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Zack Greinke: sabermetric Cy Young candidate?

This weekend, an article described Zack Greinke's dedication to statistical preparation, and his in-game management of his fielders' positions. Let's attempt to recreate the process for his NLDS start against the Mets.

Does Zack Greinke's incessant study indicate that his ERA isn't quite a fluke?
Does Zack Greinke's incessant study indicate that his ERA isn't quite a fluke?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Ahead of Zack Greinke's seven inning, eight strikeout, no walk playoff win on Saturday, the Dodgers' Ace was profiled in the Wall Street Journal, in a feature about his unusual preparation and involvement in the positioning of his fielders.

The story reported that Greinke uses Pitch F/X as a foundation of his preparation before every start, and uses his findings to recommend specific positioning for his fielders based on estimations of each match-up's quality of contact and batted ball direction.

Or, as the Brian Costa article more succinctly posits: "Which combination of pitch type, location and defensive alignment will result in the highest probability of an out?"

Shifting isn't always thought of as being optimized per pitcher repertoire, although some teams undoubtedly do that. Certainly very few pitchers have an actual hand in the practice.

Greinke's season has been well chewed over at this point. His league-leading 1.66 ERA on a contending team has immediately put him in the forefront of traditional baseball minds as a Cy Young Award candidate.

Some in sabermetric circles have been more skeptical. Certain peripherals are considered a more accurate reflection of an individual pitcher's contribution a team's run differential, and while still thought of as very good, Greinke's peripherals are less impressive than those of pitchers like Clayton Kershaw or Jake Arrieta.

Using accepted sabermetric thought (with its emphasis on strikeouts, walks, groundballs, etc) it appears that Greinke's run prevention measurement (ERA) may be boosted more by external factors (luck) than the average pitcher, in an unsustainable way.

However, this new information about Greinke creates an interesting conundrum. If Greinke is in some way more responsible than the average pitcher for both his game calling and the placement of his fielders, does that make him a more viable candidate for the Cy Young Award, in the minds of sabermetricians? If his fielders are better positioned than they would be for any other pitcher, and he gains a sustainable advantage because of it, does that mean his low ERA and BABIP are more than just regression bound flukes?

Even if he is responsible for those things, the fielders still make the actual plays - how much credit should be awarded to Greinke for the outs? This seems to be a new phenomenon with Greinke: is the Dodgers' analytical hive-mind uniquely capable of embracing and complementing his statistical inclinations? Before joining the Dodgers, Greinke was actually a fairly consistent FIP under-performer. Since then, that has changed drastically, with almost a full run swing in ERA-FIP margin.

IP ERA FIP Margin
2004-2012 1492.0 3.77 3.45 0.32
2013-2015 602.2 2.30 2.97 -0.67

Presuming that is a meaningful observation, does that mean his season wouldn't have been as successful for any other team? Should that count against him? Might that make an impact in his impending opt-out/free agency decision, if he believes he is in a uniquely beneficial situation in Los Angeles? Admittedly, that last question is unlikely and unless there's some catastrophic injury, he is certain to opt-out.

All of the above are complex questions that this post is more interested in mentioning than answering. However, what might at least be interesting is to review a recent start of Greinke's - like his Game 2 performance in the NLDS against the Mets - with the knowledge of his methods of preparation.

Where were the fielders positioned against each batter? What did Greinke throw, in what locations, in what counts? Did the results appear desirable, based on that fielder positioning and common sense (strike outs and ground balls are good).

Just for the sake of keeping this piece from being insufferably long, bullet points are used below. Take a look at the Mets' remarkably balanced (and surprisingly impressive) line-up from this past Saturday. For those looking for more in-depth detail, any comment about pitch type frequency is derived from data exported from Brooks Baseball's great Pitch F/X Tool).

A couple notes about the below section. As data on positioning is not freely available to the public, the below descriptions are what can be discerned from the broadcast. Additionally, these are minuscule samples, but the pitch type and the count in which each are thrown should be intentional.

