Shane Greene is the best pitcher in baseball at the moment. In two starts, he has pitched 16 innings, allowing no earned runs, while striking out eight batters and walking just one. Certainly, two starts are hardly enough to draw strong conclusions. Still, the general excitement over Greene is quickly reaching a fever pitch after two brilliant outings against the Minnesota Twins and Pittsburgh Pirates to open the season. Best of all, there are good signs that it may continue.
There were certainly reasons to keep our expectations modest this season. Greene had never pitched at the major league level until the second half of the 2014 season. He didn't arrive on the scene with the heralded pedigree of a top prospect either, having languished in obscurity for five seasons without ever pitching beyond the Double-A level. It wouldn't have shocked too many to find that Greene's breakout with the New York Yankees was just an illusion.
The sober expectation for Greene in 2014 was simply for him to consistently eat innings at the back of the Tigers' rotation. My personal hopes for him were much higher, as they were for many others who saw him pitch last season in a Yankees uniform. The dominance on display in his first two starts may soon prove harbingers of a breakout talent in the Tigers' rotation.
The main improvement fueling Shane Greene's emergence has been in his command over his full arsenal. As recently as 2012, Greene posted a full season walk rate of 5.06 batters per nine innings in Single-A ball. His improvement over the next two seasons, cutting those walks down to reasonable levels, was his ticket to the majors.
The development of his command may in part be the result of finally having the repetitions under his belt after losing a year recovering from Tommy John surgery early in his college career. But another key factor was a change in confidence and attitude illustrated in a quote Greene gave after his first major league start last July, stating that, "I kept telling myself I'd rather give up a home run than a walk." That sounds like something David Price or Justin Verlander would say, but the crux is in mentally living up to it. The aggression and trust to simply turn the ball loose and throw the pitch that's called, without regard for potential consequences is perhaps the highest hurdle that holds many young pitchers back. Thus far in his two starts this season, Greene has simply pounded the strikezone 73 percent of the time, issuing only one free pass.
The most tantalizing development in comparison to last season is his confidence in throwing his improving changeup to left-handed hitters. Throughout his career Greene has struggled mightily against lefties, and a good changeup is typically the best antidote for a righthander to combat them. This is an area that Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones stressed above all else in spring training with regard to Greene. A good changeup with fastball arm-speed and late fade is a key to any righthander's success against left-handed batters. In spring training, and after years of constant experimentation with his grip, Greene finally found one that is comfortable to him.
That level of comfort has been apparent in the early going. Greene has started lefties off with the changeup 32 percent of the time, compared to not a single changeup to right-handed hitters. In addition he's taken some velocity off the pitch, creating better separation between it and his fastball, which should continue to generate more whiffs from lefties. If he's able to settle in with the new grip over the course of the year, you can bet that his overall success is going to be strongly correlated to that one pitch.
Finally, credit has to be given to a substantially improved defense. Greene has always induced a ton of groundballs with his hard sinker, and has consistently dominated right-handed hitters as a result. With Jose Iglesias now paired with Ian Kinsler in the Tigers' middle infield, and at least marginal improvement from Nick Castellanos and a now healthy Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers appear much stronger against groundballs than in seasons past. Certainly they should prove more effective than the defense the Yankees had behind Greene last season. At least marginal indications of an increased willingness by the Tigers to employ strong defensive shifts to pull hitters may also factor in Greene's success this season.
The 2015 baseball season is barely underway. It would be extremely rash to predict that Shane Greene is now a top-tier starting pitcher. But last season's breakout was underpinned by solid peripherals that Greene has carried into a new season. We can at least be convinced that Shane Greene is no fluke. Whether Detroit Tigers' president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has hit another home run, acquiring a future elite starter just as they hit their stride, remains to be seen. But it appears very likely that at worst, the Tigers' have a long-term, cost controlled young starter who will be very productive for the team for years to come. And if that changeup is for real, perhaps much more.