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Thursday, May 5, 2011
Greinke's debut not a smooth start

By Christina Kahrl


Sure, it’s early yet. Then again, while master plans have a way of looking great on paper before almost inevitably getting run through the reality shredder, rarely one sees so many snafus so soon. Zack Greinke’s debut with the Brewers, already delayed by almost five weeks because of a cracked rib he suffered during a pickup basketball game, wound up being one of those combinations of tedium and mayhem that set teeth on edge if you want to drill down to one night and one bad game.

At least Greinke’s night started out on the right notes: work fast, throw strikes, get outs. His first pitch as a Brewer was strike one; his second a ground ball out. So far, so good. Then an error, a bit of catcher’s interference, and a tap off the end of Dan Uggla’s bat through the hole past Yuniesky Betancourt put a run on the board. So five batters and 31 pitches after that nice first impression, it had already been marred. If the intent was to keep channel surfers from missing his first inning as the Brewers' new ace, mission accomplished.

From there, matters improved on the pitch-efficiency front, but the results got worse, as Greinke labored through three more frames and 15 more batters, throwing 53 more pitches. At least those focused on pitch count might be happy that Greinke hadn’t been "overworked," but by then there really wasn’t much point to manager Ron Roenicke spinning this out any further. In the fourth inning, Greinke wasn’t exactly fooling people: David Ross and Eric Hinske pelted third-pitch doubles to one corner and then the other to open things up. That was followed by Nate McLouth’s third-pitch homer to put Atlanta’s advantage at 5-0. Emptying the bases might have reset circumstances to something more like the game’s initial batter, as Greinke whipped through 12 pitches to four batters -- one reaching on a Casey McGehee error.

Pitch-efficiency concerns aside, perhaps the most noticeable problem was Greinke’s velocity was down. Used to dealing heat up to almost 94 mph in 2009 and 93 in 2010, he was usually a couple of ticks slower on Wednesday night, failing to dial up a single fastball past 93 after the first inning. According to PitchF/X data, the pitch that McLouth took over the fence in the fourth was a flat fastball clocked at 89 mph.

Is that cause for concern? Sure, of course -- in this first game, and maybe the next turn or two. It’s reasonable to assume there’s nothing major wrong, and that Greinke is simply en route to building his arm strength back up after facing all of 43 batters in just three rehab outings, that after getting shut down in early March after facing just 19 batters in his two abbreviated spring starts.

Beyond getting his work in to get closer to the quality that general manager Doug Melvin traded for in last winter’s inspired rotation rebuild, Greinke has more troubling near-term problems in his life as a Brewer -- his team’s defense. Last year’s Brewers defense rated just 25th in the major leagues in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, a decline from 2009’s 23rd-place finish. Melvin attempted to address the issue to some extent by trading for Nyjer Morgan to man center, but accepting Betancourt as part of the price to acquire Greinke doesn’t help much. The team’s core remains the same, and nobody from among the Brewers’ key boppers -- Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart and Ryan Braun -- grades out well at their positions via various advanced defensive metrics.

This isn’t anything Greinke hasn’t already had to deal with. He is coming over from the Royals; while the Brewers ranked 25th in defense last year, the Royals were 24th. The problem is that last year’s version of Greinke was much more defense-dependent than he was in his Cy Young season in ’09, as his strikeout rate dropped from 26.5 percent to a more typical (for him) 19.7 percent, while his balls-in-play rate jumped from 65 to 71 percent -- again, a much more typical figure within the context of his career.

Put all of that together, pitching in front of this defense, and it doesn’t sound like a master plan for a return to Greinke’s success in 2009. At least not on this first official night with the Brewers.

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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.