Subtle tweaks elevate Greinke's game
Improved changeup, focus lead to Cy Young season
KANSAS CITY -- Zack Greinke was his usual low-key, understated self as he made his way through the aftermath of his selection as American League Cy Young Award winner.
The Royals right-hander endured, and that's probably the appropriate word in his case, a blizzard of interviews and questions with patience, politeness and honesty. Never mind that he'd much rather have been facing Twins star Joe Mauer again with the bases loaded.
Greinke, as he repeatedly mentioned after Tuesday afternoon's announcement, does not like attention. He just likes to pitch and play baseball. To his credit, though, the shy blond kid made his way through his obligations to the media and the fans throughout the season, from the time his fame skyrocketed nationally in the form of a Sports Illustrated cover.
As usual, he's most comfortable and best when discussing pitching, and in the post-Cy Young round of discussions (three sessions, one each for print, radio and TV), he covered some interesting points.
Known for carefully analyzing the in-game approaches of other fine pitchers such as Cy Young rivals Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, Greinke revealed that he also did some one-on-one brain-picking during the season.
He recalled talking to two opposing pitchers "that were amazing. One of them's stuff is not that great, but I always think his mind-set is so amazing." Frankly, Greinke wasn't so sure about what the first guy told him but then the second pitcher gave him virtually the same theory.
"His thing was, 'I just think of one pitch. I just think of the next pitch. If I just give up a grand slam, I try to forget it as soon as possible and just focus on the next pitch,'" Greinke said. "And after I heard it from both those guys on back-to-back days, it kind of changed my thought process a lot and I just tried to simplify things as much as possible."
That helped Greinke zero in on each pitch and not think back. He wouldn't identify the two pitchers, by the way.
"I don't know if they'd want their secrets known," he said.
Fellow Royals starter Brian Bannister got Greinke interested in some of his Sabremetrics excursions.
AL Cy Young Award Voting
|Zack Greinke, KC||25||3||134|
|Felix Hernandez, SEA||2||23||1||80|
|Justin Verlander, DET||1||9||14|
|CC Sabathia, NYY||2||7||13|
|Roy Halladay, TOR||11||11|
"My favorite one, besides facing individual batters, is FIP, which is kind of like walks to strikeouts and home runs given up," Greinke said. "So I try to get ahead of the count without leaving it run down the middle in a person's power zone, get ahead in the count. That helps me not walk guys, and then, when I get two strikes, I try to strike guys out. And that's how I try to pitch, to keep my FIP as low as possible."
FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. Now you know.
Whether it was picking brains or figuring FIP, Greinke simply found ways to sharpen his focus.
"The mind-set was a lot better, and facing hitters over and over again, you kind of learn from your mistakes and just try to not to make mental mistakes," he said. "By having some really bad years, you see a lot of things that don't work. ... My mind just got a lot better this year where I had the right mind-set going into each game and just limited my mistakes, especially in key situations."
Greinke, who returned from a social anxiety disorder and then endured a second stretch in the Minors, also spent most of his first season back with the Royals in the bullpen. That was in 2007, and that proved to be a very advantageous adventure.
Greinke noted that, even as a high school kid and during his early years in the Minors, he always had excellent control.
"Once I went to the bullpen, my stuff got a lot better, but my control got a little worse. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't as good as it used to be," Greinke said. "And it slowly got to where I could control the better stuff a little more. The slider I finally got to where I could throw it consistently. And the curveball, in the past I could throw eight good ones and two would be nowhere near, and now it's more like 19 out of 20 will at least stay out of the hitter's power zone."
So Greinke emerged with better stuff, which he also learned to control. Then, after a full and successful year of starting in 2008, he came to '09 Spring Training intent on refining his changeup. That gave him another weapon to augment his fastball.
"It's a feel pitch, and by the end of the year, it wasn't even the same changeup as Spring Training. It's really one pitch that hasn't come naturally at all to me," Greinke said. "The slider is easy for me to throw, the curveball has always been easy for me to throw near the strike zone, but the changeup, I just haven't had a feel for it. ... You've just got to throw it as much as possible, and Spring Training is a good time because the games don't mean anything."
Greinke said he wants to get to the point where next season, he'll throw the changeup 10 to 15 times a game.
When the Cy Young voters gave Greinke an overwhelming endorsement with 25 of 28 first-place votes, all of his preparations paid off with a prized trophy and a $100,000 incentive bonus. Even so, he doesn't claim perfection.
"I make a bunch of mistakes every game," he insisted. "Not quite repeating mechanics and getting a little tired here and there and just not staying strong every game through the course of the year. But the main goal was focus on every pitch and not give in to any batter the whole entire year. I felt like if I didn't make mistakes and beat myself, the results were going to end up being good by the end of the year. And I felt like I did that as good as I possibly could."
So Greinke got through his big day and headed for another one on Saturday when all he has to say is "I do" to Emily Kuchar. Then they're off for a three-week honeymoon in Hawaii and some quiet time.
"I'm not bringing my phone and I'm trying to convince her to do the same," he said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.