How $200M Bust Zack Greinke Can Return to Cy Young Peak

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 6, 2017

PHOENIX, AZ - JUNE 28:  Zack Greinke #21 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies at Chase Field on June 28, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Even Zack Greinke is perplexed by what happened last season.

The numbers obviously speak for themselves. The former Cy Young winner went from a league-best 1.66 ERA in 2015, his final season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, to a 4.37 ERA in 2016, his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The latter of those numbers isn't ace material. That's not a great look under any circumstances. It's a worse look when said ace is under contract for $206.5 million.

As for what went wrong, Greinke could have made it easy on himself and pinned it all on the oblique and shoulder issues he ran into at the end of the year. He did finish with a 6.02 ERA over his final nine starts, so that would have been fair game.

Instead, Greinke was blunt after he made his spring debut last Friday.

"I pitched worse," the right-hander told reporters, including Joe Posnanski of MLB.com.

Here we have Greinke, 33, refusing to beat around the bush and getting right to the point. In other news, the sky remains blue and grass remains green.

However, there was apparently more than just Greinke's no-nonsense personality at work in that answer. As Posnanski wrote: "There's a reason he doesn't go into it much. He hasn't quite figured it out."

PHOENIX, AZ - SEPTEMBER 11: Starting pitcher Zack Greinke #21 of the Arizona Diamondbacks warms up in the first inning of the MLB game against the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field on September 11, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona. The San Francisco Giants defe
Darin Wallentine/Getty Images

Look past the poor results and the physical troubles, and Greinke's befuddlement begins to make sense.

Beyond the fact that he doesn't throw as hard in his 30s as he did in his 20s, his velocity looks fine. His pitches were spinning at about the same rate last year as they were the year before. His pitch selection was largely the same. And he maintained a freakish level of consistency with his arm slot.

In all, Greinke was throwing the ball like his usual self. Hence, the prevailing theory that the man himself wasn't the problem last year.

Over at MLB.com, Mike Petriello has an illuminating piece that illustrates how Greinke was hurt by the gloves he had around him. Specifically, he was really let down by the inability of Diamondbacks outfielders to catch the ball and the inability of Diamondbacks catchers to frame strikes.

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 28:  A.J. Pollock #11 of the Arizona Diamondbacks attempts to make a diving catch against the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field on April 28, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

With center fielder A.J. Pollock limited to 12 games and right fielder David Peralta limited to 48 games, Arizona's outfield was missing its two best defenders for most of 2016. That understandably had an effect. The club's outfield went from 37 defensive runs saved in 2015 to minus-19 in 2016.

So, it's no wonder Greinke's BABIP on balls to the outfield did this:

  • 2015: .373 BABIP
  • 2016: .481 BABIP

Meanwhile, Greinke went from pitching mainly to Yasmani Grandal, one of the best framers in baseball, to pitching mainly to Welington Castillo, one of the worst framers in baseball. Per Baseball Prospectus, Greinke thus went from being a framing beneficiary to a framing victim:

  • 2015: Plus-10.8 Framing Runs
  • 2016: Minus-3.5 Framing Runs

Which brings us to the good news: Pollock and Peralta are healthy going into 2017, and Castillo is no longer behind the dish. The Diamondbacks have brought in Jeff Mathis, who has a track record as a strong framer, and Chris Iannetta, who had a strong framing season in 2015.

In theory, Greinke therefore could change nothing from last year and end up with better results. It's a sound theory. No doubt about it.

But it's probably only good enough to get him halfway back to his former dominance.

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 24:  Zack Greinke #21 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a pitch against the Atlanta Braves at Chase Field on August 24, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

Just because Greinke was victimized by his teammates doesn't mean he was entirely blameless for his plight in 2016. His strikeouts were down. His walks were up. He endured a massive home run spike. And batters hit him harder, upping their average exit velocity against him from 87.7 mph to 88.6 mph.

Translated: He just wasn't fooling hitters like he was in 2015.

I covered earlier that there was nothing clearly wrong with how Greinke was throwing the ball. Rather, the problem might have been where he was throwing the ball.

In speaking to Posnanski, Greinke noted that he tried to pitch up in the zone more often in 2016. And while he actually threw a career-low rate of pitches above the knees, what he said is true to one extent.

Because he spent most of his time working below the zone, Greinke threw just 39.9 percent of his pitches in the strike zone in 2015. In 2016, that figure jumped to 41.5 percent. He went from making hitters chase his pitches to challenging them more often.

Greinke may have been able to make that work if he had adapted his approach to be about showing hitters different movements and locations. Instead, he stuck with what worked in 2015: Right-handed batters got fastballs and sliders away, and left-handed batters got fastballs and changeups away.

But he wasn't as precise in 2016. The fastballs and sliders he threw righty batters didn't hug the outside corner like they did in 2015:

Images courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

The same is true of the fastballs and changeups that he threw lefty batters:

Images courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

With this going on, hitters could actually sit and wait for something good to hit when facing Greinke. It's no wonder the slugging percentage against his in-zone pitches went from .387 in 2015 to .575 in 2016.

In fairness to Greinke, you wonder if the mother of this invention was necessity. With many of the extra calls he got with Grandal's help coming outside the zone, he had license to nibble in 2015. When that was revoked last year, he really had no choice but to be more aggressive within the zone.

If so, having Mathis and Iannetta behind the plate this season could be Greinke's excuse to go back to what worked in 2015. He can keep going away, away, away with fastballs, sliders and changeups and use his own command and improved framing to establish dominance of the outside corner.

Failing that, Greinke could always go back to what worked before 2015.

It's not as if he was some slouch in his first two seasons with the Dodgers, after all. He had a 2.68 ERA in 2013 and 2014. He was about as aggressive in the zone then (41.2 Zone%) as he was in 2016, but with a less predictable pitch selection. He threw only about 70 percent fastballs, sliders and changeups, as he relied more on his sinker, curveball and cutter. That's a lot of different movements and speeds.

It all amounts to a big, ol' complicated picture, but the main takeaway is quite simple. Outside of the injuries, Greinke was not broken beyond repair in the first season of his megacontract. He was just a little off and very unlucky. These problems can be fixed.

If they are, dominance will ensue.

 

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.comFanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant.

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