The Two Shane Greenes

Going into the season, there was a fair amount of optimism about Shane Greene’s potential. He looked like a breakout star in his early MLB days and news of a developing changeup fueled the fire. After three starts in Detroit, he had a 0.39 ERA and 2.81 FIP in 23 innings and it looked like another starting pitcher steal. Then Greene hit a wall in his next three starts. What happened?

Let’s start with the obvious caveat that both of these samples are just three starts and that we don’t really care about three starts out of what will likely be a 100 plus start career in Detroit. Great pitchers have bad outings and sometimes they have them in a row, so the fact that Shane Greene stumbled over the last couple of weeks isn’t a sign of doom across the region.

But we’re only dealing with a small number of major league innings so these three starts can offer us some insight about the factors that determine good outcomes for Greene. We can’t say for sure that these three starts won’t continue or that the first three starts will come back, but we may be able to look at the comparison between the groups to learn something about Greene.

In his first three starts, Greene pitched 23 innings and faced about 26-28 batters per game. In other words, he was pitching deep into games and still only turning the lineup over three times. He only punched out 4.3 batters per 9, but with a walk rate under 2.0 per 9 and no home runs allowed, he didn’t have to worry about getting lots of whiffs. His ground ball rate was up around 52% and his BABIP was below .200. Obviously, we knew the BABIP wouldn’t last, but he had posted a 2.81 FIP, so there wasn’t really a serious worry that he was going to wake up and get creamed.

In those first three starts, he was allowing a lot of weak contact (23%) and not much hard contact (21%), per Baseball Info Solutions data from FanGraphs. He was throwing about 55% fastballs, 20% sliders, 14% curveballs and 10% changeups. Batters were swinging at 48% of his pitches and striking 81% of those, with about 53% of his pitches hitting the zone.

All in all, that profile makes sense. Greene wasn’t giving up free passes or home runs and he was keeping the ball off the barrel of the bat. It was unlikely that he was going to prevent runs at that level for much longer, but Greene was pitching well and getting good results.

In starts 4-6, his strikeout rate rose to 8.2 per 9 and his walk rate leapt with it to 4.9 batters per 9 innings. Along with that, he allowed two homers in 11 innings and a .525 BABIP. It was a 16.36 ERA and a 5.57 FIP. So while the ERA was insane, even if you look at the fielding independent numbers, Greene was kind of a mess. He got chased before he saw the number five hitter a third time in each of his starts.

The quality of contact numbers are worse too, shifting to 21% soft contact and 25% hard contact in his most recent starts. That might not seem like a big change, but 4% is actually a pretty serious increase in hard contact. We don’t know a lot about how random that result might be just yet as the data is brand new to the public, but the increase is a meaningful increase.

Greene’s thrown fewer curveballs and fastballs in favor of his slider in his last three starts and he’s getting swings on 43% of pitchers, allowing contact on 87% of those, and putting it in the zone less than 49% of the time. In case you’re wondering, his fastball velocity is actually up a tiny amount.

So the summary isn’t shocking. Greene’s control has been worse and hitters are benefiting from the free passes and waiting on the pitches they can drive. When they’re making contact, it’s better contact and it’s resulting in more damage overall. Some of the extremes are randomness, but the lack of control backs up what we’ve all seen over the last couple of starts.

From watching him, especially on Tuesday, I’ve developed the opinion that he’s allowing hitters to get a better look of the baseball earlier. He’s not necessarily throwing different quality stuff, but he’s opening up and showing the ball earlier, which is giving batters a chance to either lay off the chase pitches or square up the ones in the zone. Whatever was happening, his delivery didn’t look right on Tuesday.

But I think there’s a potentially more obvious explanation for what’s going on than Greene just being out of sorts and a little off with his command. Greene’s seen the Twins and White Sox twice already. The first time he was good, the second time, he wasn’t so good. This happened a couple of times last year as well, even if you can’t believe it based on how he owned the Tigers.

He saw the Red Sox three times last year and they hit him harder each time. The same thing happened with the Orioles. It didn’t manifest with Toronto and Detroit, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest Greene may be vulnerable to some type of familiarity penalty. He has good stuff, but maybe he’s predictable or maybe he has a delivery that takes some getting used to from the batter’s box.

This is one of the big issues when it comes to dealing with players will so little time in the majors. Greene demonstrated a productive skill set, so we know he has the raw ability to be successful in the majors, but a lot of baseball is about consistently leveraging that skill set. Doing so requires a lot of ongoing adjustments and it can be difficult for younger players to adjust once they find something that works well.

As Greene goes around the league multiple times, we should watch to see how other teams react to him and how he responds to those reactions. Maybe this is a blip, maybe it’s a delivery flaw, or perhaps it’s just good hitters getting additional looks. It’s too early to say for sure, but we’ve seen the two extremes early in Greene’s career.

Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to The Hardball Times, the Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44

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