home run he allowed to Mike Trout in the All-Star Game and the birth of his first child, Bode, whose arrival last week afforded him two extra days of recovery from the Washington start. "Typical Zack," Ellis said. "He's been doing his homework on fatherhood. He's been asking all of the guys with kids how it changes your life and what to expect.")

There is an alchemy to what Greinke does with a baseball. He is a master at inducing soft contact. Major league batters hit about .300 when they put the ball in play, but against Greinke's chocolate box of pitches they hit .232, the lowest mark among starters this year.

Most of his pitches float, sink or dart just off the plate down and away, mocking hitters with their carefully measured proximity the way a mechanical rabbit does a greyhound. Nothing demonstrates the wizardry of Greinke better than this: He has had more swinging strikes this season just on balls down and away (98) than in the zone (68). Knowing that his expertise in going down and away precedes him, Greinke recently began throwing his changeup down and in to righthanders.

Meanwhile, his slider has evolved. In 2009 hitters missed it once every four times they swung at it, the highest rate for any of his pitches in any year. "I felt like I could keep throwing it and they wouldn't see it any better," he says. "It was always like the first time they saw it. Probably the best pitch of all was my slider in 2009."

But over the next several years, little by little, Greinke began to lose one, two and then three miles an hour off the slider. "The better hitters were taking it," he says. "I could throw it as good as I could throw it, and the hitters were taking it, and I'd get really frustrated. It was getting harder and harder to get hitters to chase."

The answer, again, was in the grip. In 2013, Greinke created another monster in his pitching lab: a slider thrown with a cutter grip. Though he holds the ball as if throwing a cutter (a pitch with mostly horizontal break), he rakes his fingers along the side of the ball to produce the spin of a slider (imparting downward tilt). Hitters have just one home run off the pitch this year.

The numbers are stupefying. Greinke has faced 277 righthanded batters and walked only four of them. Number 3 hitters—traditionally the best bat in the lineup—are now hitting .105 against him. His ERA (1.37) is lower than the lowest ERA since the mound was lowered in 1969 (1.53 by Dwight Gooden in '85) and within shouting distance of the modern record that caused the mound to be lowered (1.12 by Bob Gibson in '68).

"When Clayton [Kershaw] gets in trouble, he's going to stick to his guns," Ellis says about the Dodgers' lefthanded ace. "Zack is different. He's going to find a different way, even if he has to invent something."

GREINKE DID NOT become a full-time starting pitcher until his senior year at Apopka (Fla.) High, where his primary position was shortstop. Clemson wanted him, but so did the Royals, who selected him with the sixth pick of the 2002 draft. Kansas City offered him $2.5 million to pitch. Greinke took it, though he said at the time, "I was probably the only person, me and the college coaches, who thought going to college was the best idea." When a reporter asked him if he was sad not to attend Clemson, the Royals' freshly enriched first-round pick replied, "Yes."

He reached the major leagues just two years out of high school but struggled with the routine of pitching and all the downtime and idle banter between starts. "I intentionally didn't throw as hard as I could," he says. "I didn't really like pitching at the time. I wanted to be a position player."

At age 22, after struggling to find purpose in spring training bullpen sessions, he walked out of Royals camp and went home. He was diagnosed with depression and a social anxiety disorder. He came back two months later after being prescribed Zoloft, which he still takes. He has since grown to love pitching—for the most part.

"Yeah, when I'm pitching," he says. "It's just that you've got a lot of time in between starts. It took me a long time to figure out what to do—for my mind. Now it doesn't bother me, but it used to—coming to the field and not being able to do anything. All the trivial stuff.... There's just a lot of time you have to fill. You've got to figure out what you like to do."

"Zack is a very thoughtful, very deliberate person," says Ellis. "We don't bother him with idle talk. He always means what he says and is very particular with his words. He makes you think out of the box."

For the past four years Greinke has broken down videotape of draft prospects for his team. He can tell you about the Dodgers' seventh-round pick this year, out of Gonzaga. In spring training you might find him alone in the stands at Arizona State, scouting players for the fun of it. When he met with Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, president Stan Kasten and manager Don Mattingly during his free agency after the 2012 season, Greinke arrived alone. No lawyers, no agents, no buddies.

"If I've had a hundred of those meetings," Colletti said, "this was maybe the third where a guy came alone. And he tells me, 'I really like the kid [Corey] Seager you just drafted.'"

Says Ellis, "Zack likes to tell me, 'Someday when I run a major league team, you're going to be my general manager. I'll be the assistant general manager, but I'll run the team. You'll be the GM so you have to deal with the media instead of me.' And you know what? He'd be great at it."

THE PITCHER who wanted to play shortstop and would love to catch has already won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and a Cy Young, a kind of Field-Hit-and-Pitch trifecta that Greinke himself will tell you has been completed by only two others: "Orel Hershiser and Fernando Valenzuela. I think it's a more exciting game in the National League."

If Greinke hits the free-agent market again this off-season, as expected, he likely will have the Dodgers and the Giants at the top of his list. Said one team source, "Zack knows everything about payrolls, budgets and resources. He's got a list right now of the six most likely places. He knows exactly what his market is."

Meanwhile, he has kept his social anxiety disorder under control.

"It's pretty much the same I've been doing for however long, I guess," Greinke says. "I still have good days and bad days—not like the worst days of everyone in the world, but like I have better days than others. Every time that happens, it's not like I have to switch medicines. It's just normal life stuff, I assume."

Drysdale was 31 during his streak, the same age Greinke is now. After his scoreless run ended on a sacrifice fly on the last of three career RBIs by the Phillies' Howie Bedell, Drysdale made only 29 more starts before a sore shoulder forced him into retirement. Hershiser turned 30 during his streak and ended that season with a 2.77 ERA; it would be 4.17 over 10 more years.

In July it was Greinke's turn to be baseball's third king of nothingness, its master of chronic deprivation. Every Greinke pitch begins the same. He pulls the baseball behind his body, out of the batter's view, as he points his glove toward the target. Everything stays so well in the same linear path—left arm, head, then right arm, then ball release—that Greinke could deliver a pitch down the narrow aisle of a regional jet. The hitter doesn't see the ball until just before Greinke lets go of it. All five pitches come from spots that vary by no more than about an inch, an imperceptible difference to a hitter.

Then the real artistry happens. The baseball behaves as Greinke intends, to the befuddlement of hitters. Rarely across baseball history has the most fundamental principle of pitching—prevent the other team from scoring—been exercised this brilliantly for this long.

"Zack is going to find a different way," says catcher Ellis, "even if he has to invent something."

UNHIT KINGS

The all-time consecutive scoreless start leader board is a Dodgers-only zone.

6

Don Drysdale

58 innings

1968

6

Orel Hershiser

59 innings

1988

6

Zack Greinke

452/3 innings

2015

PHOTOPhotograph by Ross D. Franklin APDEADBALL STARE Greinke's scoreless streak finally ended at 452/3 innings, good for fourth longest in the live ball era, while his ERA is an MLB-best 1.37. PHOTOCHRIS WILLIAMS/ICON SPORTSWIREBLUE MAN GROUP Greinke and Kershaw (above left) are the best one-two rotation punch in the game; combined they have given up three runs in eight July starts. PHOTODOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above] PHOTOJAMES DRAKE/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DRYSDALE)PHOTOV.J. LOVERO FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (HERSHISER)PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (GREINKE)PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGESA LOT ON HIS PLATE Greinke, who has the fourth-highest OBP among MLB pitchers with 300-plus plate appearances, still longs to be a position player.