Curtis Granderson (L)

  • Positioning: Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, and Corey Seager were to the right (from the catcher's view) of second base, and a bit further back than usual. Corey Seager stands mid-way between second and third base.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Greinke threw mostly four-seam fastballs high-away and change-ups low to Granderson, using both in all counts.
  • Results: Granderson hit weakly into the shift all three times he faced Greinke, but blooped one between the fielders, and legged out an infield hit on another. Overall, Greinke succeeded, but befell BABIP-related difficulties.
  • Batter Tendencies: Granderson pulls a lot of ground balls, and has his highest combined whiff and ground ball rates on off-speed pitches. Interestingly, he hasn't hit for a lot of power high in the zone, making the high fastballs a less risky proposition against the platoon-advantaged slugger.

Granderson ISO 2015

David Wright (R)

  • Positioning: First and second base are guarded in the traditional position, but on the broadcast, the shortstop notably runs in from third to cover Wright's first inning grounder. The traditional shortstop lane was left open, with Seager and Turner edging towards third.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Wright was thrown exclusively fastballs and sliders - the former up-and-away, the latter down-and-away, later in the count.
  • Result: All three outs (including one swinging strikeout) came on the slider. Both ground ball outs were hit well within range of the shifted Seager, and both resulted in double plays.
  • Batter Tendencies: The last few seasons, David Wright has pulled quite a few righty breaking balls to the third base side. Down and away sliders have particularly been both a source of whiffs and ground balls.

Daniel Murphy (L)

  • Positioning: The infielders feature normal positioning, save for Kendrick, who stands mid-way between first and second, in shallow right field.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Lots of low change-ups, early in counts. Greinke threw the two breaking balls with two-strikes in each of the first two plate appearances (the third was only one pitch long).
  • Result: A swinging strikeout in the first inning, and two fly balls to right field. The lone curve ball was left up, and the resulting single was a liner hit between Kendrick and Gonzalez. The seventh inning fly ball was hit right at Andre Ethier. Overall, what appears to be a good battle plan was marred by a mistake pitch.
  • Player Tendencies: At this point, it's already falling fairly in line with what one might predict. Murphy generates a lot of ground balls on pitches down-and-away, and as an opposite-handed hitter, off-speed pitches were Greinke's best option. He has a career .340/.348/.311 Pull/Center/Opposite field split, so the slight second base shift was likely as much as the Dodgers should have done.

Yoenis Cespedes (R)

  • Positioning: As a right-handed power hitter, it was the mirror image of what Granderson experienced. Gonzalez was alone near first base,  with Kendrick, Turner, and Seager splitting the left side of the infield.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Very simply, fastballs with an even count, sliders low-and-away to retire the slugger.
  • Result: Yoenis Cespedes is a strong human being. In their first meeting, Greinke left a four-seam fastball well high of where the Yasmani Grandal set-up, and despite still being a bit outside, was muscled out of the park. He then lined out on a slider in the fourth, and ground into the shift in the seventh. Overall, it wasn't Greinke's strongest match-up, from an execution standpoint.
  • Player Tendencies: Anyone reading this post knows what Cespedes has been up to lately. He hits anything over the plate, out of the yard. As a power hitter, it's not entirely surprising that he also is susceptible to swinging through breaking balls, and pulling ground balls when he gets out in front of a pitch.


Lucas Duda (L)

  • Positioning: Exactly the same shift as Granderson - three players on the right side of the infield, with the second baseman in shallow right field.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Greinke threw change-ups early, and often. Two four-seam fastballs were thrown in 1-0 and 1-1, and both induced shallow outfield pop-ups.
  • Result: The "pop-ups" came on pitches that based on location and type, are not regularly infield fly balls for Duda, and in this case both were more like bloopers with very long hang-times. It was still weak contact, but not likely based on any predictive ability to discern pop-up situations on Greinke's part.
  • Player Tendencies: As one might predict based on Greinke's high change-up usage and the drastic shift, Duda grounds out and whiffs a lot on down-and-away secondary pitches. It feels redundant to say at this point, but swinging at things that are low to the ground and moving away from you, while outside of the strike zone, is not the smartest idea.

