Making Sense of Zack Greinke


Zack Greinke made his first start coming out of the All-Star break on Sunday against the Nationals.  Coming into his most recent start, he had not allowed a run in 35 2/3 innings, drawing comparisons to the scoreless streaks of Dodger greats Don Drysdale and Orel Hershiser. However, Greinke would be facing the toughest test of his run, as the Nationals rank the highest in baseball in runs scored out of the teams he has faced during the streak.  So how would Greinke respond?

By tossing eight scoreless innings, allowing just three hits, and not letting a runner get into scoring position all day.

With the results of Sunday’s start, Greinke’s scoreless spell stretched to 43 2/3 innings.  And while he has to pitch another 15 1/3 scoreless innings to tie the record set by Hershiser in 1988, he has already made history, via ESPN Stats and Info:

So, thinking this way, I did some comparisons between Greinke and Hershiser.  I didn’t compare Greinke to Don Drysdale for one simple reason: Drysdale pitched his scoreless streak in 1968 on the 15-foot high pitcher’s mound, while Greinke has pitched his on one that is only 10 feet off the ground.

This is (I think) the most interesting tidbit I found about Hershiser’s 1988: he gave up 73 walks.  This means that in 34 starts, Hershiser allowed over two walks per game.  During the streak, Hershiser walked eleven batters over the course of his 59 innings, as opposed to his walking 73 over the course of a whopping 267 innings that season. Here is a table I made of Hershiser’s stats during the streak (Note: the August 30 game vs the Expos is the last four innings of his start.  He allowed two runs in the first five innings of that game.)

Date/Opponent IP H BB K
August 30, 1988 vs Expos 4 1 2 4
September 5, 1988 vs Braves 9 4 1 8
September 10, 1988 vs Reds 9 7 3 8
September 14, 1988 vs Braves 9 6 2 8
September 19, 1988 vs Astros 9 4 0 5
September 23, 1988 vs Giants 9 5 2 2
September 28, 1988 vs Padres 10 4 1 3
TOTAL 59 31 11 38

Now, here is a look at Greinke’s streak on a start-by-start basis:

Date/Opponent IP  H BB K
June 18, 2015 vs Rangers 7 4 0 8
June 23, 2015 vs Cubs 6 3 2 5
June 28, 2015 vs Marlins 7.2 4 1 6
July 4, 2015 vs Mets 7 4 0 4
July 9, 2015 vs Phillies 8 1 0 8
July 20, 2015 vs Nationals 8 3 1 11
TOTAL 43.2 19 4 42

On the surface, it looks like Greinke’s numbers are more impressive than Orel’s.  However, there are a couple of things to pay attention to when comparing the two.

The first thing I noticed when comparing the two is the distance that both pitchers went in their respective games during their streaks. While Greinke has not thrown any complete games over his last six scoreless starts, Hershiser went nine (or more) in every start during his streak.  Sure, the game has changed quite a lot since 1988, but Hershiser never needed the help of his bullpen to finish games; he completed them himself.

Here’s another thing: Greinke’s numbers may appear more impressive than Hershiser’s, but this is not necessarily the case.  The “Zack Attack” is on pace to allow less hits and walks than the Bulldog did, and Greinke has already passed Hershiser’s strikeout total. However, Hershiser is still more impressive in this regard because he had more baserunners, and subsequently jams, to navigate his way out of.  While Orel’s streak reaching 59 innings may have been partially a figure of luck, Greinke allowing so few baserunners over the last 43 2/3 innings has to be because of luck, too.

Greinke has had lots and lots of luck during his run.  Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs wrote about this yesterday:

Sorry, but, duh. It’s always there. Zack Greinke’s true talent isn’t a 0.00 ERA. It is a very low ERA, but it is not the lowest possible ERA. Consider that Greinke has allowed just 19 hits, facing 152 batters. Not a single fly ball has left the yard. When there have been runners in scoring position, hits have been further suppressed. Luck doesn’t always look like a line drive being snared at full extension — sometimes luck is just a batter taking a worse swing than usual at a hittable pitch. Luck is always present, in all forms. Greinke’s been the recipient of more good than bad.

One particular manifestation: the opponents. Greinke just shut down the Nationals, who’ve been hurt pretty bad by injuries. The start before that, he faced the Phillies, and the start before that, he faced the Mets. Going back still, there were the Marlins, without Giancarlo Stanton. And there were the Cubs, and it all started against the Rangers, but against the Rangers in a National League ballpark, so they didn’t play Prince Fielder. They didn’t have Adrian Beltre or Josh Hamilton. It’s been a kind slate. This isn’t to take anything away from the achievement — it’s just, the stars have been aligned, so to speak.

The stars have been aligned.  While Greinke’s run has been incredible and we haven’t seen anything like it in a long time, it couldn’t have happened without luck playing a big role.  Between the schedule, the stadiums he’s pitched in, and the lineups he’s faced, a scoreless streak was there for the taking, if Greinke was up to it.  And he has been.

Everything being said, I’m not trying to take away from what Greinke has done.  He’s been absolutely dominant over his last six starts, and there’s no question who the best pitcher in baseball is this season. But until he reaches 59 scoreless innings, there will always be one streak eclipsing Greinke’s in dominance.  That streak belongs to Orel Hershiser.

Take that, Zack.

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