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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Greinke still needs polish

Considering everything the Royals have gone through this season, you'd like to think that Zack Greinke is the least of their problems.

Unfortunately, with Greinke's ERA sneaking up on the 5.00 barrier and the string of poor outings getting longer with each start, it's time to take stock of the Royals' pitching prodigy.

Let's take a look at some of Greinke's indicators, using a mix of raw statistics and some data from The Hardball Times.

Last season, Greinke struck out 16.7 percent of the batters he faced, which was just a hair above the league average (16.4). This season, he's at 13.7 percent, versus 15.9 for the league. Strikeouts are down.

After walking three batters only once last season in 24 starts, Greinke has walked three batters three times already this season in 12 starts. As a percentage of batters faced, his walks have increased from 4.3 percent to 5.5 percent (versus a league average of 8.4 percent over the last two seasons). Walks are up, but this is still the strongest area of Greinke's game.

Greinke's big problem in 2004 was home runs - 4.3 percent of the batters he faced hit a home run. This season has been better. His home-run rate is down to 2.4, which is below average in a league in which home runs are down across the board.

Greinke still allows too many fly balls. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of 0.89 this season is well below the league average of 1.24. The problem with fly balls is that some of them invariably leave the park — about 11 percent of them in the American League.

One possible reason Greinke has managed to keep his home-run rate in check this season is because he induces pop flies at a rate about 2.6 percent more than the league average. These numbers are consistent with they way we think of Greinke's style — he allows a lot of balls to be hit into play, but quite a few of those balls are weakly hit.

That may be true for Greinke to a degree. However, he allows 3 percent more line drives than the league average. Because roughly 75 percent of line drives become hits, this is a bad sign, especially considering the number of balls he allows to be hit into play.

Because of all the pop flies and fly balls, Greinke sports an outstanding DER (defensive efficiency record) behind him. So far in his career, Greinke's DER is about 4 percent better than the league average. That would be great if the trend were sustainable. Historically, it's not but, then again, Greinke is a very unusual pitcher.

Add it all up, you have a pitcher whose 4.27 career ERA is below his league's average of 4.55 while pitching in a fairly neutral ballpark. That's pretty solid for a 21-year-old. Still, Greinke hasn't exactly burst upon the scene like former prodigies Dwight Gooden or Bret Saberhagen.

The overall picture is positive, but there is work to be done. The combination of lots of balls-in-play and lots of fly balls is an uncomfortable one. Ask Jose Lima.

Something that might boost Greinke's development is some victories.

In the last 55 years, there have been 130 pitchers age 23 and under who have started at least 34 games and have posted a better-than-league-average ERA. None of them has won games at a lower rate than Greinke, who has won 8.5 games per 34 starts.

Of course, that's not really his fault. When you remove a 26-run outburst by the Royals in a Greinke start last season, the Royals have scored only 2.8 runs per game when he is on the mound. The Royals have gone 10-26 in games Greinke has started.

Greinke seems unfazed by the poor support of the team behind him. Which is good - Greinke needs to polish his own game.

Greinke has allowed 20 runs in his last 19 1/3 innings. The league seems to be adjusting to Greinke. Now it's his turn to make some adjustments.

***
A step back for Zack?

Here is a look at some key indicators for Zack Greinke. The league averages are for 2004 and 2005 combined:


Zack '04Zack '05League
Line drive%20.620.417.6
Pop fly%14.815.415.0
GB:FB0.780.891.19
DER.733.725.692
SO%16.713.716.3
BB%4.35.58.4
HR%4.32.42.8

KEY: DER - defensive efficiency record; GB:FB - ground ball-to-fly ball ratio. Other statistics expressed as percentage of batters faced.

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