CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 16: Zack Greinke #13 of the Milwaukee Brewers pitches against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on June 16, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Zack Greinke loves sabermetrics and Zack Greinke is awesome sabermetrically. Grienke's career K/9, BB/9, and HR/9 are 8.01, 2.28, and 0.91, respectively. Why do those numbers matter? Because, as Voros McCracken taught us, strikeouts, walks and home runs are the outcomes that are 100% under the pitchers control. The jury is still out on just how much of an effect a pitcher can have on the outcomes of balls put in play. FIP is the ERA-esque statistic, which measures a pitcher's ability on the outcomes, they for sure control. FIP just happens to be Greinke's favorite stat, according to his page at SABR, "I try to get ahead of the count without leaving it run down the middle in a person’s power zone... That helps me not walk guys, and then, when I get two strikes, I try to strike guys out. And that’s how I try to pitch, to keep my FIP as low as possible." Since 2009, Grienke's ranked 1st, 20th, and 9th among qualified starters in FIP. In xFIP (which is probably a better stat) Greinke's ranked 6th, 21st, and 1st, in the majors. Four starts into 2012, Greinke ranks 2nd in FIP (1.75) and 3rd in xFIP (2.16) update tomorrow. It's fairly safe to conclude that Greinke is achieving his goal of keeping his FIP as low as possible, but I question whether or not his obsession with this statistic is the best thing for him has a starter.
Greinke had the best xFIP (2.56) in baseball in 2011; however, his ERA (3.83) ranked 58th. This difference was due in large part to Greinke's high BABIP (.318), T-7th highest in baseball and a low LOB% (69.8%), the 69th lowest in baseball. The combination of a high BABIP and a low LOB % leads to runs. These factors, were considered bad luck for Greinke, and many expected his LOB% to improve, as well as and probably more importantly, his BABIP to come back down to around .290 to .300. This assumption lead many to rave about the big year that Greinke would have in 2012, he was the consensus pick for NL Cy Young award winner, by the writers at Fangraphs. I respect the opinions of those writers, and don't expect Greinke's ERA to be as high in 2012, as it was in 2011; at the same time I'm not sure if the assumption that his BABIP would come down that significantly was a good one. Greinke's career BABIP is higher than league average, .310. ZIPS projected Greinke to have a BABIP of .325 in 2012, which seems like a better assumption than the .290-.300 range.
Greinke can do anything he wants on a baseball field, he (at least in his opinion) could probably be a major league shortstop. I recall a story from when Greinke was on the Royals and was bored; thus, he predicted that he could throw a curveball at some exact mph. He, of course, did just that. Thus, when Greinke decided to focus on FIP, his strikeout rate rose and his FIP plummeted. Greinke's average fastball Velocity has remained fairly constant over the course of his career, but his strikeout rates have risen. Last season, Greinke lead all starters in K-rate (10.54) and currently has a K/9 rate of 10.65, so far this year. His addition of a two-seamer, and just recently a cutter have helped him strike so many batters out. The cutter is the hot pitch in baseball, so of course Greinke had to try his hand at it, and thus far in 2012, he's throwing one 21.6% of the time, with a lot of success.
There are pitchers who have consistently low BABIPs; thus, their ERA's usually are lower than their peripheral FIP's and xFIP's, Matt Cain comes to mind as a good example. For most of his career, Greinke had fairly close xFIP's and ERA's, sometimes even outperforming his xFIP. But in 2010 and '11 when his strikeout rate soared his ERA also soared. Is it possible that his low FIP approach is actually harming him?
I'm uncertain on the answer to that question. However, there's one possibility that is apparent to me about his FIP and ERA disparity. I think there's a chance that hitters have success against Greinke with hits (balls in play), because they know he's going to throw them a strike. The Greinke quote from the beginning of the article laid out his strategy against batters pretty clearly, "try to get ahead in the count". Greinke tries to get up two strikes early in the count so he has opportunities to put batters away (which he's clearly very good at), but the hitters who know what's coming from the Brewers' right-hander have had a lot of success before two strikes. This is only a theory, especially because every Major League pitcher tries to get ahead in the count. It just seems to me that a pitcher who doesn't walk a lot of players and also is obsessed with striking you out is going to come with pitches to hit early and often.
Greinke's FIP obsession could possibly have harmed his pitch counts. High strikeouts lead to high pitch counts, which lead to short outings. Greinke is definitely an ace (winning the Cy Young in 2009), but does he throw enough innings to be considered one still? Greinke has never had a season in which he averaged 7 IP per start. His highest IP/per start came when he won his Cy Young in 2009 (6.94). Since that season, he has averaged 6.38 IP per start. Last season, his average pitch count was 101.5, yet he only averaged 6.13 IP per start, which in all likelihood can be explained by the ridiculous amount of strikeouts he put up that year.
Greinke hasn't pitched in enough games in 2012 (4 starts) to be able to tell whether or not the inflated-ERA trend is going to continue. His one rough start, against the Cubs, was the main cause for his currently large difference in his ERA (4.56) and FIP (1.75), but I'm not ready to accept the fact that the gap will stay that large for the rest of the season. However, 2012 will be a good experiment to see, whether the writers at Fangraphs will be right and Greinke's ERA will come down leading to an NL Cy Young award or if this strange FIP and ERA difference will continue. One thing is for sure, Greinke is going to keep striking out Major League hitters at alarmingly high rates.
All statistics come from the lovely people at Fangraphs