The biggest surprise of Detroit’s outstanding start to the season is Shane Greene — especially if you rely at all on Baseball Prospectus and its annual pre-season player prediction book.
Disrespected by Baseball Prognosticators
The BP ”Bible” described the twenty-six-year-old pitcher and his rookie season with the New York Yankees in 2014 as basically a fluke, saying that “perhaps one of the reasons people hate the Yankees is because of guys like Greene: 15th-round fringe relieving prospects with bad Triple A stats forced onto starting duties by injury” who nonetheless compiled a decent record in fourteen starts as a Yankee rookie. It concludes: “The track record and the comps both cry reliever, and not even a very good reliever.”
This wouldn’t be the first time Dave Dombrowski and his staff have proved to be a better evaluator of talent than the folks who write player prediction profiles for a living. But it might prove to be one of the most significant. In his first three starts as a Tiger, Greene pitched twenty-one scoreless innings before finally allowing a single run because J.D. Martinez butchered a hit into right field. He struck out eight and walked just one batter over his first two games, going eight innings each time and keeping his pitch count in the low-to-mid eighties. In his third start, against the White Sox, he returned to being somewhat closer to human, walking four in seven innings and throwing 102 pitches. After three starts he’s 3-0 with an ERA of 0.39 and a WHIP (walks+hits per inning) that measures 0.74. In other words, the best pitcher in baseball.
Who is this guy? Baseball Prospectus called him “either a madman or a genius,” noting that he has “six different pitches, “four of them unrecognizable,” the most effective a curve that drops like a slider — then warning it “might stop working tomorrow.” Other observers marvel at Greene’s command of his arsenal, including his two-seam and four-seam fastballs. In spring training, pitching coach Jeff Jones worked with Greene on his change-up — and now he’s throwing it much more often. It looks like mastering that pitch was the final piece in the puzzle. According to Alex Avila, Greene’s “stuff is flat-out nasty.”
Greene relies on craftiness, smarts, pitching to contact
Greene is a craftsman. Without overpowering velocity, he gradually learned during his four-year apprenticeship in the minor leagues how to fool hitters. BP pegged him as the kind of pitcher who — if he loses mastery of one or more of his offerings or opposing batters start figuring him out — could suddenly become hittable. But Greene has so many different effective pitches now, he’s tough to figure out. Besides nasty, the word most frequently used to describe him now is efficient. He doesn’t nibble or waste pitches and employs his arsenal to maximum effect.
Greene doesn’t have a high physical ceiling. However, it seems he has a high intellectual ceiling. His repertoire has gotten more complex and polished. He throws strikes, and when batters put the ball into play, they usually don’t hit it real hard. Of the mere twelve hits he allowed over his first twenty-three innings, only two — a double and a triple — have gone for extra bases.
The Tigers’ improved defense helps their pitchers, and Greene has benefited from numerous double plays turned behind him. He’s been lucky in terms of BABIP, for sure, but he’s also been effective in inducing a lot of weak contact — pop-ups, grounders, easy fly balls. He’s been, in short, a revelation.
It hasn’t been easy being Greene. His stock couldn’t have been very high after his rookie season in A ball in 2012 when he had a 5.84 ERA. His minor league record totaled 29-43 with a 4.39 ERA. Nobody was impressed.
Acquired by Tigers after shining against Detroit last season
But the Tigers discounted his track record after Greene personally shackled them last season. He threw eight shutout innings at Yankee Stadium against Detroit and followed that up with seven innings, allowing just two runs, at Comerica. They were shocked that New York was willing to let him go so easily. Dombrowski went to his favorite three-team trading partners and shipped Robbie Ray and A ball infielder Domingo Leyba to the Diamondbacks, and Arizona sent weak-hitting infielder Didi Gregorius to New York, where he has decidedly not been the second coming of Derek Jeter.
Since Dave D was so high on Ray a year ago when he traded Doug Fister for him (and Ian Krol and Steve Lombardozzi), you can view Greene as Fister’s replacement in the Detroit rotation — and if you do you’ll feel much better about the Fister trade. Cross your fingers and hope Baseball Prospectus muffed this one. It sure as hell looks like they did.