There's quite literally no one else like Zack Greinke in today's game, at least from a statistical standpoint.
In an era when so much focus is placed on velocity and pitchers across the Majors are striving to miss as many bats as possible, the soft-tossing Greinke is doing the opposite.
The MLB average strikeout rate reached 20% for the first time in 2014 and hasn't looked back. It’s 22.7% this season, which would be the fifth straight year over 22%.
Greinke, meanwhile, has done this:
As you can see, his K-rate started to drop last season, falling from 24.5% to 17.2%, but he’s taken his pitch-to-contact approach to the extreme in 2022.
The 38-year-old, who signed with the Royals in the offseason, returning to the team with which he began his career and won a Cy Young Award in 2009, has a career-low 6.5% strikeout rate through five starts. He's scheduled to take the ball again in Game 1 of Sunday's doubleheader against the Orioles at Camden Yards.
No qualifying pitcher is close to having a strikeout rate as low as Greinke's.
Lowest strikeout rate among qualifiers, 2022
Zack Greinke -- 6.5%
Zach Plesac -- 13.9%
Cal Quantrill -- 14.8%
Chris Flexen -- 14.8%
José Berríos -- 14.8%
The amazing thing, though, isn’t just that his K-rate is 7.4 points below any other qualifying pitcher and 16.2 points lower than the MLB average. It’s that opponents still aren’t finding a way to have much success against him.
Over 28 innings this season, the right-hander has recorded a 2.57 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP. He's one of 18 pitchers with a sub-3.00 ERA and a sub-1.00 WHIP across 25-plus innings this season. No one else on the list has a strikeout rate below 16.5%, and 13 of the 18 are north of 25%.
Greinke, ever the control artist, also has walked just three batters, recorded two hit-by-pitches and allowed two home runs, which means that 93 of the 107 plate appearances against him have ended with a ball being hit to the defense. Talk about keeping your fielders on their toes.
Greinke not only is without statistical peer this season but also in the entire Wild Card Era (since 1995). In fact, you have to go back to Ricky Bones in 1994 to find a starting pitcher who had a sub-3.00 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP with a strikeout rate as low as Greinke’s over their first five starts in a single season, according to Stathead.
He’s one of 11 pitchers in the Expansion Era (since 1961) to accomplish this particular feat.
Starters with sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP, sub-6.6% K-rate
Over first five starts in a season, since 1961
Zack Greinke, 2022
Ricky Bones, 1994
Mark Knudson, 1989
Jay Tibbs, 1984
Storm Davis, 1984
Mike Caldwell, 1984
Rick Honeycutt, 1981
Reggie Cleveland, 1980
Tommy John, 1979 and 1980
Alan Foster, 1976
Dave McNally, 1973
Only seven ERA title qualifiers in the Expansion Era have finished with an ERA+ of 100 or better and a strikeout rate as low as Greinke's, the last one being Lary Sorensen in 1980. Greinke's ERA+ currently is 150.
No MLB pitcher (min. 50 batted balls) has a larger gap between his ERA and his xERA than Greinke. While the lack of K’s is a factor in his lofty xERA, it’s not the only factor. xERA is also based on quality of contact (exit velocity and launch angle), and Greinke’s hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocity) is his highest under Statcast tracking (since 2015) by nearly 10 percentage points.
Perhaps Royals skipper Mike Matheny, who spent 13 years as a big league catcher before becoming a manager, can shed some light on how Greinke is doing what he's doing this season.
“You have to have some strikeout ability in certain situations to have a lot of success,” Matheny told MLB.com’s Anne Rogers earlier this week. “But pitching is pitching. And he’s probably been able to take -- probably the best usage of all the information of any pitcher I’ve ever seen, as far as having real purpose with data. ‘This is telling me that I need to do that, the data proves it, and I can make myself more effective by making minor alterations, not for strikeouts but for soft contact.’
"It’s brilliant, that efficiency. And he’s going to be able to have some really efficient outings just because he’s making quality pitches and he’s manipulating the ball to get minor movement from one pitch to the next. You’re not going to see the same thing. It could be the exact same pitch, but it’ll have different movement the second time you see it. He’s just trying to miss the barrel. That’s pitching. It’s undervalued in our game.”
While his hard-hit rate is up, Greinke is indeed minimizing barrels, batted balls with the optimal combination of exit velocity and launch angle that typically result in extra-base hits and homers. His barrel rate this season is 5.3%, which ranks in the 72nd percentile.
Additionally, Greinke has done well to limit pulled fly balls, the type of fly balls most likely to result in home runs. Of the 20 fly balls he’s allowed this season, 16 have been hit straightaway or to the opposite field.
The expected slugging percentage of these balls, based on exit velocity and launch angle, is 1.246, but opponents are actually slugging .286 on them, partially because of where they’re being hit and partially because fly balls are traveling less this year in general due to a variety of factors, resulting in home runs being down across the board.
Matheny also pointed to Greinke's ability to get ahead of hitters as a reason for his success. He has one of the highest first-pitch strike rates (69.2%) in the Majors and is holding hitters to a .177 average after throwing a first-pitch strike. Across MLB, hitters have a .202 average after falling behind 0-1 this season.