Travis d'Arnaud (R)

  • Positioning:There was no view of the fielders during either of d'Arnaud's appearances against Greinke, and no ball in play regardless.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Greinke threw five sliders, and five four-seam fastballs across two appearances. d'Arnaud was set-up on late breaking, low sliders early, and rising four-seamers with two strikes.
  • Result: d'Arnaud struck out swinging in both appearances against Greinke, on four-seam fastballs in each occasion.
  • Player Tendencies:In his still-young career, the catcher whiffs frequently at four-seam fastballs above the zone, and generates ground balls on sliders with curve-like vertical movement (below the strike zone).

Michael Conforto (L)

  • Positioning: Yet another left-handed batter shifted to pull. See Granderson, Duda, et al.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: In the first at-bat, Greinke alternated between fastballs and curve balls, until Conforto managed to hook a slider off of the foul poll. Despite that the home run could have easily been foul, Conforto didn't appear uncomfortable and hit a good pitch. As a result, Greinke completely changed his approach in his second appearance, alternating exclusively between change-ups outside and sliders down.
  • Result: As mentioned above, the first at-bat ended with a home run, and their fifth inning meet ended with a fly ball hit right at Enrique Hernandez in center field. Greinke was less comfortable against Conforto than most of the batters in the lineup.
  • Player Tendencies: Conforto, as a rookie, has an even smaller career sample than Travis d'Arnaud, so take these trends with a grain of small sample salt. Using what Major League data is available, he has hit ground balls on a large percentage of breaking balls. As a pitcher without the platoon advantage, Greinke might have reasoned that a curve ball's vertical movement is a way to exploit that weakness without the risk of an inside slider. Once one caught too much of the plate and Conforto hooked it, Greinke tread carefully the next at-bat, staying out of the zone.

Ruben Tejada (R)

  • Positioning: Like with d'Arnaud, there was no clear view of the fielders during the broadcast. However, given Tejada's spray chart (see below), it's likely that Seager was shading closer to third base than the traditional shortstop position.
  • Pitch Selection / Location: Tejada actually fouled off every fastball thrown to him, at which point Greinke threw sliders until the shortstop struck out swinging.
  • Result:Two swinging strikeouts, on down-and-away sliders.
  • Player Tendencies: It is a little bit interesting that Greinke went with sliders over change-ups against Tejada, as he's regressed against off-speed pitches in the ways mentioned in this piece ad nauseam, but the spray chart is pretty compelling. If a pitcher can consistently throw moving pitches down-and-away against either handedness, they'll likely be pretty successful.

tejada spray chart pitch category rhp

In 2015, Zack Greinke has demonstrated superb command of an arsenal of strong pitches. Beyond that, he's done a lot in his personal performance to help himself (and the Dodgers) win baseball games.

Annually, he is a roughly average base runner and a pitcher who prides himself on his hitting. He is consistently one of the best defensive pitchers in baseball, and over the last five seasons has been, by fWAR, the most valuable pitcher at all non-pitching components.

Add to that his uniquely intense analytical preparation, and it's possible to see even more (as of yet, not quantifiable) value. While It may be hard to imagine that his independent study is more thorough than other pitchers receive from the entire Dodgers' analytical department, he is evidently more willing to embrace new findings and influence others on the field to do the same.

Additionally,  a thorough understanding of efficient game calling might have its own benefits. It may allow him to feel comfortable forgoing A.J. Ellisnoted talent without negative effect, and allow him to add the benefit of Yasmani Grandal's superior bat and framing ability (Grandal has caught all but eight of Greinke's 2015 starts).

He may not be as purely talented at throwing baseball as Clayton Kershaw or Jake Arrieta, but it seems apparent that Greinke is utilizing every source of value he can to be a better player. He may not even be the best sabermetric nominee for the 2015 Cy Young award, when all is said and done. What Zack Greinke certainly is, however, is the best sabermetrician nominated for the 2015 Cy Young award.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.