Zack Greinke and change

Sudden urgency

Zack Greinke was not happy in Kansas City. The Royals were shopping him, reflecting his preference to be traded. Winter was moving along slowly, with little indication 2011 would dawn with the young ace anywhere but in Kansas City.

In the middle of December, Greinke changed agents and demanded a trade, indicating a willingness to consider teams that were listed as no-gos in his current contract. Unlike the Cliff Lee saga, Greinke’s story played out quickly. It took some by surprise just because it was broken by a blog affiliated with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Much to their credit, they had it right. Greinke was sent to Milwaukee in a six-player-and-cash trade.

There was no shortage of suitors. The Royals had deals in place or close to it with at least three teams, including the Blue Jays and Nationals. Greinke refused to approve a trade to Washington or Toronto or an earlier offer to go to the Yankees—three of 15 locations on his no-trade list. Greinke agreed to accept a trade to Milwaukee, which was also on his no-trade list.

Greinke had his change of heart thanks to Prince Fielder remaining a Brewer this offseason and Milwaukee’s recent acquisition of Shaun Marcum. Milwaukee showed a commitment to winning “now” and Greinke jumped at the chance to get on board.

New team, new league, new number

The Brewers and the Royals are both in their league’s Central Division. Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City has aged gracefully and has been reinvigorated in recent years. Miller Park is not new anymore; the Brewers have played in their retractable dome facility for a full decade. It’s a nice facility and will put a virtual end to pitching in the dog days of the Missouri summer.

Moving leagues means Greinke will be required to handle a bat on a regular basis, and maybe even run the bases. To top off the fresh look Greinke has dropped a dime off his jersey number.


Things have happened quickly, so Rickie Weeks may part with his 23 yet.

A life-changing experience

Greinke was drafted in 2002 with the hype you’d expect for the sixth player selected overall. He cruised through the minors, arriving in the major leagues May 22, 2004. He was 20 years old and expected to emerge as an ace. Quickly.

That season went well enough, a sub-4.00 ERA and a few votes in the Rookie of Year tally. The next didn’t go well— Greinke’s ERA pushed 6.00 and he led the league in losses. Not the most telling of statistics, but an albatross nonetheless. All the while, Greinke was struggling with something far more difficult than an 87 mph slider.

Zack Greinke was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in 2006. His diagnosis followed his abrupt departure from spring training and has been treated successfully since. Successful treatment of SAD does not imply a smooth road, mind you. There are both internal and external forces to battle.

Just a year after walking out of camp, Greinke was back with some time in the minors and a few innings with the Royals in 2006. . He reflected on his situation, and said something that would be just as true if he said it tomorrow:

The toughest part is convincing people it’s not a problem anymore

Greinke found himself comfortable in his own skin and in familiar surroundings in 2010. He reported to spring training with new hardware on the shelf, a ring on his finger, three straight seasons in the rotation and plans for his next change.

More change-ups

Coming off a Cy Young campaign, the newlywed Greinke found himself with an opportunity to make a significant adjustment. The Kansas City Star in April:

Last year he hardly used the change-up—just 6 percent of the time. Now he feels comfortable enough with it to use it in most any count.

Six percent is the same rate of change-ups found in a careful review of his PITCHf/x data from 2009. Greinke was clearly comfortable with his change-up, as he threw it twice as often in 2010.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Pitch Mix (%)

Year Fastball Sinker Slider Curveball Change-up
2009 44 15 20 15 6
2010 36 24 16 11 13

Greinke threw just as much hard stuff as he did in 2009, but the mix of fastballs and off-speed pitches was notably different. As were the results.

{exp:list_maker}Change-up: threw it more in 2010; exchanged whiffs for grounders
Curveball: threw it less; liners became flies which yielded more homers; whiff rate plummeted and hitters chased it less
Fastball: threw it less; got hit a little harder
Sinker: threw it more; basically same results
Slider: threw it less; exchanged whiffs for grounders {/exp:list_maker}

Overall: a few less whiffs, but more ground balls.

There was a problem, one that groundball pitchers usually don’t face—gopher balls.

More in play, fewer in the air, but more over the fence

If the strategy was get more contact, ground balls in particular, it worked. Unfortunately, the balls in the air caused more trouble than in 2009. Greinke gave up 18 home runs in 2010 after allowing just 11 in 2009. Both are sparkling numbers, particularly when you realize three of Greinke’s 2009 home runs were allowed on Aug. 19 in U.S. Cellular Field. Greinke’s low home run rates can be, in part, attributed to the pitcher-friendly cavern he’s called home until now. More about that later.

Distribution of balls in play (%)

2009 40 19 33 8 3.6
2010 46 20 28 6 6.0

This is generally a good trend, but not necessarily one that took full advantage of his home park. Or what was his home park. At least his ground balls were playable.

Slugging rate on contact (SLGCON)

2009 0.270 0.783 0.546 0.064
2010 0.226 0.858 0.678 0.000

New surroundings

The Brewers and the Royals exchanged shortstops in the transaction, but Greinke would find himself in front of equally poor defenses before and after the deal even if they hadn’t. According to Baseball Prospectus, neither the Royals nor the Brewers did their pitchers many favors the past two years.

Team defensive efficiency (DER)

Team 2009 2010
Royals 0.675 0.679
Brewers 0.688 0.678

I wonder if an outfield-specific DER can be tilted when playing in a park like Kauffman. According to Greg Rybarczyk’s analysis in the 2011 Hardball Times Annual, Greinke is going from the second best pitcher’s park (in terms of home runs) to one that is merely more friendly than average.

Ultimate home run park factors

Park Overall (rank) LF LCF CF RCF RF
Kauffman 74 (29) 85 65 75 62 77
Miller 92 (20) 69 88 122 108 81

With the exception of the left field line, every section of Miller is more receptive to the long ball than Kaufmann. This difference is most pronounced in an area that may be feasted upon by left-handed power hitters. Luckily, he’s on Fielder’s team.

Look ahead

The Reds, Cardinals and Brewers are lined up for a good battle in 2011. Greinke finds himself in a playoff race on day one, something that was not even on the radar in Kansas City. How will he perform? The trade is fresh and, as of this writing, only The Hardball Times Forecasts have accounted for Greinke’s change in venue. With that in mind, here’s how a few popular systems project Greinke:

THT Forecasts: 3.49 ERA, 200 IP, 8.2 K/9, 2.3 B/9
Bill James: 3.57, 222, 7.8, 2.3
Fangraphs Readers: 3.24, 222, 8.6, 2.2
ZiPS: 3.28, 222, 8.6, 2.1

What’s not to like?

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and Sportvision. Pitch classifications by the author. Batted ball data from MLBAM. Jersey image from video capture. Defensive Efficiency from Baseball Prospectus. Ultimate Home Run Factor from the 2011 Hardball Times Annual.

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11 years ago

I think he will reshuffle in the mix the kind of patterns of 2009, trusting more the heater and the curveball. I love well pitched games, so I expect him to rebound to be great and post ERA around 3.20-3.30. If Greinke is mentally settled is money in the bank and the NL central will be funny again.

Fat Ted
11 years ago

I’m looking forward to being able to watch more of his games.  The Brewers aren’t exactly a huge market team, but it’s not the Royals. Also, being a Phillies fan I’ll be able to see him in the NL.