Zack Greinke has been good, but also very lucky

Zack Greinke will enter the All-Star break with an ERA of 1.39 after shutting out the Philadelphia Phillies for eight innings on Thursday night. Riding a scoreless innings streak of 35.2 innings, Greinke is the first pitcher since 1968 — dubbed the Year of the Pitcher — when Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant, and Don Drysdale all entered the break with sub-1.40 ERAs. For what it’s worth, Gibson wrapped up the year with a 1.12 ERA, the lowest in the modern era.

Greinke is clearly having a good year, but a fair amount of luck has contributed to his historic start to 2015. For his career, Greinke has a 3.41 ERA and a 3.34 FIP, meaning that his ability to prevent runs throughout his career is on par with what the deeper metrics predict. This season, Greinke’s 1.39 ERA is well over a full run below his FIP of 2.65, which is still very good. Most of this steep drop off from FIP to actual ERA is due to the fact that Greinke has allowed only a .235 BAbip — 70 points below his career average. This has been the primary player in his league leading 6.1 H/9 and .191 BAA.

On the season, Greinke has allowed a minuscule .073 batting average on fly balls, and a nearly equally tiny .170 average on groundballs. Those numbers both pale in comparison to his career averages of .201 and .228, respectively. One thing he has done effectively is reduce the line drives allowed, down nearly five percent from last season’s 22.8% to this year’s 18.1%. Nearly all of that gap has been absorbed by Greinke’s fly ball percentage. Generally speaking, line drives have a better chance of touching grass than fly balls, which partly explains away the drop in BABIP. Throughout his career, Greinke has been able to limit the percentage of his fly balls that turn into home runs at a clip below the league average, so the fact that he is allowing only 4.9% of fly balls to leave the yard is not extremely shocking. In 2009, the year he posted a 2.16 ERA, his HR/FB ratio was even lower, at 3.5%.

As a quick side note, and opportunity to plug Clayton Kershaw‘s bid for biggest All-Star snub, consider the fact that Kershaw’s ERA is a bad-for-him 2.85 due mostly to the fact that he allowed a .384 BABIP in April. Kershaw is striking out a career-high 11.7 per nine, and has been just as dominant as ever. Take away some bad luck on his part in the first two months of the season, and Kershaw has a very Kershaw-esque 1.72 ERA once the ball has started landing as the numbers tell you it would.

Perhaps the most glaring way in which Greinke has been lucky this year is in the way the schedule has lined up. On the year, he has faced the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and San Diego Padres a combined ten times — Murderer’s Row? I think not. In those ten starts, Greinke has allowed just seven earned runs in 72 innings. If you are reasonably adept with a calculator, you can figure out that works out to a 0.88 ERA. On the year, Greinke has made only five starts against teams with a winning record, but to be fair, he does have a 1.10 ERA in those starts. The only team that has really figured him out this year is the Colorado Rockies, who have scored a whopping nine runs off Greinke in 18.2 innings.

Greinke is not doing anything spectacularly different than in years past. He is throwing roughly the same percentage of fastballs, curveballs, and changeups. His average fastball velocity of a tick below 92 is exactly where it was last year. Opponents are whiffing at a slightly higher rate at most of his pitches this year, but his strikeout rate is actually at nearly career-low levels. Greinke has gone to an 0-1 count 49.8% of the time this year, which matches his career average right on the nose. Plain and simple, he is not doing anything dramatically different this year from his entire career, nor has he drastically altered his approach to pitching. If you want to try and find something that helps explain the steep drop in ERA this year for Greinke, he has located in the bottom half of the zone a touch higher than throughout his career, but not enough to explain a 70 point drop in BABIP.

Greinke, ever the student of the game, is as aware as anyone that he has benefited from some luck:

This article is not meant to take anything away from the incredible start to 2015 that Greinke has given the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has pitched very well, luck or not, and it could not have come at a better time for the 31-year-old, as he can opt out of his contract following the season. Good luck or not, a sub-2.00 ERA talks when hammering out a new contract, and Greinke still has a good bit of wiggle room to stay under that significant barrier.

Ultimately, Zack Greinke will see his scoreless innings streak come to an end. His ERA will likely rise as well. In 1968, Louis Tiant saw his second half ERA rise to 2.13 after posting a 1.24 ERA before the break. Don Drysdale had an even greater spike in ERA, from 1.37 in the first half to 3.65 in the second half. Just how much Greinke’s ERA will rise depends on how much longer his luck keeps up and whether or not the second half scheduling gods were just as kind (the Dodgers do draw the Phillies, Braves, and Mets again in the second half, but whether Greinke will get the chance to face them is still up in the air). With continued soft contact on fly balls, and a few more starts against the dregs of the National League, Greinke’s historic run could see its way to the end of the season.

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