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Zack Greinke, Pitch Selection, and the Dead Horse

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MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 11: Zach Greinke #13 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at the Miller Park on June 11, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - JUNE 11: Zach Greinke #13 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals at the Miller Park on June 11, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
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This may well be the most long-awaited post in BCB history right here. It's been in the works for over a week and unfortunately my schedule has not been kind in that timespan so I'm giving you what I've got today. Our own Rubie Q wanted me to look a bit at Zack Greinke's pitch selection, and he put together a very neat little chart showing Greinke's pitch selections in different counts so far this season. The 2010 chart is from Royals Review, a great SBNation blog. I stacked them in an image so hopefully it's easier to compare. 2010 is first, 2011 is second. It gets a bit blurry because these charts were resized, so for clarity: Blue is changeup, red is curveball, yellow is all fastballs, 2 or 4-seam, and green is the slider.

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That's a quite a bit of information to digest overall, so take a moment to check those out. Here's a third chart for 2009, also from Royals Review. The colors are different, but it's in the same order:

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The first general trend is a lot more curveballs this year and significantly less sliders in the 2-strike counts. Around 21% of his pitches have been curves so far, by far a career high. That was 15% in 2009 and 10% in 2010. In the charts above, notice how much less often he's using the slider in 0-2 and 1-2 counts, using the fastball and curveball much more often there. He's talked about how he's been working on a harder curve to mix with the occasional super-slow one, and sure enough the curveball velocity average is at its highest in his career. And it's hard to complain about this strategy when he's striking out 11.5 per 9 and his swinging strike rate is 12.3% (he's never been over 10% in a season before).

The other weird thing is that he's throwing his slider more than he did last year too. This is where the comparison gets a bit murky, Greinke admitted to throwing his slider less to save his arm late in last season and that's pretty easy to see overall. Almost 75% of his pitches were fastballs or changeups last year, and this year that's 60%. He's not saving his arm anymore, and he's definitely not bored. It's showed in the strikeout numbers.

The big mystery Rubie and I discussed was in the classification of his 2-seam fastball. It's jumped around in Greinke's career-- though Pitch f/x shows that his regular and 2-seam fastballs has significantly different movements, it has classified 0%, 27%, and this year, 7% of his pitches as 2-seamers in the past 3 seasons. For this graph I used one that combines 2 and 4-seam, because for the purpose of analyzing pitch selection, the difference isn't as important, he's throwing a fastball either way. But it's a mystery that could really only be solved by someone asking Greinke himself. Either way, it seems like last year he tried harder to get more movement on his fastball, and this season is working more off the straight heater, even though its velocity is down about a mile per hour off its usual average. That's a general conclusion I can endorse.

The bottom line, if there can be one, is that I see a lot more of 2009 Greinke than 2010 Greinke in his performance so far. The top-notch results overall aren't there yet but they'll come. He's been tremendously steady lately and I think it's only a matter of time before we start seeing some incredible games out of this guy. He's in his prime and is making hitters look worse than he did in his 9-WAR, 2.16 ERA season of 2009. It's going to be a fun ride.

And, for the record, hooray! Nieves is gone!