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Surviving without velocity: A look at Zack Greinke’s success

The 37-year-old legend has kept his elite status with the Astros and often fools hitters despite having a fastball that averages 88.5 MPH in 2021. A deep dive on Greinke’s miracle!

League Championship - Tampa Bay Rays v Houston Astros - Game Four Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There was a time when Zack Greinke could go up to 95-96 miles per hour with his fastball and didn’t have to worry about being a control freak, having a zillion pitches in his repertoire, or painting the strike zone a la Greg Maddux.

But time did its thing and Greinke began losing that overwhelming velocity. Hitters saw how his 94.4 MPH four-seam fastball from 2009 progressively decreased its speed to 88.5 MPH on average in 2021.

And, hey, it’s normal to see that happening. Greinke’s been around for a while (18 seasons) and is turning 38 years old on October 21. And it’s even more worthy of applause the fact that there are not too many pitchers that dominate at the age of 37.

Greinke has reinvented himself to stay in the game, earn good contracts, and keep building a Hall-of-Fame career. He’s become a crafty pitcher with several weapons that go, on average, from 71.5 to 88.5 MPH.

It’s impressive how Greinke seems to have a variety of pitches out of THE SAME PITCH. He uses his arsenal to fool hitters changing speeds and with different locations. For example, his fastball has gone from 87.0 this season to 91.2 MPH, depending on the environment he’s in.

Baseball Savant

Did you see the image above? Those red dots are every fastball he’s thrown this season, and that’s where his changeup comes into play. That pitch remains invisible for hitters —last year, it generated a 46.2 whiff% and this time, after his first two appearances, it’s 33.3%— and there’s a reason why.

When your fastball averages 88.5 MPH and your changeup 86.8 MPH, hitters can’t see the difference. Also, another reason for his success using both pitches is the location. While he throws his four-seamer everywhere on the strike zone, take a look at his changeup’s heatmap from 2020 and 2021...

Baseball Savant

The best part of his changeup and its location is the average exit velocity. So far in 2021, it’s 73.1 MPH. That’s the lowest mark on changeups in MLB for pitchers with a minimum of five batted events with that pitch, according to Baseball Savant. Small sample size, but still pretty impressive.

And then there’s his third magical delivery to create huge deception: A 71.5-MPH curveball, which he began 2021 throwing in the strike zone.

Even though those are three different pitches, it’s common for hitters to look like the Angels on Greinke’s April 6 outing...

Of course, that curveball has been the slowest pitch thrown for any pitcher —not position player— in 2021: This one to José Rojas clocked at 61.1 MPH...

Fortunately, instead of showing signs of decline, Greinke’s dominance has been steady for the Astros. This time, he’s off to a wonderful start thanks to getting ahead of counts (75.6 1st pitch strike %), soft contact (87.2 MPH), control of his pitches (2.2 BB%), and lots of inoffensive flyballs (16 of his 36 batted balls have gone to the air, 14 outs) like most of the ones in the following spray chart...

Baseball Savant

While we are fortunate to still have Greinke around, let’s keep enjoying what he does. With a 1.38 ERA over 13 innings of eight hits and two earned runs, so far, so good to start the last year of his contract.