For the remainder of the 2012 season, I’ll take a weekly look at one Angel’s recent performance and how it relates to their overall season and, in some cases, the fortunes of the team. This week, our focus lies on newly acquired starter Zack Greinke.
On July 27, The Angels traded 3 minor leaguers to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for starter Zack Greinke. The swap marked a Teixeira-level statement, one designed to lock up the Wild Card and challenge Texas for the division. At the time, the Halos were 4 games back in the west; their 55-45 record matched the most games above .500 they’d been at in 2012 and overall, the club was slowly trending upward. Adding Greinke, a front-line talent, to their rotation meant matching an improving offense with a potentially dominant staff to return the Angels to the front-running position they hadn’t enjoyed since certain off-season projections labeled them as World Series favorites. And alongside his skills as a pitcher, the trade allowed Angel fans to enjoy Greinke’s hilariously lethargic interviews.
Notice the qualifiers in the last paragraph: front-line talent and potentially dominant. Both apply to Greinke and the Angels, on-paper powerhouses whose overall performance rarely seems to match supposed capabilities. Greinke’s first and last two starts with the Angels have been exactly as desired, 7+ inning affairs with only 5 runs allowed and 20 strikeouts overall. But in between, he’s been shelled, giving up 20 runs in 4 starts and displaying a nasty propensity to groove bomb-friendly meatballs. Like Dan Haren, his strength lies in excellent command, matching hit-and-miss stuff with low walk totals. During his 4 start hiccup between August 3rd and August 19th, Greinke allowed 12 walks in 25 innings alongside 5 home runs. Also like Haren and, more troubling, Ervin Santana, Greinke can nibble with 2 strikes, fall into deep counts, and move his pitches into the middle of the plate.
An August 8th start against Oakland saw Greinke throw only 59 strikes out of 103 pitches, a dispiriting ratio for someone whose walk rate with the Brewers this year was a sparkling 2.0 per 9. With a mercurial tenure in Los Angeles that matches his career overall, the Angels have to wonder how deeply they can rely on their deadline prize going forward. He’s integral to a staff that has seen reduced expectations from Santana, Haren, and now C.J. Wilson behind the steady ace Jered Weaver.
Greinke’s high profile status as a starter comes based on three things:
1. He was a highly-touted talent from the beginning. The 6th overall pick of the 2002 draft, Greinke put up an absurd line as a 19-year-old in Single- and Double-A. He laid down a 1.93 ERA in 23 starts and put up a 6.22 K/BB ratio. His 18 walks in 140 innings suggested a Maddux-level of command while his mid-90′s fastball raised the ceiling even higher. In 2004, a 20-year-old Greinke hurled 145 innings for the Royals and a 120 ERA+ coupled with a 3.85 K/BB rate was outstanding for anyone, let alone a kid rookie running to the mound before a miserable team set to lose 104 games.
Struggles, both on the mound and with anxiety off it, set Greinke back. Former Kansas City Star reporter Joe Posnanski has suggested that Greinke needed the competitive spirit of a contending team to thrive and his rapid ascent to the majors made it difficult to deal with the fallbacks of himself and the team. He was regularly shelled in 2005 and, while effective, only made 14 starts in 2007 following a sojourn back to the minors in 2006.
2. He was really freaking good in 2009. While Zack returned to his rookie-year form in 2008 and reached 200 innings for the 1st time in his professional career, 2009 featured a season for the decade. Remember how the opening scene* in Pulp Fiction was so grin-inducing that the rest of the film just had to be fantastic? Greinke pulled a Tarantino when he opened his Cy Young season with a 0.50 ERA in his first 5 starts. The strikeout totals were outstanding, 242 overall and 9.5/9. He only walked 51, gave up just 11 home runs in 33 starts, kept his numbers strong in the second half (2.21 ERA), and his .307 BAbip against helped dismiss luck as a factor for his mound sovereignty. Greinke always had the hard moving fastball and in 2009 in averaged 93.7 mph. He had the viscous slider, the looping curve, the show-me change, and the ability to throw them all for strikes. 2009 saw him put all his talents together and couple it with an intensity that was missing during the early stages of his career. His 10.1 WAR has not been matched by a major leaguer since.
*The linked scene is rated-R. You should probably know that already.
3. Recent importance placed on K/BB ratio and the inconsistencies of BAbip have benefited our perception of Greinke. While he hasn’t come close to his 2009 magnum opus, Greinke’s 3.75 K/BB ratio and .318 BAbip in the 3 years since point to a little bad luck hampering the overall numbers of a pitcher nearly maintaining his excellent skills. Greinke led the league in K/9 (a career high 10.5) and finished 4th in K/BB rate in 2011 but only managed a 3.83 ERA and 103 ERA+. His 1.0 HR/9 was 250% higher than his 2009 level, though, and injuries and some inefficiency limited his innings total to 171. His groundball rate jumped from 40% in 2009 to 46% in 2010 to 51% in 2012. Trending up, he places a higher load on infield defense, a dicey proposition in Milwaukee when the erratic Rickie Weeks and just-short-of-svelte Prince Fielder helped man the infield.
With the Angels infielders all average or plus according to B-Ref this season, Greinke should reasonably see a lowered BAbip and thus a better WHIP if his walk totals continue to settle back down. Thus far with the Angels, he’s produced his own distress through the long ball and Santana-style noodling outside the corners of the plate. The rise in home runs alongside an increasing ground ball rate (it only around 33% when he first broke into the majors) suggests that the home runs are a result of poor location rather than a by-product of his natural tendencies. Jered Weaver should give up 20 home runs a year because he’s a fly ball pitcher content to rely on a rangy outfield to track down anything that lands in front of the wall. Greinke’s strikeouts and ground ball rate should arrive without the home runs. 2009 featured Greinke leading the league in home run rate and that season featured the ideal display of his skills. He’ll never match it, but the walk totals will be crucial moving forward. With a walk rate at 3.3/9 at the moment with the Angels, he’s allowed as many home runs in 7 starts with Los Angeles as he did in 21 with Milwaukee. With a better defense behind him, Greinke at least carries the mental advantage of knowing that his fortunes are more reliant on his own skills. Starts in which Greinke gives up 4 walks to a patient but largely maladroit Tampa Bay offense run counter to his pitching plan and similar outings spell death to the Angels’ already diminishing fortunes. But the talent is there, and Greinke is trending upward in his last 2 starts. A September to match his August conclusion gives the Angels two front-line starters, alone not enough to make the playoffs but devastating if the other 3 starters step it up and bring them into October.