Shane Greene may have learned something about himself from his injury ravaged 2015 season. The average Detroit Tigers fan did not. After three great outings in April, the pseudo-aneurysm in an artery in Greene's throwing shoulder started taking its toll and he was never right from that point on. We never really got to see what a healthy Greene looked like.
The urge to add him to our protective amnesia regarding last season is probably the correct one. Greene has been largely forgotten this season as well. This year, it was Daniel Norris and Michael Fulmer capturing much of the preseason ink. Yet there's still a solid chance that it's actually Greene who makes the biggest impact on the Tigers' rotation this year. If he didn't have the fifth starter role locked up yet, a nine-strikeout, three-hit performance against the Baltimore Orioles' regular lineup on Wednesday will certainly seal the deal.
So far this spring, Greene has gone about his work pretty quietly. He mentioned early in camp that he was still occasionally dealing with a little numbness in his fingers, but that hasn't seemed to affect his performance. A 1.86 ERA over 19 1/3 innings should open some eyes. More impressive is his 23:4 ratio of strikeouts to walks.
Certainly, there are still caveats employed and expectations moderated where Greene is concerned, mostly due to his health. Greene did have Tommy John surgery at age 19, and that, combined with last year's issues, leave his arm health as an ongoing question mark. But his work this spring has served notice that, for the time being, he's in good shape. Reports are that his velocity is back up to his 2014 level. If he can pick up close to where he left off in 2014, the Tigers will find themselves with a huge boost to their pitching staff.
At his best, Greene is a ground ball machine, every bit as adept as Mike Pelfrey at putting his infield to work. The potential impact of the Tigers' infield for Pelfrey has been a popular topic, but Greene stands to benefit every bit as much. All ground ball pitchers deal with plenty of baserunners, but the Tigers were the highest rated defense in the game in turning double plays last season. A full, and hopefully more consistent, season of Jose Iglesias at shortstop should provide a powerful ally to the Tigers' pitching staff generally.
In some ways, Greene is the easier pitcher to believe in. He and Pelfrey posted nearly identical ground ball rates and batting average on balls in play in their last healthy action. While Greene gave more free passes in 2014, Pelfrey's 2015 season featured a walk rate well below normal for him. Greene wasn't very susceptible to the long ball until last year, while Pelfrey had a good year in that regard. Both pitchers have had arm trouble fairly recently with Pelfrey's elbow going under the knife in 2012. Each is capable of sitting between 93-95 miles per hour with the fastball. Other than experience, the starkest difference between them is that Greene has an electric slider, giving him a fine out pitch that Pelfrey doesn't possess.
While Pelfrey is a true sinkerballer, bowling a heavy, low-spin fastball in at the bottom of the zone, Greene gets his ground balls with a little more of a tailing two-seamer. The Yankees had Greene trying to mix in his four-seamer above the belt to give hitters a different look, but he didn't really have the kind of rise or velocity to make that an effective weapon in 2014. A similar experiment by the Boston Red Sox and Rick Porcello went miserably last season. Unless Greene suddenly has a little more zip, I don't expect to see him going upstairs more often than he needs to just to keep the possibility in a batter's head.
The pitch that is likely to be the key for Greene is his changeup. Greene's fastball/slider combination is enough to keep the lid on right-handed batters. But against lefties he allowed a wOBA of .345 in 2014. For the most part, Greene dealt with lefties by running his two-seamer away and then trying to bury his slider and curve down and in. While he managed to avoid major damage, his approach was pretty predictable, and over a full season likely to be exposed despite the quality of his stuff.
Finding the fine changeup he's flashed at times would do wonders for Greene in terms of getting swings and misses from lefties, giving him another dimension for batters on both sides of the plate to worry about. That pitch was the focus of former Tigers' pitching coach Jeff Jones' work with Greene during spring training last season. There was some real optimism about it in the Tigers' camp. He ended up throwing it more, though still just 8.9 percent of the time, in 2015. But no pitch is more likely to be affected by numb fingers than the changeup, so it's difficult to tell what he really has there.
So far this spring, it has looked quite good.
At the moment, Greene is a nice piece of insurance for the Tigers' pitching staff. He never had the pedigree of a Norris or Fulmer. His 2014 campaign caught everyone by surprise. The money is on Norris returning and at some point claiming a spot in the rotation.
et even in that happy scenario, it's not that hard to imagine Greene out-pitching Pelfrey and providing the Tigers with both an opportunity and a bit of a conundrum. Should the command and "stupid electric stuff" return, Greene will be a force to be reckoned with. Figuring out how to use him will be the question. If Wednesday night's performance is any indication, he won't be leaving the rotation without a fight.