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The real Zack Greinke has shown up

After a rough first year in Arizona, Greinke’s refinements have proven he’s a bonafide ace.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Arizona Diamondbacks Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

With three straight dominant seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers between 2013 and 2015, Zack Greinke – although often overshadowed by fellow starter Clayton Kershaw – established himself as a legitimate ace in an ever increasing offensive-heavy league. When his contract expired he easily became the most sought after player on the market.

Unsurprisingly, he signed the biggest contract that off-season but it came as a shock when we all learned that he signed with the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that had not been known to spend money like that in the past. He inked a six-year, $206.5 million contract which was and currently still is the contract with the highest average annual value in baseball at a little over $34 million per season. You could certainly say the expectations for Greinke were quite high coming into his first season with Arizona.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Colorado Rockies Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Greinke’s first year with the Diamondbacks was rough. He finished with an ERA well over four, a FIP above four and an xFIP just slight under four in 26 starts. He missed the entire month of July due to a strained left oblique, so he didn’t get a full season of starts, but still had more than enough of a sample size to say it was a down year.

He’s put all that behind him this season. Greinke has re-solidified the ace moniker that he earned himself in Los Angeles. So far he’s only three innings shy of his 2016 workload of 158 and 2/3rd innings, but already has 40 additional strikeouts and eight fewer walks. His strikeout rate of 28.5 percent – which has increased over eight percent since last season – would be a career high. Additionally, his walk rate of 5.4 percent is exactly the same as his three-year average walk rate when he was with the Dodgers and almost a full one percent lower than last year. He’s also improved his ERA, FIP and xFIP back inside the top ten among 66 qualified starters at seventh, ninth and seventh respectively.

Greinke 2017 vs 2016

Metric 2017 2016
Metric 2017 2016
ERA- 66 100
FIP- 74 99
xFIP- 74 96
SIERA 3.28 4.11
K% 28.4% 20.1%
BB% 5.4% 6.2%
.AVG .221 .257
.BABIP .281 .294
HR/FB% 13.9% 13.9%

The biggest issue facing Greinke last season were home runs. He set a career high with 23 even with an injury-shortened season. He’s allowed a somewhat substantial 20 home runs so far this year, yet Greinke’s xFIP is only 3.18, which is far below the 3.98 mark he had last season. This is due to his home run per fly ball rate of 13.9 percent, the same as it was last year, while he’s allowing almost two percent more fly balls. We also must take into consideration the league-wide increase in home run rate, which helps bring the xFIP to a better-looking number.

Greinke’s slider has been his bread and butter this season. In all counts with two strikes it is the highest used pitch according to StatCast. He has thrown it 591 times in total which is good for a 23.6 percent total usage rate and he’s recorded 78 strikeouts versus 11 walks. He’s also getting tons of swings and misses with a whiff rate of 27.3 percent when using the slider.

The home run bug has bit Greinke on the slider eight times and six of those homers came when there were two strikes in the count. Overall he’s locating the slider very well, which is why he has 75 strikeouts versus only 10 walks. The charts below show the overlay of home runs allowed off the slider versus the typical location of the slider. Unsurprisingly, it’s the mistakes that are getting hammered.

Baseball Savant

His curveball and changeup have also been quite useful. Greinke has a whiff rate above 15 percent with both pitches, as well as a called strike rate of at least 10 percent with both. He’s also limited the home runs to two per pitch while having a strikeout to walk ratio of at least three. The chart below shows how each pitch type stacks up across a wide range of metrics. In short, he’s throwing his secondary stuff very well.

Greinke’s Arsenal

Metric Fastball Slider Curve Change
Metric Fastball Slider Curve Change
Whiff Rate 5.7% 27.3% 15.2% 17.1%
Called Strike Rate 25.6% 9.3% 27.2% 10.3%
Strikeouts 56 75 17 24
Walks 14 10 1 8
Hits 59 37 8 30
Home Runs 8 8 2 2
wOBA .306 .259 .198 .296
Total Thrown 1140 583 257 387

His fastball is by far his worst pitch as the chart shows, but it’s also his setup pitch for his three secondary pitches. As long as those secondary pitches are getting the job done there isn’t much room for concern. The off-speed stuff has been great and his fastball isn’t all that bad either when you look at the context of the home runs, which the overlay below shows. When you consider the high rate of usage, it looks like a pretty average pitch.

Baseball Savant

While Greinke seems to be successful across the board this season, what’s specifically responsible for the huge uptick in strikeouts? The biggest factor seems to be called strikes. Almost 20 percent of Greinke’s 2,394 total pitches have been called strikes according to Baseball Savant, which is incredibly high. The high number of called strikes stems from his zone swing rate of 58.7 percent, which is fifth lowest among 66 qualified pitchers, while his zone contact rate of 85.1 percent is 18th lowest among the same 66 qualifiers. Due to a zone rate of 40 percent, batters know Greinke throws more than his fair share of balls, and thus are trying to work the count and take a walk if possible.

When you combine the high number of called strikes – which are due to low in-zone swing and contact rates – with a similarly high number of whiffs, you have the perfect recipe for a high number of strikeouts and a low number of baserunners. When you can do that, you’re not going to allow many runs.

After an awfully disappointing first season in Arizona, Greinke has refined his craft this season and re-emerged as a definitive ace who can succeed at a home in a hitter friendly ballpark. This is the Zack Greinke we saw do so well in Los Angeles, but with a new penchant for strikeouts. That’s a dangerous combination, and it’s helping the Diamondbacks crush the competition.

Ron Wolschleger is a pitchaholic and a Contributing Writer for Beyond the Box Score as well as Bless You Boys. You can follow him on Twitter at @FIPmyWHIP.