Zack and Strikeouts (and Ten Who Missed!)
OK, before getting into the bizarro season Zack Greinke is having, I want to let you know that “Ten Who Missed” is coming. I’m working hard on it now, and it’s one of the most ambitious (bananas) things I’ve done here on Joe Blogs — I’m writing it like a little book. I think you’ll like it.
“Ten Who Missed” is a companion to The Baseball 100 — as the name suggests, it will feature 10 players who just missed The Baseball 100 (and those 10 players were chosen by you in a survey that Tom Tango and I did a little while ago). Oh, and while I say it’s 10 players — it might be more than that. Not to give anything away.
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Zack Greinke has struck out seven batters so far in 2022. We’re not even a month into this season, so everything that follows has the small-sample size warning label on it. But I think we’re far enough into the season to say that Greinke is doing something really odd.
He’s trying to get batters out without strikeouts.
Let’s give you a few numbers to get the ball rolling. Greinke has struck out seven batters in 28 innings. That’s a 6.5% strikeout rate. Perhaps it’s even more impressive to say that’s 2.25 strikeouts per nine innings. Obviously, that’s by far the lowest ratio in baseball — nobody is even close.
Fewest strikeouts per nine innings for starters in 2022:
Zack Greinke, 2.25
Cal Quantrill, 4.09
Chris Flexen, 5.63
Cole Irvin, 5.86
Daulton Jefferies, 5.92
The last qualified starter with that few strikeouts per nine innings for a full season was a guy named Nate Cornejo in 2003. Remember Nate? You might not — he pitched for the Tigers in the early 2000s. That season, 2003, was his only full season as a starter. He pitched 236 innings and struck out 46 batters. That’s 2.13 Ks per nine. Impressive.
Cornejo went 6-17 with a 4.67 ERA — that’s obviously not great, but it could have been a whole lot worse. He only kept his ERA that low because he didn’t walk many people and he allowed just 18 home runs all season. Cornejo should have gotten a medal for that season.
Before Nate Cornejo, the last pitcher with a K/9 as low as Greinke’s is … Well, let’s just say you have to go way back. Like WAY back. Like I figured for sure that one of those “pitch to contact” pitchers of the 1980s — Tommy John, Ed Lynch, Paul Splittorff, Mike Flanagan, Bill Swift — would have matched Greinke.
But no, you have to go back to 1978, and a delightful flake named Bill Lee. He struck out 44 batters in 177 innings. A year earlier, a soft-tossing lefty named Ross Grimsley, the son of ANOTHER soft-tossing lefty named Ross Grimsley II, struck out 53 in 218 innings.
And if you keep on going back you will find a few starters — BUT ONLY A FEW — who struck out as few batters as Greinke is striking out this season, people like Stubby Overmire and Bob Shaw and Spec Shea and Howie Fox and Steve Kline and, particularly, Hank Wyse, who was known as “Hooks” because of his curveball and in 1950 struck out just 33 batters in 170 innings.
Fun fact about Hooks Wyse: That year he walked 87 batters, and his 33-to-87 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the worst for any qualified starter in baseball history.
The point is that Greinke is basically trying to do something that hasn’t been done before — pitch effectively while simply not striking anybody out. Leave it to Zack to try something like that.
How would someone go about trying pitch effectively while not striking out anybody? I guess it would take three things:
You can’t give up home runs (and certainly not home runs with runners on base).
You can’t walk anybody.
You have to find a way to give up soft contact.
I’m not sure how you can do the third one without at least the threat of a strikeout. But so far, anyway, Greinke is doing great with the first two. He’s walked three batters all year. And he’s given up two home runs, and both of them were solo shots.
He’s doing the third one too … so far this season, his BABIP — Batting Average on Balls in Play — is .237, which would be far and away the lowest of his career. You will get a whole lot of disagreement about how much control a pitcher has over BABIP, so I don’t know what you can make of this.
But at this moment, Greinke has a 2.57 ERA even with those seven strikeouts.
A feat like this, even for just a few games, would have been impossible the last few years, with home runs flying out of the park left and right — you simply could not get away with letting hitters put that many balls in play. But now with the dead baseball, I don’t know, it’s unlikely that he can keep this going, but it would be so great if he did.
I should add that even with Greinke’s ERA, the Royals have lost four of the five starts he’s made — on Monday, he lost 1-0 for the second time already this season. Zack Greinke is many things, but boring isn’t one of them.