How Worried Should Diamondbacks Be About $206.5 Million Man Zack Greinke?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 10, 2016

Arizona Diamondbacks' Zack Greinke wipes his forehead after giving up a run to the Chicago Cubs during the fourth inning of a baseball game Saturday, April 9, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Somewhere in the executive offices of Chase Field, there may be a finger moving closer to the button marked "PANIC."

After Zack Greinke debuted with seven earned runs in four innings against the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks were surely hoping the right-hander would look more like the ace they deemed worthy of $206.5 million in his second outing Saturday.

Instead, he only went from bad to less bad. In six innings against the Chicago Cubs, the veteran paced Arizona to a 4-2 loss by allowing four earned runs on seven hits and three walks.

All told, Greinke has allowed 11 earned runs on 16 hits and four walks in 10 innings. Those numbers look especially big on a guy whose 1.66 ERA with the Los Angeles Dodgers almost won him a second Cy Young Award in 2015. As ESPN Stats and Information notes, it's now going to take a Herculean effort for Greinke to do that again:

You probably already know what the good news is, but here goes anyway: It's only been two starts. That's not a small sample size. It's an itty-bitty sample size.

Still, it's only human to be nervous about Greinke. Itty-bitty sample size be damned—just how worried should the Diamondbacks be?

PHOENIX, AZ - APRIL 04:  Starting pitcher Zack Greinke #21 of the Arizona Diamondbacks pitches during the MLB opening day game against the Colorado Rockies at Chase Field on April 4, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

For starters, there's no getting around the fact that Greinke's first outing in his colorful new duds was a legit stinker. The Rockies did not rack up Texas Leaguers and seeing-eye singles against him. Three of their nine hits left the ballpark, and according to FanGraphs, 47.4 percent of their balls in play off Greinke qualified as hard-hit.

Greinke's trademark control, however, was not the problem. After walking only 1.6 batters per nine innings last season, he walked only one Rockies hitter. And overall, slightly more than half of his 82 pitches found the strike zone.

With that being the case, one might expect that Greinke's stuff was the problem. He is beginning his age-32 season, after all, and Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that Greinke was pitching through the flu.

Nope. Per Brooks Baseball, Greinke's four-seam fastball was sitting at 92.5 miles per hour. That's only a shade below where he was sitting at the end of 2015, and it's well ahead of where his average fastball velocity (91.1 mph) was last April. 

This takes care of two easy explanations and opens the door for a more nuanced theory for what was dogging Greinke. Cue Pedro Martinez to insinuate that maybe Greinke was tipping his pitches:

When asked about this, Greinke told Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic that it was "possible." But he wasn't so much worried about that as he was about what he knew he did wrong.

“I know I probably threw too many pitches away early in the game and didn’t throw in enough," he said. "Sometimes that’ll let the other team feel more comfortable in the box. I thought that was more of a possibility than tipping."

Survey says: Eureka!

As Brooks Baseball shows, Greinke mostly stayed away from both lefties and righties. By the righties in particular, that's where he was hurt.

There could be something to this. As I noted recently, Greinke dominated last year by feeding lefties fastballs and changeups away, and righties fastballs and sliders away. But though it worked wonders for him last season, his 2016 debut raised the question of whether the jig is up.

Apr 9, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Zack Greinke (21) delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Which leads us to the big question: Did Greinke make any changes Saturday?

Sure did! He was much more proactive about working Chicago's left-handed hitters inside than he was with Colorado's left-handed hitters. It was largely the same story against Chicago's right-handed batters, who had to put up with Greinke working both sides of the strike zone.

Meanwhile, Greinke's velocity was fine. He sat at 91.9 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball. That may be about a half a mile per hour off where his heat was in his debut, but it's still well ahead of where he was last April.

Armed with a better approach and decent velocity, it's no wonder Greinke was a tougher nut to crack. After striking out only two Rockies, he struck out eight Cubs. And though the batted-ball data isn't yet available, the Cubs didn't seem to make a ton of loud contact off Greinke after a rough three-run first.

Even the three walks Greinke allowed don't look too bad from one perspective. Check out all his pitch locations together:

Image courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net.

That's not a pitcher who was all over the place. Even when Greinke missed, he mostly didn't miss by much. Had he gotten more favorable calls, maybe we wouldn't be talking about a three-walk performance.

But rather than hope for better luck, this is where Greinke may have to make his next adjustment.

As Brad Johnson of FanGraphs noted in his breakdown of Greinke for the 2016 season, the pitcher's move from the Dodgers to the Diamondbacks involved swapping an elite pitch-framer (Yasmani Grandal) for a mediocre pitch-framer (Welington Castillo).

That already seems to be having an effect. According to Baseball Savant, Greinke got more called strikes outside the zone than all but four other pitchers last seasonvindication for Bryce Harper! He got only four calls outside the zone in his debut, and the eye counts just three in his second outing.

But as far as concerns go, Greinke having to worry about the number of calls he's getting outside the zone is a minor one. It would be a much bigger deal if his overall control, his velocity or his approach to pitching were all sending up red flags, but they're not. The first two are fine, and the third looks like a problem he's already on his way to figuring out.

Through two starts, Greinke has a 9.90 ERA. It doesn't take a mind-reader to know the Diamondbacks were hoping their $206.5 million man would make a better first impression than that. But rather than being broken, it looks like their big investment just needs a little more assembly.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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