DETROIT -- No one, not even Brad Ausmus, was expecting Shane Greene to be this dominant this early in the season. For such an inexperienced pitcher to go 21 2/3 innings without allowing an earned run -- and just one in 23 innings -- it's a rare thing indeed. And it hadn't been done by a Detroit Tigers starter since Jack Morris did it in 1984, the last time the Tigers won the World Series.
Greene is soft-spoken, doesn't talk a whole lot, and has a quiet presence about him in the clubhouse. Ask him to talk about himself, his pitching, or anything in between will typically produce limited results. On the mound, Ausmus remarked that the 26-year-old right-handed starter has "laser focus," and the results have spoken for themselves.
"The first three starts, I don't know that I expected him to be this efficient, throw this many strikes," Ausmus said. "A young guy, I didn't realize he was going to be able to pound the strike zone the way he has, and I hope it continues."
Following a strong spring training in 2014, Greene was sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre until he was called up on Wednesday, April 9, 2014, asked to pitch in relief when Yankees closer David Robertson landed on the disabled list. He pitched 1/3 of an inning on April 24, but wouldn't make his first start until July 7. He finished the season with a 3.78 ERA and struck out over a batter per inning in 78 2/3 innings-pitched.
But before all that, the righthander went through a rough patch. In 2008, when Greene was attending the University of West Florida under scholarship, he was told he would need Tommy John surgery. Greene's scholarship was taken away following the surgery, so he went to Daytona Beach Community College until he was drafted in 2009 in the 15th round by the Yankees. In the minors, he struggled, and mightily, until he found the strike zone.
Shane Greene off to a spectacular start
Tigers starter Shane Greene has now pitched 16 inning without an earned run to open the season. No one else in baseball has matched him.
"Strikes. It's been my backbone since day one," Greene said. "When I was struggling in the minor leagues, I couldn't throw the ball over the plate. I was walking four or five, six guys every time I got on the mound. Once I figured out how to throw strikes, I started to get better."
Every pitcher does have his limits, and Greene's seems to rest somewhere around the 100-pitch mark. He got off to a shaky start on Sunday, tossing 17 pitches in the first inning. Most of his initial pitches missed the strike zone. Once Greene found that strike zone again, quick outs happened and the innings went by in a hurry.
Greene went eight innings in each of his last two starts, tossing 85 and 81 pitches, respectively. That the righty can pitch so deeply into two games on such a low pitch count speaks to his level of efficiency. Of note, on both of Greene's last starts Ausmus noted that he could tell Greene was tiring, and that was the case again Sunday.
"He was good," Ausmus said. "He threw strikes, forced them to make contact, got some big double plays when he needed them. I think he got a little tired near the end, even though he was just at 100 pitches. Flowers was going to be his last guy either way."
How well Greene has been pitching these last three starts isn't really a fluke, though, at least from the numbers he put up last year when he started for the New York Yankees. He dominated the Tigers in two starts last season, allowing a combined two runs on 10 hits in 15 innings pitched.
The Tigers rolled the dice with a couple of the players they acquired in the offseason, one being Anthony Gose, and Greene being another. One season of dominance is not something you can count on for a guarantee, but the Tigers thought that based on how well Greene was able to shut down their offense, facing the AL Central Division would be a safe bet. They're hoping that continues as the 2015 season progresses. So far it seems to be paying off.
"Greene was a little bit more of a wild card, not as much of a finished product," Ausmus said. "We don't know wholly what we've got yet until we got a whole season with him, but we certainly liked what we saw from him when we faced him."
With all that said, it's not just Greene pitching with command against opposing teams. Excluding Anibal Sanchez's blowout loss on Saturday, the Tigers' starting rotation has pitched a combined 76 2/3 innings and given up just 17 runs (13 earned) on 58 hits. That equates to a minuscule 1.54 ERA after 11 games played. Granted, it is an extremely small sample size and it does leave out Sanchez's rough outing, but otherwise, the majority of those starts went at least seven innings in length.
And the bullpen? Other than the ninth inning, it's rarely been needed. The two times they made an appearance, only Blaine Hardy has shown signs of repeated struggles early in the season. Currently the bullpen has the fifth-best FIP in the major leagues, which stands at 2.43. Current closer Joakim Soria has been lights out, putting up a 1.59 ERA in seven appearances, allowing just earned run in a non-save situation during a 9-6 win over the Cleveland Indians.
The Tigers have played 11 games. There are still months of baseball to play. Whether Greene can sustain his efficiency and dominance against opposing hitters has yet to be determined. The 2015 chapter is still largely unwritten, not only for Greene but also the rest of the Tigers rotation. Having an impressive defense behind the mound has also gone a long way in erasing many of the threats against Detroit.
For all that optimism, Sanchez's latest outing was troubling. Giving up five home runs before the end of April isn't just a fluke, it's a trend, and one that is concerning. The problem is one of mechanics, not pitch sequencing -- though it has warranted further review -- pitching coach Jeff Jones told the Detroit News' Chris McCosky, one they're currently working on fixing.
"It was kind of in and out," Jones said. "We are trying to get him to use his legs a little more. He was a little bit upright on some pitches, then he'd start to use his legs a little bit better and then he'd go back to being upright."
Greene is just one part of the equation and it's going to take much more than one pitcher to make it to the postseason. Oh, and don't forget that Justin Verlander is still working his way back from the disabled list with an upper medial triceps strain. Add him to a rotation in place of a minor league spot starter, and the Tigers have the makings of what could be an unshakable rotation.
"(Greene) threw well in spring training after his first start and he's carried it into the season," Jones said after Sunday's 9-1 win. "He's very aggressive in the strike zone. He goes after ever hitter and he doesn't mess around. He walked a couple guys at the end because I think he got too with his delivery. We've obviously liked what we've seen so far."