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Zack Greinke’s inability to miss bats hasn’t cost him, yet

A complete lack of swing-and-miss stuff may not bode well for the senior member of the Astros starting rotation.

Houston Astros v Los Angeles Angels Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

Zack Greinke recorded just four swinging strikes in yesterday’s outing versus the Rangers, a club that is 21st in Whiff rate at the plate. It’s a tidbit that is emblematic of the 37-year-old veteran’s contact-oriented approach this year, which, while successful so far, isn’t ideal.

Greinke surrendered six runs (all earned) in the four innings he pitched in Arlington. He allowed nine hits and struck out one while walking a pair. It was only the second time all season he had walked more batters than he struck out, but the fact that such a performance occurred against one of the league’s doormats is disconcerting, especially when the postseason is roughly a month away.

The regression of Greinke’s swing-and-miss profile has gone mostly unnoticed in 2021, perhaps because he’s maintained his usual quality as a league-average or better starter.

The swinging strike is king nowadays, and Greinke ranks poorly when it comes to inducing them. A year after posting an above-average Whiff rate, the crafty righty is now in the bottom 20 percent in all of baseball in that department.

The difference in 2021 is the changeup. In 2020, Greinke’s was one of the best — it consistently missed bats and generated mediocre contact on the ground. The latter remains true now, but the former does not.

Although his change is not a lesser offering in terms of velocity or movement this year, its steep decline in Whiff rate has led to a significant decrease in Greinke’s overall Whiff rate. Fortunately, the lack of whiffs hasn’t negated the pitch’s viability — according to Statcast’s Run Values, it’s still highly effective.

That being said, the substantial downward trend in whiffs has resulted in what would be Greinke’s lowest strikeout rate in over a decade. It’s made the former first-round pick rather vulnerable. Although he is one of the finest command artists in the major leagues and is generally not hit hard, an element of fragility in Greinke’s profile has quietly been an underlying issue throughout the season and has been exposed in occasional starts, with yesterday’s game being a prime example.

Pitching to contact in an era where home runs are prevalent doesn’t seem terribly smart. Perhaps it’s not an intentional strategy on Greinke’s part, as his stuff is not what it used to be, and at this point in his career he has to adapt to whatever works. Being a finesse hurler hasn’t hampered his output, but only in 2021 has he had to maneuvere through lineups without a decent strikeout rate.

The Astros do have one of baseball’s best defenses, but generally speaking, the fewer balls put in play by opposing hitters, the better. That’s simply not happening when Greinke is on the mound.

If nothing else, it puts a cloud over what he’s capable of come October, when many of the game’s top offenses will take center stage.

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant