Zack Greinke highlights a crop of MLB aces who rely on baseball’s advanced stats – For The Win
CINCINNATI — Moments after he was announced as the National League’s All-Star starter on Monday, Dodgers righty Zack Greinke was asked if his remarkable first half represented the best pitching of his 12-year Major League career. Greinke entered the break 8-2 with a league-leading 1.39 ERA, but he said he believed his Cy Young Award-winning performance in 2009 was more impressive because it came in an era when teams typically scored more runs.
In addition to his pitching, Greinke is known for his exhaustive understanding of and interest in the sport, up to and including preparing pre-draft scouting reports on potential picks. And in a New York Times feature during his 2009 campaign, Greinke explained that he pitched to keep his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) as low as possible. By that number, which estimates a pitcher’s value based on his walk, strikeout and home-run rates, Greinke was indeed better in 2009 than he had been in 2015: A 2.33 FIP then vs. a 2.65 mark now.
And Greinke is hardly the only All-Star familiar with baseball’s advanced statistics. Nationals starter Max Scherzer, Greinke’s primary contender in the early stages of the NL Cy Young race, also evaluates his performances with numbers not typically found on baseball cards.
“You always want to look at your walk rate,” Scherzer told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. “You always want to know when you’re generating swings and misses and strikeouts, and your efficiency at pitching deep in games — because that always helps the ballclub.
“It’s really to give you a long term goal: To have an idea of what you’d like to be doing over the long term. They kind of guide you in the right direction to let you know if you’re performing well — all the different things you can discern from it. It’s just one of the tools I use to evaluate myself, and I feel like it’s effective.”
Greinke’s counterpart on Tuesday night, AL All-Star starter Dallas Keuchel, pitches for the Houston Astros — a team reputed for using analytics in all phases of the game, and especially in its defensive position. During spring training, Keuchel called the team’s emphasis on defensive shifts “the new baseball” and expressed complete confidence in the club’s methodology.
“Our players trust us,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Monday. “They trust me. They trust our coaching staff. We apply what we feel like is the right information to give us a chance to win, and our players are on board.
“We share enough information to educate them as to why we do something.”
Some fans and media following the game often seem to prefer it imbued with a heavy dose of nostalgia, a tendency in part responsible for the false perception that baseball itself is resistant to progress. But that’s just not true: In 2015, every team in baseball employs a wealth of newly available information and technology to improve its on-field performance. Guys like Scherzer and Greinke that track their own metrics may still be a relative rarity, but every pitcher in the game is likely benefiting in some form from the revelations that have come with baseball’s ongoing evolution toward using more — and more thorough — data.
The league and its teams track and analyze practically every on-field event, from hitters’ spray charts of batted balls, to individual performance on pitch types and sequences in the count, to the rate at which a pitcher’s breaking balls spin. The long-perceived divide between the realms of scouting and analytics — as entertainingly depicted in Moneyball — no longer exists: No one would deny the value of the old-fashioned eyeball test, but in the contemporary game scouting is analytics, and vice versa.
“It’s important, man,” said Rays starter Chris Archer — who said he sent the NL’s All-Star lineup to his club’s analytics department for detailed scouting reports before pitching Tuesday. “There’s usually a pretty detailed report. We’re sabermetrically and analytically advanced when it comes to baseball, as far as implementing it.”
Archer said he does not track his stats on a start-to-start basis, but trusts his club’s input when it comes to determining how to optimize his performance.
“It helps you understand you, and helps you understand the best you that you can be,” he said. “They take time, they record thousands of pitches and thousands of outcomes, and then they present information to you. That’s awesome to me.”
Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ reigning NL MVP, said he uses his club’s information to prepare but not to evaluate himself.
“What good is it going to do to look at my numbers?” he said. “I mean, there’s definitely research and studying, and getting to know the opponents. But as far as figuring out what my xFIP is, I don’t know if that’s going to help at all.”
“I guarantee Clayton uses information, because he’s one of the guys on the computer studying, looking at the charts and stuff — what pitches guys handle and what they don’t,” said Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. “Zack’s just more on the other end, almost GM-ish from the standpoint of knowing. He’s studying guys in college and all that kind of stuff. I think both approaches are fine.
“But if you deny information, you’re a fool.”
Still, not every pitcher wants to know the details. White Sox ace Chris Sale, one of baseball’s most dominant starters, said he prefers a blissful type of ignorance about the processes guiding what he does on the mound.
“Whatever (catcher) Tyler Flowers has for me, that’s what I’m going with,” Sale said. “This might sound crazy, but I’m not much of a thinking person. Like with hitting, for instance, you go up there, and you don’t have time to think. You just swing the bat. For me, pitching, you go up there and you throw the ball.
“If this guy’s strength is fastballs inside, guess what? I still have to throw him a fastball inside. I’m throwing fastballs in. If this guy crushes changeups, I’m still throwing changeups. The only thing it could do is get in my mind that this guy does this with this. No, I’m going to just throw it, and whatever happens, happens.”
Obviously there’s nothing work with Sale’s approach: All of the same stats that Greinke and Scherzer use to evaluate themselves would show Sale that he has been every bit as effective as that pair in 2015. Some pitchers may find value in choosing to understand and interpret the wide array of information now available to them, but there’s no indication that one necessarily has to pitch smarter to pitch well.
The continued success of pitchers like Scherzer, Greinke, Archer and Keuchel may suggest the benefits that come from knowing everything possible about their craft, but it’s not fair to this generation of aces or any other one to say that the league’s top-tier pitching talent is getting smarter. The whole game is getting smarter, and pitchers — perhaps disproportionately so — are gaining from it. So much more information is now available in baseball that players must inevitably contend with it in some way, be it recognizing which of it most effectively helps measure and maintain success, or knowing when all of it is best left ignored.