Can Zack Greinke Make History?

Zack Greinke
The Associated Press

Since 2000, only three players have finished a season with a sub-two ERA: Pedro Martinez (1.74 – 2000), Roger Clemens (1.87 – 2005), and Clayton Kershaw twice (1.83 – 2013; 1.77 – 2014). With Zack Greinke sitting on a remarkable 1.30 ERA, amidst a 43 2/3 inning scoreless streak, his chances of joining this elite club appear solid.

After Sunday’s showdown featuring two of the game’s best pitchers, one Washington National didn’t seem too impressed by his opponent.

“For me, I don’t think he was very tough,” said superstar Bryce Harper, after a hitless performance against Dodger starter Zack Greinke. “When you’re getting 6 inches off the plate, it’s tough to face him.”

While Harper may not be impressed (or simply miffed by umpire Bill Miller’s ridiculous strike zone), chances are the rest of the league is, as Greinke polished off a sixth consecutive scoreless start.

Greinke is two starts away from Orel Hershiser’s record of 59 straight run-free innings, an amazing feat, regardless of lenient refereeing or the opinion of one of the game’s best hitters. Yet, any such run, requires a dose of luck and questions of longevity prop up. Is the player this good or has he been the beneficiary of good fortune that eventually passes?

There is no doubt that Greinke is a quality pitcher. The 2009 CY Young winner has been a model of consistency, posting sub-four ERAs in eight of the past nine seasons. Yet, even he couldn’t have dreamt of such an impressive display: Nine shutout performances, six one-hitters, and all but one quality start to begin the season.

Who does he think he is? Clayton Kershaw?

Speaking of Kershaw, he suffers through a supposed “down” year, posting an ERA (2.68) almost a run higher than last year’s. Has Greinke supplanted the reigning CY Young winner as the ace in the City of Angels?

There lies a simple beauty in comparing players of the same team. Greinke and Kershaw both pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, effectively eliminating potential confounding variables such as ball park factors and strength of schedule. Both pitchers also benefit from the same stingy defense, which has allowed only 38 errors, lowest in the league.

Diving into the statistics, several numbers jump out. Greinke boasts the second lowest BABIP (.232) in the league, a measure that calculates the batting average of opposing hitters’ balls in play. Furthermore, he holds an 89.9% strand rate, highest in the league.

In contrast, Kershaw enjoys a .302 BABIP and a strand rate of just 74.8%, despite striking out nearly 50% more batters per nine innings than Greinke. Higher strikeout pitchers tend to fare better with RISP, due to their ability to induce outs without putting the ball in play.

These trends are noted in the players’ xFIPs and SIERAs, advanced ERA metrics that attempt to predict future results using peripheral stats closer to the league average. Greinke’s xFIP and SIERA are both 3.05, whereas Kershaw boasts an xFIP of 1.93 and a SIERA of 2.09, indicating that Kershaw is likely to improve while Greinke is likely to regress, as variances even out.

In Greinke’s defense, he is normally as good a second half pitcher as he is a first-half pitcher. He is also approaching batters with a more diversified arsenal of pitches, a shrewd move for a hurler north of 30 years of age. In consecutive years, his change-up usage rate has gone up, giving him a fourth reliable option. In fact, Greinke boasts the third most effective change-up in the league this year, according to FanGraph’s wCH/C metric.

Greinke has also seen his walk rate decline for the third consecutive season, despite throwing almost 70% of his pitches outside the zone.

In 2013, his walk rate hit 6.4%. In the following two years, they sank to 5.2% and 4.3% respectively. Simply put, Greinke has learned to time his pitches well, consistently varying zones to keep hitters off-balance. Given the declining velocity that naturally comes with age, the Dodgers star displays a rare ability to adjust, which should translate into continued success for many years to come.

At this point, every pitch Greinke throws will take him one step closer to the record books. Fans of the sport root for the chance to witness history. Fans understand how anomalous eight-game scoreless streaks and season-long sub-two ERAs are. Zack Greinke possesses a better chance than many to beat those long odds.