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Zack Greinke’s unfailing ability to be effective has been on full display in 2021

The Astros’ ace is fooling hitters in unexpected ways.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Greinke is baseball’s chameleon. After working well above 90 mph for much of his career, he’s had to operate below it the past three-plus years. His slider, once his go-to pitch, is now merely his fourth offering. In 2021, Greinke is missing fewer bats than ever before and is failing to induce as many chases as he used to. And yet, the veteran righty’s results remain impressive.

Though a significant decline in velocity has shaped the latter part of his career, Greinke is still one of baseball’s finest command artists and, at age 37, is more capable than most when it comes to pitching deep into games. Yesterday’s eight-inning, one-run outing against one of the league’s best teams in the Padres was sorely needed for the Astros, given the disastrous state of their bullpen. It was also a prime example of Greinke’s unconventional recipe for success this year.

His whiff rate against the Padres in Sunday’s win was a lowly 22 percent, but opposing hitters managed to hit only six balls hard off of the wily vet.

In regard to the former, Greinke’s whiff rate on the year is 21.9 percent — down by nearly 6 percent from 2020 — and is his lowest mark of the Statcast era (2015-). Last year, the changeup was Greinke’s only pitch that missed bats at an above-average clip. In fact, it was well above league-average at 46.6 percent, one of the highest figures for the pitch type among starting pitchers.

So far in 2021, that percentage has fallen dramatically to 31.5 percent.

But with that steep decline has come another. In terms of average exit velocity, Greinke’s changeup’s was 88.3 mph in 2020. It’s 83.9 in 2021. The pitch’s Expected Slugging Percentage (xSLG) is just .178, whereas last year it was .307. The data alterations to his changeup are emblematic of the different-yet-effective results Greinke’s arsenal has yielded as a whole.

In 2020, his four-seam fastball’s hard-hit rate was 45.6 percent. In 2021, it’s 28.4 percent. Only a few starters rank higher than Greinke in that regard. Unsurprisingly, his overall hard-hit rate is 29.9 percent, which again ranks near the top among starting pitchers.

Minimizing loud contact isn’t all that Greinke’s done this year. His weak contact rate of 5.6 percent is the highest it’s been since 2015, and after his barrel rate saw an uncharacteristic uptick in 2020, it’s come back down to 6.1 percent — the league average is 8.1 percent.

When pitchers allow more contact but of lesser quality, a good place to look is their chase rate. If they’re not missing bats, they must at least be fooling hitters into swinging at balls out of the strike zone so as to generate mediocre contact. That’s not exactly the case with Greinke, which makes his improved batted ball profile all the more peculiar.

The league-average chase rate is 26.9 percent, and though Greinke’s back above that threshold this year (28.6 percent) after being below it last year (26.3 percent), it’s not as high as one would expect, given the odd mixture of vanilla stuff and elite exit velos.

While there may not be one definitive explanation, an aspect of Greinke’s game that has notably changed is his pitch usage. In 2019 and 2020, he threw his loopy, low-70s curveball roughly 15 percent of the time. In 2021, he’s throwing it more than 20 percent of the time.

This development, concurrent with a slight increase in fastball velocity, could be making a tangible impact in regard to hitters’ balance at the plate. An increased awareness of Greinke’s hook could be a big reason why he’s rarely getting squared up.

In terms of sustainability concerns, there aren’t many. Descriptive stats such as xERA and FIP validate Greinke’s 3.67 ERA. Moreover, his BABIP and Expected Batting Average (xBA) fall in line with trends of recent years, quelling any fears of illegitimacy.

The Astros’ ace is as savvy as any pitcher in baseball and has an uncanny ability to adopt new approaches to generate outs. Many have questioned how long Greinke has before he finally ceases to pitch at a high level. Perhaps it’s not the right question anymore.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant