Where Did Zack Greinke’s Mojo Go?
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Things are getting ugly in Kansas City.
Actually, it’s not all bad for the Royals. The team is — surprisingly — just 11 games under .500. Most preseason projections would suggest that the team is just treading water at that point, but the Royals have at least supported their production up to this point. They are actually underachieving their expected win total (RS-RA) by two games through June 8th, and at least currently are winning better than 40% of their games, something that they at least figure to be able to sustain over the season. The team is getting better than expected production from most if not all of it’s regular hitters in a lineup that sits around the league average. It’s been able to count on quality innings from Brian Bannister, Luke Hochevar, and Bruce Chen, of all people, and they’re pretty close from ridding the bullpen of it’s disaster relievers.
Still, the Royals are still at the point where they can only make national headlines once every fifth day, when Zack Greinke takes the mound. And in 2010, every fifth game has turned out to be a disaster of the highest order for the struggling ballclub.
It’s hardly all Greinke’s fault. The last time he could have potentially qualified for a win was May 18th at Camden Yards, when he gave up two solo homers to Luke Scott, but left that game with a 3-2 lead after the 7th inning. Corey Patterson the hit a solo homer off of Blake Wood, and the Orioles went on to win the game. That wasn’t the most recent time that Zack Greinke qualified for a quality start, but for all intents and purposes, the waters have been choppy ever since. The Royals haven’t. scored. a run. with. Greinke. as the pitcher of record. since that day when he left with a lead after a quality start. Even though he chewed through most of the Orioles order without a lot of effort that day, I will qualify that as the beginning of his troubles, since he would have been incredibly fortunate to win a game against Baltimore in which he gave up two homers.
He lasted just 3 and a third innings against Colorado before a barrage of singles in the fourth knocked him from a game which began just fine (six of first seven batters retired). He was credited with seven earned runs in a game that qualifies as his only disaster start of the last two years. He was a little bit better at Boston the next week, earning a quality start against a quality lineup, but he was mostly fortunate that he was able to pitch out of trouble all night. Of course, Greinke has always had a remarkable career-long ability to strand baserunners, so it’s when he starts to struggle with men on base that you start to worry about his psyche.
So last week, against California-LA Anaheim, Greinke allowed a season high 13 baserunners while gutting through six innings, and missing a quality start by a run. He was able to pitch out of jams again, but couldn’t avoid the mammoth home run given up to Torii Hunter. Things came to a head (hopefully) last night at Target Field, when Greinke allowed 9 more hits and five runs in just five innings, as the Twins had him laboring right from the start.
Greinke has been victimized by some really awful defense this year, usually in the form of Yuniesky Betancourt being unable to keep a slow rolling groundball on the infield to prevent a run, or an endless string of errors by infielders Betancourt, Alberto Callaspo, Mike Aviles, and Billy Butler. That’s pushed his ERA higher than the mean, but truth be told, Greinke was probably playing with a worse defense last year when he won the Cy Young. Of course, he was also playing with a worse offense, and well, this one is getting him just 2.1 runs per game of support.
The Royals’ pitching rotation has Greinke in a spot in between Kyle Davies and Bruce Chen where he absolutely needs to eat up innings and keep the bullpen fresh. From April 21st through May 7th, Greinke made it through at least 7 innings each and every time out. Since his May 7th outing at Texas, Greinke has gotten past the sixth inning only once, against the worst offense in the AL, Baltimore. As recently as one month ago, Zack Greinke was just fine. The next start, he struck out 8 Indians in 6 innings of work. But from that point forward, the command of his crucial pitches — his “out” pitches, specifically — has slid immensely.
What’s remarkable about his stuff this year is that his movement is as good as it ever was. His 2-seamer still looks electric on television. The problem is that Greinke clearly has little feel for where the plate is, as he has been missing consistently with his fastball early in the count — his first pitch strike % is down slightly, but he’s almost never in 0-2 or 1-2 counts these days — and lefties are really starting to sit on that two seamer and drive it right out over the right field wall. Greinke’s contact allowed percentages are remarkably out of line with career expectations, specifically, he’s never had any trouble missing bats outside of the zone at any point in his career, until now, when he’s getting contact on 75% of his swung on balls out of the zone. If the movement is still there, and he’s still inducing ill-advised swings — which he is — why is Greinke giving up more hits and hard hit balls?
All roads lead to the same issue with command over his pitches. Greinke’s struggling to sequence his pitches after the first one. Whether he gets ahead of the hitter or not, he usually finds himself in 2-0 or 2-1 hitters counts. Even if he happens to get ahead in the count 0-2 or 1-2, his out pitches are consistently being spoiled by foul balls, or hit back up the middle, running his pitch counts higher, earlier in games. He threw 31 pitches in the first inning last night at Minnesota, giving up three runs, although he very nearly got out of the inning with no damage, getting a two out ground ball from Michael Cuddyer, that found a hole in Betancourt’s zone. Zack’s ability to use the strike zone is evident in his still incredible strikeout to walk ratio, but those higher pitch counts mean more hittable pitches, and that in turn means more fly balls and deep fly balls, and living on the edge in pretty much every inning.
The Royals still have a player in Zack Greinke who is likely to give a quality start every time he takes the mound, which is what you want from your no. 1 starter. Last year, the Royals were used to having so much more than just a no. 1 guy in Greinke. Until they can start to give him more run support and pick him up to the point where he starts to command all four of his devastating pitches again, the Royals are probably going to have to live with a 3.5 run/9 Greinke who gets taken deep once or twice a game and struggles to get through 6 innings every night while limiting damage. At the current rate of offense (i.e. taking the night off), that’s going to mean his record is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Hopefully, Zack Greinke comes out as stronger man and better pitcher on the other side of this disappointing season.