Outer-Third Omnipotence: Why No One Can Score on Zack Greinke

Patrick McDermott/Washington Nationals/Getty Images

As baseball enters an exciting new golden age that’s led by an explosion of young superstars, allow me to offer one quibble: Very few of those budding talents ever say anything particularly exciting. The lone exception might be Bryce Harper, the slugger with light-tower power who occasionally makes equally large headlines with his quips.

On Sunday, Harper offered one of those biting quotes. The Nationals right fielder had just watched Zack Greinke neuter his team with eight shutout innings of three-hit, one-walk, 11-strikeout ball. His reaction? Meh.

“For me, I don’t think he’s very tough,” Harper told reporters after the game. “I mean, he’s a great pitcher, he does what he does, but when you’re getting six inches off the plate, it’s pretty tough to face him.”

In his first appearance after starting the All-Star Game, Greinke had just held an opponent scoreless for a sixth straight start, becoming only the third pitcher ever to do so. In fact, from the second batter of the second inning of a July 9 game against the Phillies through the first batter in the third inning against the Nats, Greinke retired 28 straight batters, giving him a covert perfect game.1 His Sunday gem also hiked the right-hander’s scoreless streak to 43.2 innings, the fourth-longest in the expansion era, behind only fellow Dodgers Orel Hershiser (59) and Don Drysdale (58), and the great Bob Gibson (47).2 Arguing that umpires deserved much of the credit for that success seemed like a churlish way to diminish one of the greatest pitching runs in baseball history.

But here’s the thing: Harper was right. No pitcher has attacked the outside edge of the strike zone, and the area just off the outside corner, as much as Greinke has this season. More than that, very few pitchers are getting the same kind of benefit from strike calls on pitches off the plate as the 31-year-old righty.

The 2015 version of Zack Greinke, then, looks an awful lot like peak Tom Glavine. And his opponents haven’t been able to do a damn thing about it.

zack-greinke-close-upPatrick McDermott/Washington Nationals/Getty Images

Like the majority of pitchers in today’s game, Greinke owns a fastball that’s been dying a slow death from the moment he established himself in the big leagues. As a 23-year-old in 2007, he threw a four-seamer that averaged better than 95 mph. The next season, it dropped to 94. By 2012, it had dipped below 93. This year, he’s throwing that pitch at right about the MLB average: 92.07 mph.

At a time when mid-90s fastballs have become routine among the league’s best starters, and when even harder ones — by raw velocity measures or perceived ones — are fairly common, a right-hander throwing 92 mph doesn’t seem like a modern recipe for success. For many pitchers, losing that much fastball velocity will suddenly crater their performance. Tim Lincecum went from being a two-time Cy Young winner to a placeholder at the back of the Giants rotation by his 30th birthday. CC Sabathia’s numbers held up a little longer, but he, too, lost his trusted heat and is now a spare part on the Yankees pitching staff.

That hasn’t been the case for Greinke. Buoyed by the current scoreless streak, his ERA now stands at 1.30. That’s the lowest figure for any ERA-title-qualified starting pitcher since Gibson’s unthinkable 1.12 in 1968. The last pitcher before Gibson to beat Greinke’s mark? Walter Johnson, who did it during the dead ball era, more than 100 years ago.

Greinke’s 2015 dominance and ability to avoid any kind of velocity-related deflation starts with that propensity to attack the outside edge of the plate and beyond. Compared with recent years, he has ramped up the outer-third aggression.

Year Percent of Pitches on Outer Third and Off the Plate
2015 64.4 (highest in MLB)
2014 56.6
2013 56.6
2012 59.4
2011 53.0
2010 49.6
2009 53.9

Somewhat curiously, compared with his first 13 starts, Greinke’s throwing outside a bit less often during the scoreless streak — but not by much. Over his last six appearances, he’s still venturing outside more than he has in any prior season, and the recent results have been even better than they were at the beginning of the year. Here’s a breakdown of Greinke’s outer-third and off-plate pitches from before and during the streak:

First 13 Starts of 2015 Past Six Starts of 2015
% of Pitches 65.8 61.4
AVG Allowed .194 .099
SLG Allowed .269 .111
Hard-Hit % Allowed 11.4 4.9

Along with that newfound propensity toward the outer third, Greinke’s 2015 success has been fueled by a repertoire of five movement-heavy pitches — four of which opposing batters are averaging .200 or lower against. When Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis took over for injured starter Yasmani Grandal in the sixth inning of Sunday’s whitewash of the Nationals, Ellis went to ask Greinke which pitches he should call. “It’s pretty easy,” Greinke told him. “All of my stuff is pretty nasty right now.”

