After the trade deadline, many were ready to crown the Astros as the 2019 World Champions. Houston had acquired Zack Greinke in a last-second deal with the Diamondbacks, and their two biggest competitors, the Yankees and Dodgers, decided not to shore up their starting rotations or bullpens. The criticisms levied at New York and Los Angeles proved prescient. The Dodgers saw an early exit because they couldn’t hold onto a late inning lead (Dave Roberts’ baffling bullpen management contributed heavily. It’s easier to mismanage a bullpen when there aren’t many reliable options behind Clayton Kershaw in a role he’s not suited for and Joe Kelly for a second inning). The lack of a fourth starting option certainly contributed to the Yankees missing out on the pennant.
The Astros, however, have succeeded almost despite Greinke’s October contributions though he was supposed to give them a lock on the championship. He’s made three starts this postseason, and he hasn’t looked particularly dominant in any of them. He lasted just 3 2/3 innings against the Rays in Game Three of the ALDS. Tampa tagged him for six runs. In Game One of the ALCS, Greinke went six innings while striking out six, but he also allowed seven hits, two of those leaving the yard. His most recent start in Game Four, Greinke gave up just the one run, but that was the result of him walking three in the first inning. He lasted just 4 1/3 innings that night.
Altogether, Greinke has allowed 10 runs in 14 innings while striking out 16, walking 5, and giving up 5 homers. That last number is especially alarming considering the ball has been dejuiced. In Game Three of the World Series, the Astros hope that Greinke looks more like his usual self rather than this mostly effective but occasionally disastrous version.
The good news is that he’s still missing bats. His 14 percent swinging strike rate is actually four points above his regular season rate. Greinke’s slider had always been his best swing-and-miss pitch, but in the last two seasons, it has taken a back seat to the curveball and especially the changeup.
The changeup has been slightly problematic for him. Two of the three homers he allowed to the Rays were on changes that drastically missed their target (Greinke’s changeup is at its best on the armside part of the plate). Hitters have also been slightly less inclined to chase it in the postseason, and outside of the zone is where the pitch is most likely to get a whiff. He only throws it in the zone about a third of the time, so if the hitter doesn’t swing, it’s probably a ball. This is a small, small sample size (these are the playoffs after all), but whether the Nationals are chasing the changeup and whether Grienke is keeping it armside are things to monitor in Game Three.
Perhaps the larger problem thus far has been the fastball. Greinke’s average fastball velocity has been under 90 mph the last two seasons but being able to throw a 70 mph curve makes it play up. Still, location matters, and Greinke’s fastball command hasn’t been nearly as fine this October. In Game Four of the ALCS, he couldn’t place a fastball in the zone with the bases loaded. When Greinke has thrown a strike they have often moved away from the intended target.
These are just three starts, so it’s not enough to say that there’s anything wrong with Greinke. He has perhaps made a few more mistakes than usual, but in the postseason, mistakes are magnified not just by the size of the stage, but by the talent of the opposition. Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto won’t miss center cut fastballs. For Greinke to get back on track, it’s a matter of hitting the glove.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.