In the past, Zack Greinke has been hyperaware of the statistics pitchers control most: strikeout, walk, and home run rates, the statistics used to calculate FIP. But focusing on which type of batted ball he was looking for while trying to be a FIP pitcher didn’t turn out so well in 2010 and 2011. By 2016, Greinke’s slider had lost much of its swing-and-miss greatness, but his changeup had taken one last big step forward.

But Greinke’s incredible 1.66 ERA season last year was a perfect storm. He was at his contact-management best; he limited hitters to an astonishing .229 average on balls in play in 222.2 innings, also posting a strong 0.57 HR/9. But Greinke was also very much a FIP standout, recording 5 strikeouts for every 1 walk with a very good 8.08 K/9 and elite 1.62 BB/9. His plus velocity had matured into plus control, and he became one of the best bets a team could make, at least among the over-30 crowd and for the next few years. If the contact management part of his game slipped, he was still a strike thrower who wouldn’t hurt himself with walks. If the slider had its last gasp and the changeup regressed, he might lose the high level of strikeouts, but he’d still have the skill of preventing hard hits.

As Greinke’s career has progressed, he’s gotten more of his whiffs via control, rather than through crazy stuff. In the first five seasons of his career, his Zone% was comfortably over 50% in each year, three times running 55% or higher. By the time his Royals tenure came to a close after the 2010 season, Greinke was more of a mid-40s guy. For the Brewers, Angels and Dodgers, Greinke was a hair over 40%, running a remarkably consistent Zone% of 41.0%, 41.0% and 41.4% in consecutive seasons. Greinke finally slipped to 39.9% in 2015, his best season.

A low Zone% is part cause, but part effect; getting ahead of hitters both helps a pitcher find success, and a thing that happens when a pitcher is successful. Getting ahead means having the luxury of tantalizing hitters with pitches out of the zone for a bigger chunk of at bats. To sustain a Zone% as low as Greinke did in 2015, though, you need to sometimes get ahead of hitters while pitching out of the zone. That’s exactly what Greinke accomplished in his incredible 2015 season. He didn’t have the sport’s lowest Zone% — his was sixth-lowest among 78 qualified starters. But what set Greinke apart was that he also had an above-average Swing%, far and away higher than the five pitchers with a lower Zone%. Greinke was having success, and that success snowballed.

Early 2016: Not Very Good

Enter 2016. Through five starts this season, it looked like Greinke had a snowball’s chance in hell of having a similar level of success again. Despite the safety offered by Greinke’s combination of skill sets, he sported a 6.16 ERA after his first five starts. His FIP-level stats were perfectly fine; he was striking out about half a batter per nine innings fewer than he did in 2015, walking an extra third of a batter. He was crushed by home runs, yielding five in those five starts — all in games at Chase Field. But more importantly, balls that stayed in the yard were also turning into hits, as his horrific .347 BABIP would indicate. The contact manager seemed to be gone, while the strike thrower was still around. The problem was that those strikes were turning into hits.

This is weird to say, but it looks like Greinke was mostly just tremendously unlucky in that first stretch of the season. In April (six starts, instead of just five), Greinke had a 26.2% Hard%, as recorded by Baseball Info Solutions stringers (via FanGraphs). That’s not fantastic, but it’s not high, either. He had just 19.8% of batted balls in the “Soft” category, low, but again, not exactly extreme. His line drive percentage was a perfectly normal 20.2%, and in four of his five starts to begin the season, the average exit velocity on balls put in play against Greinke as tracked at Baseball Savant was actually lower than league average, in three starts by quite a lot. Greinke wasn’t giving up better quality contact, it seems. He was just giving up overwhelmingly more hits.

Lots of the blame should be given to Chase Field, where homers and other extra base hits play up, and where Greinke still sports a 5.06 ERA in nine home starts this year. But it probably shouldn’t escape our attention that in the same stretch of five starts at the beginning of the season in which his batted balls were turning into hits, he was also pitching in the strike zone much more often than he had in the recent past. In his first five starts this year, Greinke posted zone rates of 50.0%, 48.0%, 37.9%, 47.1%, and 55.2%. It was weird. Yes, to some extent the high rates are a reflection of Greinke struggling, rather than the cause of struggles; but in a park where batted balls tend to do more damage, Greinke had stepped out of his career trends and offered batters more pitches they could hit.

