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Friday, March 11, 2005

Old-Pitcher Skills?

Probably the most anticipated aspect of the upcoming baseball season for Royals fans is the performance of sophomore pitcher Zack Greinke. In his rookie season Greinke at the tender age 20 was clearly the Royals best pitcher. In 24 starts he pitched 145 innings surrendering 143 hits while walking only 26 (1.67 per nine innings) and striking out 100. His only nemesis was the long ball – he gave up 26 – which helped push his ERA to 3.97.

Royals fans have a right to be excited as he’s been compared to a young Greg Maddux or Bret Saberhagen. In sabermetric circles Baseball Prospectus, a publication not known or its positive endorsements, had this to say.

“With apologies to Jon Landau, we have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke…In the last 70 years, only three pitchers as young as Grienke walked fewer than 2.1 men per 9 innings. Two of them were Bert Blyleven and Bret Saberhagen…He has excellent mechanics, has never thrown 110 pitches in a game, and since he rarely throws at maximum velocity, he’s about as low an injury risk as any young pitcher in the game…His profile is so unique that trying to project his future is a fool’s errand.”

The uniqueness of that profile led, despite the warning given above, the PECOTA forecasting system created by Nate Silver and published in BP to predict that there is a 23% that Greinke’s sophomore season will be a breakout type year, a 63% chance he’ll improve, and a 0% chance he’ll collapse.

Although the future certainly looks bright for Greinke there are some, like myself, who wonder at just how high his upside is. Having watched Greinke pitch a number of games last season I think it’s accurate to say that his strengths are his ability to change speeds, he’ll often throw pitches as fast as 94 and slow as 63 to the same batter with a couple of 70s and 80s thrown in, and his ability to locate his cut and four seam fastball. Given his age, these two skills are phenomenal.

And that’s just where my cautious optimism about Greinke comes in.

In sabermetric circles it has been noted that players with “old-hitter skills” don’t tend to age well. In this context old-hitter skills typically include power and control of the strikezone coupled with average or below average speed and defensive ability suitable for the left-end of the defensive spectrum. These kinds of players tend to peak early and decline rapidly as their physical skills fade. I’ve done some analysis in the past of how hitters age and have now found this nice piece by David Luciani that summarizes some of the same ground.

While this is not a perfect analogy by any means (essentially because "old-pitcher skills" are not negative as are some "old-hitter skills") I think what Greinke has in abundance are “old-pitcher skills”. The ability to locate his pitches and change speeds are skills that one normally finds in crafty veteran pitchers who have had to adjust to declining physical skills or injuries. Pitchers like Frank Tanana, who became an off-speed pitcher after being loaded with innings early in his career, come to mind. What Greinke does not possess are skills which include velocity, movement, and an “out” pitch. These are the kinds of skills that often get young pitchers promoted in the hopes that they’ll develop control and “learn how to pitch”. By all accounts Greinke has already learned to pitch to a large degree and so his ceiling is not as high as a pitcher with comparable statistics who got the job done with a nasty slider and a 98 mile per hour fastball.

So in short, I’m not saying that Greinke won’t be even better in 2005. Indeed, his skills should serve to make him a much more consistent pitcher in the long run, a fact that PECOTA captured in its assessment that he has a 0% chance of collapse (along with his few innings at a young age, and no injury history). However, I am speculating that he is closer to his maximum performance at his young age than some people might think. Only time will tell of course.

What would really excite me as a Royals fan is if I saw him add two to four miles per hour on his fastball (which is not out of question by any means since he is so young) and develop a sharper breaking curve. Added to his skills, these weapons could transform him into a very consistent superstar pitcher. On a side note, this spring Greinke has shown uncharacteristic wildness in his two starts. Today in fact, he walked four batters in an inning and two-thirds.

While thinking about this idea I wanted to get a feel for how different abilities change with age for pitchers I looked at all pitchers after 1945 which comprised 23,358 seasons and compared the pitcher’s SO/9, BB/9, ERA, and HR/9 to the league average. I then weighted their rates by innings pitched and grouped by age. What I found proved out the idea that control increases with age. Of the measures I looked at only walks per nine innings decreased with age every year between the ages of 20 and 34 with a high 117% of league average at the age of 20 and 88% of league average at age 34. From age 35 on the rate stayed relatively constant. Strikeouts also decreased steadily with age from ages 20 (108%) to 32 (96%) and then held relatively steady through age 39.

Interestingly, homeruns per nine innings stayed almost constant never getting more than 1.5% away from league average.

Thanks to Ron Hostetter for inspiring this post…only one more week until Ron, his son, brother, my brother and father are soaking up the rays in the Cactus League.


Anonymous said...

He has collapsed. 1 win, 11 losses and a 6+ era as of the All Star Break.

What are the chances of recovery for this young man?

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