PHOENIX -- When Zack Greinke was 25, he really only had to make one decision when he was on a pitcher's mound. Would he go with the 96 mph fastball or the nastiest slider of any right-handed pitcher in the league?
He remembers the mindset of his Cy Young season, of feeling so dominant with his two pitches he could tell the hitter what was coming and still have a pretty good chance of getting him out.
Pitching for a 97-loss Kansas City Royals team, nobody doubted who the best pitcher in the league was in 2009. Greinke led the league in ERA, ERA+, FIP and WHIP. You may not know what most of those acronyms stand for and you don't have to, but they all paint a picture of someone practically nobody could hit.
He struck out 242 batters. On average, he gave up a home run every 21 innings.
But pitching is a game of diminishing returns, for virtually everyone. It's a violent activity and pitchers who maximize the torque on their arms so they can throw their nastiest stuff start after start often are headed for pain, particularly once they've turned 30, as Greinke did three days after the Dodgers were knocked out of the playoffs last October.
Greinke is quiet and he thinks a lot about his craft. At some point, he seems to have devised a new plan of attack. Instead of exerting maximum energy on every pitch, he exerts maximum game plan in every start, mixing up an assortment of above average pitches rather than smothering hitters with his nastiest.
"Each has its strength, because when you could just throw as hard as you can and throw a slider as hard as you can, you feel dominant, you feel powerful," Greinke said. "Right now, you have to use your brain more."
As usual, the team could care less how you're doing it as long as you're helping them win. Oh, and by the way, Greinke's current M.O. probably gives him a better chance of giving the Dodgers more healthy seasons on that six-year, $147 million contract he signed last December.
This isn't a story of a pitcher who lost his stuff and learned to compete by throwing a sinker or a knuckleball and barely clinging to his career. Greinke is having more consistent success as he gets deeper in his career. He still can be dominant when he needs to be. He struck out Paul Goldschmidt on a 93 mph fastball just above the letters. He had Miguel Montero flailing at sliders.
In fact, he's more consistent than he has ever been. In Friday night's 7-0 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, Greinke (7-1, 2.03 ERA) gave up two or fewer runs for the 21st consecutive game, the longest such streak in the majors since at least 1914.
Greinke has thrown six different types of pitches this season, according to Fangraphs, and that doesn't even differentiate between all the different speeds he can throw most of them. He could probably make up a pitch and still get a hitter out.
"I forgot how much fun it is to catch him," said Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who returned from a five-week stay on the disabled list Wednesday. "He's got so many weapons, and he's so imaginative and creative out there on the mound."