The Mets face a stiff challenge in Game 5 of the NLDS. Zack Greinke is a legitimate candidate for the 2015 NL Cy Young, having an even better season than the more heralded Clayton Kershaw. His success comes from consistently throwing strikes, pitching inside and keeping the ball down. He gives up very few home runs, and while not considered a strikeout pitcher, he gets almost nine strikeouts per nine innings.
Greinke has always been a very good pitcher, but he has gone to a different level this year. He features a fastball with a lot of downward movement to go with a sharp slider and disappearing change-up. In 2015 he’s using an improved change-up even more, especially against left-handed hitters. Opposing hitters have always batted in the low .200’s against his four-seam fastball and well below .200 against his slider, but the batting average against his change-up has gone from the .274-.313 range to .160 in 2015.
To go along with a varied repertoire of plus pitches, Greinke’s has a solid approach, living just outside of the zone, where he gets a high swing and miss rate. In 2015, Greinke only ranks #75 in percentage of pitches in the zone, but #13 in swinging strike percentage. He gets batters to go fishing.
Another astounding stat for Greinke in 2015 is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which leads the league in 2015 at a microscopic .232. In his career that number is .301. Some of the decrease can be attributed to his stuff and varied approach, but it also suggests that hitters have not yet adjusted to him.
In 2015, Greinke has thrown his four-seam fastball 32 percent of the time. It is more of a swing-and-miss pitch against right-handed batters, where he also throws a slider 51 percent of the time. Both pitches are more often than not thrown down and in which is his happy zone. Against left-handed batters he switches from a slider to the change-up, which he throws 47 percent of the time.
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Against the Mets in Game 2 he threw more fastballs than usual, relying less on the off-speed and breaking pitches. At the same time, he threw a first pitch fastball only 30 percent of the time versus his 59 percent season average. He also threw slightly less first pitch strikes than usual – only 57 percent versus his season average of 64 percent. Being the wily veteran that he is, Greinke made adjustments against the Mets in Game 2.
With two strikes he reversed the trend and threw more fastballs than usual, especially to left-handed batters – 47 percent versus 37 percent. Greinke in effect pitched backwards to the Mets. Luckily, he made two mistakes with fastballs while even or behind in the count and they were able to take advantage.
Those two mistakes led to the Mets’ only scoring, thanks to two solo home runs. Yoenis Cespedes fouled off two-strike pitches to battle back to a 2-2 count, then hit a fastball up and out for an opposite field home run. The always-patient Michael Conforto then hit a 2-1 fastball down the middle for a 2-0 lead. But that would be it for the Mets.
It’s an educated guess, but I expect Greinke to go back to more fastballs early in the count, and I expect more first pitch strikes. As a result, I think the Mets should be aggressive early, and not take strike one. This is not to be confused with being undisciplined. Rather than guessing at the pitch, Mets hitters should isolate a zone, looking inside. Let Greinke have the outside half of the plate if he wants it, until it’s time to protect with two strikes.
Greinke always pounds hitters down and in, especially right-handed hitters. This tendency only becomes more extreme when he’s ahead in the count, and those pitches more often become change-ups and sliders. The Mets should not concern themselves with pitch count. They should be putting fastballs in play early if they get their pitch.
During the Game 4 telecast on TBS, Cal Ripken thought he could sum up the Mets’ offensive mantra by saying they were patient until they got two strikes on them. This is an over-simplification. Kevin Long has always preached discipline, but if the first pitch of the at-bat is your pitch, you should be hacking.
Curtis Granderson is only a career .192 hitter against Greinke, but he came out swinging in Game 2 and went 2 for 3. Daniel Murphy is a career .308 hitter against Greinke, in part because he’s taking his hacks. Lucas Duda comes in at .250 versus Greinke, but went 0-3 in Game 2. Duda looks like he’s guessing at the plate and is too passive right now. Not a good approach against Greinke.
This is one time when the Mets will miss Juan Uribe. He is a .250 career hitter against Greinke with a home run, and would have slotted in nicely at second base with Murphy moving over to first. Greinke’s lefty/righty splits are basically equal (and equally impressive), so it’s not a question of lefty/righty match-ups as much as it is a matter of approach. Duda may be a left-handed bat, but if he doesn’t come out aggressive he’s not going to have a good night. Uribe is nothing if not aggressive.
Falling behind against Greinke is not going to yield positive results. Here’s hoping the Mets come out swinging the bats early, while at the same time not falling into Greinke’s trap and expanding the zone. It will quickly become obvious whether the Mets plan to take the aggressive approach. Hopefully the proof comes in the form of an early lead.