If all you knew about Shane Greene was his stat line from 2014, you’d be working on your biannual “Dave Dombrowski is a genius” soliloquies because Greene was very good last year across 78.2 innings at the MLB level. Greene made 14 starters and one relief appearance while posting a 3.78 ERA and 3.73 FIP in a hitter’s park. That goes with a 3.40 xFIP, putting all three above average when controlling for his home park.
FanGraphs’ WAR had him at 1.2 using FIP as the base and 1.1 using runs allowed. If you pro-rate those out for 200 innings, you’re talking about a 3 WAR pitcher. Adding a three win pitcher might not seem that impressive in the context of the Tigers staff, but I assure you they aren’t on sale this time of year. A free agent pitcher who had an established history of pitching as well as Greene did in 2014 would make at least $15 million a season on the open market and probably more like $20 million a pop.
But of course we’re only talking about 80 or so innings of major league work. You can’t simply look at how anyone has pitched over their last 80 innings and decide that is their true talent level going forward. We can’t ignore his underlying numbers and his minor league history.
Let’s start with the Major League peripherals. Green struck out 23.5% of the batters he faced, walked 8.4%, gave up about 0.92 home runs per nine innings, and induced a ground ball on about half of his balls in play. His contact and swing profiles are close to league average and he didn’t have much BABIP luck this year (.330).
Looking at those numbers, nothing stands out. He didn’t get terribly lucky or unlucky and looks like a league average major league starter. He can dial it up to 93-94 mph, works with a two-seam, cutter, slider, and the odd four-seam and changeup, and demonstrated a platoon split that was worse at home.
If he had thrown 300 innings over the last two years like this instead of 78 2/3 innings this year, you’d feel pretty confident that you’re looking at a 2-3 win pitcher who would be a nice addition to almost every staff in the game.
The concern is that Greene has a shaky minor league track record. He threw 23 innings in relief in 2009 with a high ERA but okay peripherals. We can probably agree those aren’t too important, but in 14 starts at two levels in 2010 he had a 4.59 ERA and control issues. In 2011, he made 27 starts at Single A with a 4.37 ERA and too many walks. In 112 innings in High A in 2012, it was a 5.22 ERA with way too many walks.
Now you shouldn’t only judge pitchers on their minor league ERA, but when the pattern is this consistent you’re essentially looking at a pitcher who hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s going to do well in the show.
This brings us to 2013. In 154 1/3 innings at High-A and Double-A, Greene posted a 3.38 ERA. He allowed a decent number of hits, but the walks were down without losing much in terms of strikeout rate. Greene finally got good results, even if his FIP had usually been better than his ERA in previous years. His ERA wasn’t great in Triple-A in 2014, but the peripherals were solid before his promotion.
In the minors, you don’t always know if your numbers aren’t good because your club can’t play defense or if you’re actually pitching poorly (or if you’re tinkering with a new pitch that isn’t ready), so ERA and FIP comparisons don’t always work as well as they do in the majors. But we can say that Greene generally didn’t impress statistically in the minors and only really did well when he brought the walks down in 2013.
He also added, or at least featured, a cutter more often starting in 2013 and the results perked up as well. As you’d expect, he struck out more righties and walked more lefties in the minors (as he did in the New York) and allowed lefties to put up 60 extra points of OPS against him, driven by walks and singles rather than extra base power.
Greene was essentially below average at every stop, but never overmatched in a way that made you think he had no MLB future. The platoon split carried over, but it remained a split driven by walks and singles rather than tons of power. Lefties do better, but they don’t do irreparable damage.
So let’s sit back and consider what we know. We know that pitchers usually don’t arrive in the majors and perform much better than anything they’ve ever done in the minors, but it does happen and when it does, it’s often tied to a new pitch, like Greene’s cutter. There was never much prospect hype and he wasn’t someone who tore up the minors, but the stats were kind in 2014 and he impressed a lot of scouts along the way.
He throws hard enough and features a good enough cutter/slider mix to believe he can hold righties back and he’s never gotten creamed against lefties to the point where you would think his split would get much larger over time. If he can develop his changeup into a slightly more effective weapon, he should be able to slow lefties a touch and wind up with some pretty solid numbers.
The 80 innings he threw this year in New York don’t erase everything that came before but they are the most important 80 innings of data. Greene flashed the ability to perform like an above average starter and his stuff backs the potential. He didn’t reach that potential for most of his minor league career, so we have to be careful, but it looks like the Tigers got a nice back end starter for a pretty reasonable price. And even if things don’t work out for Greene, he seems certain to be deadly against righties out of the pen.
Did Greene get better during the last year or two? The numbers tell us to be cautious about regression, but there’s also nothing about his major league performance that makes us think it wasn’t legitimate or repeatable.
Interested in the scouting point of view on Greene? Take a look at the TigsTown Analysis that breaks down the book on Greene:
TigsTown Analysis: Greene for Ray/Leyba
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44