The Last Nine Starts: The No-Zone Layer

Greinke appears to have made adjustment around the end of April. Conceding to some extent that he may not be able to manage contact at Chase Field, Greinke relied on his control — by choosing to throw fewer strikes. Since those high Zone% marks to start the year, Greinke has rattled off nine starts of almost exclusively low Zone%: 41.0%, 35.8%, 44.2%, 35.4%, 50.5%, 32.3%, 41.8%, 33.7% (his shutout), and 39.5% last night. That coincides with a 2.57 ERA in the same stretch — not exactly 2015, but damned good, especially for a D-backs starter.

Zone% is not the only thing that’s going on here. In his first five starts, Greinke threw sliders for just 17.2% of pitches; since then, that’s picked up in a big way to 25.4%, the kind of percentages he ran in his young prime. At his most successful, that’s run especially high; he threw 40 sliders last night, after 34 in the shutout before that. Like many pitchers with two breaking balls, Greinke has tended to feature the curve as a secondary pitch to lefties, and his slider to righties; with lefties absolutely killing his fastballs, though, Greinke has been using both breaking balls against lefties, adding the slider to the curve and throwing breaking balls for 24.9% of pitches to lefties in his last nine starts after cruising at 17.6% in his first five.

That’s the only major trend in his pitch mix. Greinke has more or less stayed the hell away from his sinker, although he only really used it as a third pitch against right-handed hitters last year anyway. He’s also relied on his changeup more in home starts, but that trend started at the beginning of the season. It’s really just a matter of where he’s throwing his pitches.

It mostly comes down to the fourseam fastball. In his first five starts, Greinke threw his fourseam in the zone 37.8% of the time; that’s dropped off the table to 32.6% in his last nine. Greinke’s increased slider usage had the effect of helping to lower his Zone% anyway, since that was a pitch he hasn’t thrown much in the zone anyway; but even that pitch has really dropped off, with a 30.5% Zone% in his first five and 23.2% in his last nine. Greinke’s change is still his main secondary pitch, and that’s more or less stayed steady: a 16.8% zone rate that rose slightly to 17.9%. The sum total of where Greinke has thrown those pitches is a vastly lower zone rate overall. To partly make up for that, he’s thrown in the zone a lot more with the pitches he uses least: from 31.0% to 37.3% with his curveballs, and from 18.5% to 35.1% with his sinkers, few as they may be.

Pitch mix still highlights what we’re getting at. Against righties last year, Greinke led with the fourseam, charged with the slider, and tossed in a decent number of sinkers for good measure. Against lefties, Greinke followed the fourseam with frequent doses of changeups, the curveball working as the number three pitch. But Greinke never stopped throwing changeups and curves to righties, or sliders and sinkers to lefties; it’s not smart to throw a pitch less than 5% of the time if that means you can’t trust your command of it, but if you’re throwing pitches frequently anyway, you might as well capitalize on the element of surprise from time to time. And that’s the last trick up Greinke’s sleeve. If you’re going to steal a pitch here or there, you might as well steal a strike.

Greinke’s fourseam fastball was pummeled to start the year (.345 AVG, .655 SLG in first five starts). The answer was to move out of the zone as much as possible, picking spots right on the border with the fourseam, relying much more on the slider, a pitch that has been effective for him out of the zone for a long time. That, stealing a few extra strikes with the rarest pitches in his arsenal, and finally escaping a heaping helping of bad luck seems to have turned the tide for Greinke in a big way. What we’ve learned, though, is that whether it’s Father Time or Chase Field, Greinke probably doesn’t have the margin for error he seemed to have in the offseason. Let’s see if hitters pick up on this low-zone approach and force Greinke to make even more adjustments.

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