Somewhere in the executive offices of Chase Field, there may be a finger moving closer to the button marked “PANIC.”
After debuting with seven earned runs in four innings against the Colorado Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks were surely hoping Zack Greinke would look more like the ace they deemed worthy of $206.5 million in his second outing on Saturday.
Instead, he only went from bad to less bad. In six innings against the Chicago Cubs, the veteran right-hander paced Arizona to a 4-2 loss by allowing four earned runs on seven hits and three walks.
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?
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 better 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 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 explanation 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!
There could be something to this. As I noted recently, Greinke dominated last year by feeding lefties fastballs and changeups away and for righties fastballs and sliders away. But though it worked wonders for him last year, his debut raised the question of whether the jig is up.
Which leads us to the big question: Did Greinke make any changes on 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 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:
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, his move from the Dodgers to the Diamondbacks involved swapping an elite pitch framer (Yasmany 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 season—vindication 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 D-backs were hoping their $206.5 million man would make a better first impression than that. But rather than broken, it looks like their big investment just needs a little more assembly.
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