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Measuring Zack Greinke's scoreless innings streak

As we have done with Clayton Kershaw previously, here we put Zack Greinke's scoreless innings streak in the perspective of his scoreless innings streak peers.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon in Queens, New York, Zack Greinke's scoreless innings streak came to an end. His run of 45.2 innings of not allowing a run was broken up by the Mets, of all teams, on a series of odd plays. In the bottom of the third inning, Greinke hit leadoff batter Kirk Nieuwenheis with an errant fastball, Kevin Plawecki then singled to center and an error by typically sure-handed Joc Pederson allowed Nieuwenheis to advance to third. Greinke's mound-opponent, Jacob deGrom, then came to the dish and plated Nieuwenheis on a fielder's choice. Adrian Gonzalez came home with deGrom's grounder but it was a fraction of a second late and just like that the fourth-longest streak in major league baseball since the late '40s was over. There is no doubt that a pitcher needs some bounces to go his way during a scoreless innings streak, and Greinke had them, but then the odd third inning on Sunday happened showing how fragile these streaks can be. Much like I did last year with Greinke's teammate Clayton Kershaw, I wanted to look into how Greinke's streak compares with other 40+ inning scoreless streaks.

With Greinke's accomplishment this season, there have now been nine scoreless innings streaks of 40 or more innings by starting pitchers since baseball integrated. It needs to be noted that the rules around the scoreless innings streak are a little odd. In 1988, the Elias Sports Bureau adjusted its criteria for the scoreless innings record such that fractional innings (i.e., 1 or 2 outs recorded) of scoreless pitching would no longer count toward the streak. Pitchers had to have complete innings recorded (multiples of 3 outs) without having a run score (earned or unearned) for it to count toward the streak. The nine streaks that match the criteria are as follows:

Num Player Team League Innings Date started Date Ended
1 Orel Hershiser LAD NL 59 30/08/1988 28/09/1988
2 Don Drysdale LAD NL 58 14/05/1968 08/06/1968
3 Bob Gibson STL NL 47 02/06/1968 26/06/1968
4 Zack Greinke LAD NL 45 06/18/2015 07/26/2015
5 Brandon Webb ARI NL 42 20/07/2007 17/08/2007
6 Clayton Kershaw LAD NL 41 13/06/2014 10/07/2014
7 Luis Tiant CLE AL 41 28/04/1968 17/05/1968
8 Gaylord Perry SFG NL 40 28/08/1967 10/09/1967
9 Luis Tiant BOS AL 40 19/08/1972 08/09/1972

Pitching in the late 1960s and pitching for the Dodgers appear to be good things to do. Four of the nine streaks happened in 1967 or 1968, and four of the streaks belong to Dodgers' starters. And pitching for the Dodgers the last few years has also worked out pretty well. Neither Greinke nor Kershaw came close to the Bulldog's record of 59 innings, but their streaks were still very impressive; even if Bryce Harper was not impressed. It is easier to compare these nine streaks by looking at some numbers. Below is a table that presents a few rates of interest for each of the streaks. I recorded the singles, doubles, triples, reached on error, walks, hit-by-pitch, strikeouts and total batters faced on an inning-by-inning basis for each pitcher.

This is the data:

Player Streak TBF TBF/IP Baserunners/IP XBH BB% K%
Hershiser 59 217 3.68 0.81 3 5.07 17.51
Drysdale 58 209 3.60 0.72 3 4.78 21.05
Gibson 47 166 3.53 0.62 3 3.01 22.29
Greinke 45 154 3.42 0.56 3 2.60 25.97
Webb 42 156 3.71 0.79 8 4.49 21.15
Kershaw 41 144 3.51 0.61 3 4.17 34.72
Tiant ('68) 41 147 3.59 0.73 1 6.80 27.89
Perry 40 146 3.65 0.75 6 6.16 25.34
Tiant ('72) 40 141 3.53 0.63 2 6.38 21.99

[TBF = Total Batters Faced; TBF/IP = Total Batters Faced per Inning Pitched; BsR/IP = Baserunners Allowed per Inning Pitched; XBH = Extra Base Hits allowed; BB% = walk rate; K% = strikeout rate]

This provides an idea of how dominant Greinke has been when taking the mound over the last two months. He faced the fewest batters per inning by allowing the fewest baserunners per inning, walked only four batters while striking out 40, which were good for by far the lowest walk rate and the third highest strikeout rate. We are living in a time of many strikeouts and few walks, but those numbers are stunning.

To visually compare the progression of these nine streaks I created two figures that plot cumulative baserunners allowed as a function of innings pitched, and cumulative strikeouts as a function of innings pitched. These are the same as the ones I made for my article on Kershaw's streak, only here I have bolded Greinke to make it easier to track him against the other pitchers.

First, here is the figure for baserunners allowed:

This is where Greinke really shines. As of the 34 scoreless innings mark - a level all of these pitchers achieved - Greinke had the lowest number of baserunners allowed and maintained the lead over his next 11 innings. Much of this is driven by his fifth start of the streak in which he dominated the Phillies, going 8.0 innings, allowing one hit, walking none and striking out eight, good for a GameScore of 88. Yes, I know it's the Phillies. But they are still ostensibly a major league lineup that typically scores at least one run per game. This issue, Greinke's opponents, is worth noting. He tackled the Cubs, Marlins, Mets, Phillies, a depleted Nationals lineup, and the Mets again when the streak ended. Presently, by wRC+, those teams rank 26th, 28th, 27th, 29th, and 14th--not exactly the cream of the offensive crop. But Greinke does not get to pick the team against whom he pitches, and even bad offensive teams score sometimes. Well, maybe not against Greinke.

How did Greinke stack up in terms of strikeouts:

If we compare things at 40 innings pitched (the last point that all nine pitchers achieved), we see that Greinke had the fourth highest number of strikeouts with 35. The real star of this situation is Kershaw who was running away with the strikeout race during his streak. As a point of comparison, he had 35 strikeouts at the 27 innings mark, a fully 13 before his buddy Greinke got that many.

Regardless of breaking the scoreless innings streak, new father Zack Greinke is having a ridiculously great season. He has a 1.37 ERA, over half a run ahead of second place, streak-killer Jacob deGrom. If he can hold that mark, which is unlikely, it will be the lowest ERA posted in the last twenty years. Context is important, and we are living in an era of lower offense. But Greinke's 1.37 ERA is 62 percent better than league average, a mark that if held will be the second best in the last twenty years, trailing only the 2000 season of recently enshrined Pedro Martinez (1.74 ERA, 35 ERA-). A tall task for sure, but certainly worth tracking as the season progresses. Regardless, Greinke's performance to date has put him in a good spot to take the National League Cy Young award away from his rotation-mate.

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Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.