In case you haven't checked the ERA leaderboard, Zack Greinke is doing something really special
For years, we thought Zack Greinke was just a slightly strange baseball player. Here was someone who could fling the ball with great accuracy and speed, but would also ask his teammates to please wash their hands after using the restroom. Judging from the way he's pitched this year, it turns out that he's actually a slightly strange demigod who happens to play baseball.
The Dodgers right-hander with the pageboy haircut is 17-3 with a 1.61 ERA (more on that in a moment), a league-leading 0.847 WHIP, a 1.5 BB/9 (sixth-best) and 182 strikeouts in 200 2/3 innings heading into Friday's scheduled start against the Pirates. What does all that mean? That we've seen a lot of this in 2015:
Greinke vs. History
About that 1.61 ERA: If the season ended today, Greinke's current season mark would rank 49th all-time among pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. But since 1920 (before which offense was about as non-existent as television) Greinke's season jumps up to fifth. The last time a starter had an ERA better than Greinke's was 21 years ago when Greg Maddux pulled it off in the shortened 1994 season.
In fact, since Bob Gibson's record-setting 1968, only four players have even made the list: Greg Maddux twice (both in shortened seasons), Nolan Ryan (also in a shortened season) and Dwight Gooden in an absolutely amazing campaign.
"But," I can hear you saying, "we are in the midst of another great pitching era. Clayton Kershaw posted a 1.77 ERA just last year. Surely Greinke's ERA is nice, but not all that impressive when compared to other hurlers, right?"
This is why we'll also look at his ERA+, a stat that normalizes for a player's home ballpark and era. A 100 ERA+ is exactly league average, while Greinke's ERA+ this season is 231. So, even accounting for a recent downturn in offense and Dodger Stadium's pitcher-friendly tendencies, Greinke's performance has been 132 percent better than average this year.
That's the sixth-best since 1920, with everyone ahead of him in the Hall of Fame.
Notice that because Gibson's record 1.12 ERA came in a season with so little offense that MLB responded by lowering the pitcher's mound, his 258 ERA+ ranks only fourth on this list.
Greinke vs. Time and Place
Greinke has also shown an ability to succeed whether living comfortably at Dodger Stadium or while indulging in hotel continental breakfasts on the road. His 1.41 ERA at home is the second-best in the Majors, just behind his teammate Clayton Kershaw's 1.40 mark. Meanwhile, his 1.83 road ERA is second only to Jake Arrieta of the Cubs.
(We must also point out how insanely dominant the duo of Kershaw and Greinke are. Since 1920, only three teams have had two starters with an ERA of 2.12 or lower and at least 200 innings: the 2015 Dodgers and in 1968 when Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell pulled it off for the Indians, with Bob Veale and Steve Blass accomplishing it for the Pirates. Yes, 1968 was a great year to be a pitcher.)
Greinke's month-by-month splits this year are also terrifyingly dominant, proving that his season numbers aren't the result of a single hot streak surrounded by average performance. In every month except August, Greinke has a sub-2.00 ERA. And in August, his ERA was 2.45, which would rank fifth-best in the Majors over the course of a full season.
Of course, there was that hot streak when he tossed 45 2/3 consecutive innings without surrendering a run in June and July, never even looking like he was in any real danger during the streak.
Greinke vs. Self
As for how he's done it (beyond merely intimidating batters who haven't washed their hands, that is), Greinke has adjusted his pitching style a fair bit. He's throwing his fastball more than he has since 2008, while largely scrapping his sinker in place of his changeup -- which makes sense when that change has roughly the same downward movement as a glass of red wine in a carpet-cleaning commercial:
Oddly enough, Greinke's success with the pitch may be thanks to the miniscule 3.6 mph difference between his average fastball and changeup -- the lowest in his career. While traditional baseball logic dictates that you want a larger gap between the two pitches, hurlers like Greinke and Felix Hernandez have found that a smaller gap between pitches only aids their ability to fool hitters with the pitch's deceptive movement. You may not find many, or really, any other hurlers like that, though. Greinke and Felix are the only starters with that little separation between their pitches in the Majors.
Greinke vs. Luck
Of course, it's nearly impossible to post an ERA as low as Greinke's without both immense skill and some fortunate luck. Greinke's 6.8 percent HR/FB rate is his lowest since his Cy Young-winning campaign in 2009 and the fourth-lowest rate among qualified starters. Meanwhile, his .234 BABIP is far below his .299 career average, suggesting that a fair number of batted balls have found his fielders' glove that in other seasons would have dropped in for hits.
What makes Greinke's historic season all the stranger, is that he may not even be the best pitcher on his team, much less the league. His three-time Cy Young-winning teammate Kershaw, who has a 1.06 ERA since the All-Star break, leads the league in innings (208), FIP (2.10), is second in K/9 (11.42) and is seventh, just behind Greinke, in BB/9 (1.64). It's the kind of 1-2 punch in a rotation that hasn't been seen since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were teaming up on those D-backs teams in the early 2000s.
With three more starts (including Friday's) likely left in his campaign, there's not much time for Greinke to move up in the all-time ERA rankings. Barring the Dodgers pitching him on two days' rest for the remainder of the season, even if the long-haired hurler pitched three consecutive shutouts, his ERA would only stand at 1.42.
But should he manage to just hold his own in his last few starts, Greinke will join a very elite group of hurlers. And there's no shame in merely having one of the best seasons in the last 100 years.