Of course, a chunk of Greinke’s success — both in that game and throughout this season — can be traced to Harper’s claims: He gets a bunch of strike calls that other pitchers don’t. According to ESPN research, he’s nabbed strike calls on 12.2 percent of pitches out of the strike zone at which hitters didn’t swing. That’s the eighth-highest rate among 97 qualified starters.

However, many of the other pitchers high on that list — Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, Jacob deGrom, Lance Lynn — are really good pitchers with really good command. Add it up, and this looks less like any kind of unsustainable run of judgment-call luck and more like umpires rewarding top pitchers for pounding their catchers’ target over and over. It’s not a stretch to suggest that it’s a savvy strategy, either: Seeing that their pitcher gets those calls, Grandal, Ellis, and no. 3 catcher Austin Barnes are incentivized to keep setting up just off the plate, and Greinke, knowing he’s got a slightly expanded strike zone, can keep firing pitches right into their unflinching mitts.

When a pitcher starts getting so many calls in his favor, hitters have no choice but to take a more aggressive approach. And for Greinke, that has led to plenty more swings and misses. Despite losing those 3 mph off his fastball from his early-career days, Greinke has posted the second-highest swing-and-miss rate of his career (11.5 percent) in 2015.

To get a sense of what this does to opponents, check out this video of Greinke’s masterful Sunday start. You can see multiple Nats hitters, including Harper, getting visibly frustrated by pitches they felt were incorrect strike calls. At the 1:28 mark, Ian Desmond, conscious of that wider strike zone, goes around on a low-and-away pitch far out of the zone:

[mlbvideo id=”271798383″ width=”510″ height=”286″ /]

With more batters swinging at bad pitches, Greinke’s also inducing more weak contact than ever before and more than all but four other qualified starting pitchers this season. That’s a big reason why he’s conceding a career-low .232 batting average on balls in play. (It’s also the second-lowest in the majors.) While Greinke’s likely benefiting from some batted-ball luck, a few pitchers have been able to consistently beat league BABIP averages with the combination of finesse pitching and creation of weak contact that the veteran Dodger now relies on. That includes our old friend Mr. Glavine, whose .280 batting average on balls in play allowed is one of the 10 best marks among starters over the past 30 years.3

zack-greinke-dodgersStephen Dunn/Getty Images

Maybe the weirdest part of this entire run is that Greinke doesn’t seem any more excited than Harper was on Sunday. When asked about his 2015 numbers, Greinke suggested that his 2009 season was actually better — and he might have a point. His fielding-independent numbers were slightly better six years ago.4 But then again, Greinke’s always been the quirky type who cracks up his teammates and occasionally befuddles reporters with extreme bluntness.

Whether we rank these first 19 starts as historic or merely really great, Greinke’s ability to fire nonstop zeros could have broad implications. The consensus view across the league is that Cole Hamels will get traded in the next few days and that the cash-and-prospects-rich Dodgers, who just lost starter Brett Anderson to an Achilles injury, are the front-runners for his services. That’s partly because Greinke can opt out of his contract at the end of this season, and these Bob Gibson–esque numbers would certainly incentivize him to do so and seek a hefty raise from whoever’s offering. Hamels would be a ready-made replacement, but at least based on current-season form, he’d actually be a bit of a downgrade.

Regardless of where Greinke ends up next and whether Hamels is brought in, the Dodgers could be terrifying come the postseason. Just as Greinke’s streak has gained steam, Clayton Kershaw has returned to vintage form, with 27 strikeouts and no walks across two scoreless starts. Kershaw and Greinke have tossed 47 combined innings in July and allowed one run. For a team gunning for its first World Series title in 27 years, that kind of pitching dominance conjures some dazzling October scenarios for the Dodgers — no matter what Bryce Harper says.

Thanks to ESPN Stats & Info’s Michael Bonzagni for research assistance.

Filed Under: MLB, Los Angeles Dodgers, Baseball, Jonah Keri, MLB Stats, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Cole Hamels, Pitching, Tom Glavine, NL West, Bryce Harper

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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