Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Royals’ Zack Greinke continues to succeed in unorthodox way


The Kansas City Royals kicked off the new week on Monday with a 1-0 loss against the St. Louis Cardinals (box score). The game’s most notable development — other than a Paul Goldschmidt first-inning home run that provided all of the game’s scoring — saw Royals veteran starter Zack Greinke continue his unusual season.

Greinke has started five times this season, amassing a 2.57 ERA across 28 innings. The odd part of his year is his strikeout rate. He’s punched out just seven of the 107 batters faced, or 6.5 percent. For reference, the lowest strikeout rate among qualified pitchers in 2021 was Dallas Keuchel’s 13.2 percent. Additionally, only one pitcher since the last round of expansion has had a K rate under 7 percent and finished with an ERA+ over 100: Colorado Rockies sinkerballer Aaron Cook in 2005.

Greinke’s strikeout-adverse ways would have stood out in almost any year of his career, then, and especially now, at a time when the league is striking out in 23 percent of its plate appearances. 

It’s alluring to consider Greinke’s track record and intelligence and wonder if the counterculture play is by design. If it is, it’s tough to find intent in his underlying data. He is throwing more pitches within the strike zone than normal, suggesting he’s inviting contact, but he’s also throwing his breaking balls at a higher clip — a move that often precipitates spikes in swings and misses. Even with the pitch-mix change, his contact rate is the second-worst in the majors this year among individuals with at least 10 innings, ahead of only injured Detroit Tigers starter Casey Mize.

You can still try to talk yourself into Greinke scanning the land, realizing that the deadened ball makes pitching to contact a more feasible strategy, and going all-in on that approach. Except he’s not exactly limiting hard contact. His average exit velocity is worse than the norm, and he’s been well-below average when it comes to percentage of batted balls that had an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher.

Again, were it not for Greinke’s identity, all the above would represent a giant, flapping red flag. Be that as it may, one cannot help but root for Greinke to continue to defy the odds, even if it mystifies this analyst and others. Baseball is the sport that tends to reward the outliers more than any other. Nothing, in this day and age, represents the exception more than a pitcher unconcerned with strikeouts.

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