Two months into the season, the reigning American League Cy Young winner has just one victory. Zack Greinke, who managed 16 victories last season despite playing for a terrible Kansas City club, has been abandoned by his offense this year, as they are scoring just 2.97 runs per game when Greinke takes the hill. In fact, the Royals are just 2-9 when Greinke pitches, a testament to just how bad his teammates are.
But when assigning blame for Greinke's problems, we can’t forget Greinke himself.
He has been significantly worse than he was a year ago. Most notably, Greinke’s strikeout rate has taken a tumble, falling from 9.50 K/9 last year to just 7.04 K/9 this season, ranking 21st in the American League in that category after finishing third in 2009. Fewer strikeouts increase the need for the Royals defense to make plays behind him, and their below-average gloves are rarely up to the task.
What’s caused Greinke suddenly to morph back into a strike-throwing, pitch-to-contact guy, rather than the blow-you-away ace we saw last year? His breaking ball.
A year ago, hitters swung and missed at 9 percent of Greinke's curveballs, and a whopping 25 percent of his sliders. This year, hitters are whiffing on just 4 percent of curveballs and 11 percent of sliders.
The slider is clearly his out pitch -- he throws it most often in two-strike counts. But he has not been able to get hitters to swing through the breaking balls nearly as often. To try to understand why this is happening, I asked our resident graphing guru, Dave Allen, to look at his off-speed stuff. Here's what he found:
The first graph shows the vertical height of the curves and sliders that are being swung at, both this year and last. Hitters have adjusted to Greinke’s breaking balls: After chasing a lot of them down in the zone, they’ve now primarily been going after the ones he hangs up in the zone. The second graph shows why this has translated to fewer whiffs: Hitters have been laying off those low breaking balls that they couldn’t touch in 2009.
It appears opposing scouting reports on Greinke suggest hitters should take the two-strike breaking ball, which was Grienke’s bread-and-butter knockout pitch a year ago. And because hitters aren't chasing breaking balls down out of the zone, Greinke will have to alter his two-strike approach if he wants to get back to Cy Young form.
Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.