By Joe Lemire
The most consistently elite pitcher in baseball today wears a Dodgers uniform, but he throws with the opposite hand than the one you're thinking of. While left-hander Clayton Kershaw has been the most dominant starter of the past few seasons, the right-handed Zack Greinke -- known for his careful study and for maxing out his potential -- has outperformed his more well-compensated teammate over the last 10 months.
Greinke, 30, has such a reputation for thoughtful preparedness among his peers that choosing the Dodgers in free agency prompted another pitcher to prioritize the club.
"I know Greinke did his homework, and he probably knew something," said reliever J.P. Howell last spring. Howell, who signed a one-year contract for the 2013 season just days after Greinke inked his six-year deal, continued, "He wasn't the ultimate reason, but the fact that he picked here says a lot. I know he's studying all these teams and trying to figure out which is the best fit. He saw something in these guys."
Greinke studied organizational depth charts and considered which franchises had the best chance to be annually competitive for the length of his contract. That Howell followed suit means, in other words, that Greinke is comparable to the better prepared half of a high school lab partnership. "That's right, I'm cheating off his sheet right now," Howell admitted with a laugh.
Until Thursday night's loss to the Mets, Greinke had gone 21 straight starts without allowing more than two runs, dating back to July 25, 2013. That was the longest such streak in MLB history, besting the previous record of 16 by Ferdie Schupp of the New York Giants, which spanned 1916-17 in the deadball era. Greinke, who has a majors-leading 1.76 ERA since the start of the streak, has still made 22 consecutive starts while yielding two or fewer earned runs.
On Thursday, Greinke's defense faltered behind him. He allowed three runs, but only one was earned. Asked whether the streak was meaningful to him, he replied with blunt indifference, as best as such a thing is possible.
"They keep changing the wording of it just to keep it as a streak," Greinke said after the game, "so I don't know."
(Indeed, there was some dispute as to when Greinke set the record, depending on whether the word "earned" was included; the Mets' postgame notes, which were distributed to the media while Greinke was being interviewed, included two separate entries on the streak(s), one labeled "Zack Greinke Runs" and the other tagged "Zack Greinke Earned Runs.")
Greinke's handling of his fielders' miscues was telling, too. When asked about the lapses, he insisted that his teammates had played "incredible defense" when he was pitching over the years.
"I used to complain about this stuff in Kansas City," he said, referring to his first seven big league seasons with the Royals, "and then I watched Roger Clemens give up a routine pop fly that the outfielder misplayed and turned into a double, and he found a way to get through the inning. That's how I look at it -- if you do your job, it's not going to cost you."
As Howell says, "It's his job and he takes it very serious[ly]."
Right now, Greinke is arguably pitching better than ever -- or at least his best since his 2009 AL Cy Young-winning campaign. His 2.01 ERA in 2014, if sustained, would be the lowest of his career, and would represent the fourth straight year he improved his ERA (and his contextually-adjusted ERA+, currently at 175). Greinke's strikeout rate of 10 per nine innings is the second-highest of his career and is 33 percent higher than last season's.
"How he maxes out his potential is incredible," Howell said. "It's a lesson for everyone in this clubhouse, especially pitchers -- we get to see it on a daily basis. It's not just start day. Start day is probably his easiest day, and in between is a lot of hard work... It's easy to skip a leg circuit or a workout when you're doing well. But, for him, no matter what he does [on the mound], he follows his process. That's unbreakable."
While the basics of his job -- getting outs, pitching deep into games -- have remained the same since the days of ol' Schupp (whose century-old streak Greinke supplanted), Greinke's methods of working have changed. Catcher A.J. Ellis tabbed him "imaginative" to a reporter recently, and there may be no better illustration of his mixing and matching in inventive ways than this: Hitters are swinging at more pitches out of the zone and fewer in the zone than ever before.
That statistic, courtesy of FanGraphs, suggests that batters are regularly getting fooled -- induced into swinging when they shouldn't and watching when they should offer.
"He throws the pitch he should, not the pitch he wants," Howell said, "which is a big difference between pitching and throwing."
While there appears to be a bit of improvisation when Greinke is residing on the mound, it's rooted in tireless pre-start studies.
"Zack sets up a good gameplan and knows what he can do well and what he's trying to do overall to each hitter," Los Angeles pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "Really I think that's No. 1, having a plan, and he executes it, plus he's got enough weapons to deal with pretty much anybody with what he has on that given day."
The usage of those weapons has varied considerably over the last few years -- and can vary from start to start, too. Greinke used to overpower hitters routinely. His four-seam fastball averaged 95.2 mph in 2007 but has declined by nearly half a point each season, down to 92.1 so far in '14, according to Brooks Baseball. Over that same timeframe, his dependence on the four-seamer has dipped, too, from 67.5 percent of all pitches to 34.0 percent.
Greinke has started throwing sinking two-seamers for a third of his fastballs. He has heavily upped the use of his changeup. He added and subsequently removed a cutter. He has diminished his reliance on his slider. His fastball command has been "excellent" in his pitching coach's estimation, and his slider on a good day is a "plus-plus" pitch.
Greinke declined a one-on-one interview about his evolution as a pitcher, telling a reporter that he had already given a few interviews on that topic. (Such frankness is common: For instance, he admitted last year that the Mariners' Felix Hernandez deserved a bigger contract than him because, quite simply, Hernandez was better.) Greinke has previously told Yahoo! Sports that he reduced his slider use somewhat to help preserve his arm, and Honeycutt believes that's also why he phased out the cutter.
"Obviously it can be an effective pitch, but I think he also maybe felt like it taxed his arm a little bit," Honeycutt said, "so that's a pitch he felt like, maybe, it was in his best interest of health to do away with."
Everything is done with careful consideration. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, Honeycutt recalled Greinke inquiring about where he had the most success when throwing changeups to right-handed hitters.
"His preparation's outstanding, with both video and [numbers]," Honeycutt said. "The information's there if you want to spend the time to do it."
As was noted by You Can't Predict Baseball on Twitter the other day, prior to his last start, Greinke's OPS -- while batting -- was higher than it was for any qualified Royals hitter. Honeycutt laughed when this fact was relayed to him, but it wasn't a laugh of a surprise. "[Greinke] goes up there with a plan even when he's hitting," he said.
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Joe Lemire is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer and current New York-based freelance writer who can be found on Twitter at @LemireJoe.