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Tigers’ Shane Greene is quietly dominating the opposition with his slider

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You could say Shane Greene is the breaking pitch machine.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris detailed how Shane Greene is in league of his own when it comes to his breaking pitches. It’s very difficult to tell what he’s throwing. It is so difficult, in fact, that even Statcast reads his slider as a curveball and his cutter as a slider. However, thanks to the PITCHf/x data we are able to review manually, we can conclude that Shane Greene’s main breaking pitches are a cutter and slider, not a slider and curveball.

Regardless of what we want to call them, those two breaking pitches have been the difference for Greene thus far in 2017. So far this season, Greene has thrown 12 13 innings, facing 57 batters. His ERA is 1.46 and his FIP is 3.57, which is high mainly due to his walk rate. However, Greene has only allowed 10 hits, good for a .217 batting average against. He has allowed two total runs while striking out 13 and has yet to allow an extra base hit.

Another huge plus for Greene is his ability to strand inherited runners. He has left 90.8 percent of runners on base this season, compared to only 57.8 percent in 2016 as a reliever. Last year, he inherited 20 runners and not a single one of them scored. While he has already allowed three inherited runners to score out of the 11 he inherited, two of those runs came off a hit by Carlos Santana that was well out of the strike zone.

Currently, the biggest issue with Greene is his walk rate — he has walked eight batters so far this season. He has started turning that around however, in his last 6 13 innings, he has walked only two of the 26 batters he has faced. That’s only a 7.7 percent walk rate, roughly half of his season average of 14 percent.

Breaking it down further, it seems the cause for Greene’s high walk rate stems from his cutter and his inability to command said pitch. Last year, Greene threw 29.7 percent of cutters for balls. This season, it’s up to 42.8 percent. His whiff rate and swing percentage are down to 13.77 percent and 22.8 percent, respectively. Below is a heatmap of the pitch location frequency of Greene’s cutter from this season and last season.

baseballsavant.mlb.com

As you can see, his cutter location is just a bit too far outside to induce swings and misses or called strikes. The good news is, out of the 42 cutters he has thrown this season, only two have been put into play for a hit. In fact, Greene has thrown 76 breaking pitches so far this season. Only two of the cutters resulted in base hits — a single from Robinson Cano on April 25, and a single from Khris Davis on May 7.

The main cause for Greene’s lack of consistent strikes with the cutter is due to how much the pitch is breaking. Currently, his cutter is breaking more than it ever has in his previous three seasons, both horizontally and vertically.

Shane Greene’s Cutter PITCHf/x

Year Velocity H-Movement V-Movement
Year Velocity H-Movement V-Movement
2017 88.38 4.57 4.59
2016 89.71 2.76 4.21
2015 87.15 3.54 3.44
2014 87.96 3.97 2.60

Greene’s cutter has the second-highest horizontal movement among all relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched, trailing only Tony Barnette of the Texas Rangers. Once Greene has time to adjust to the increase in cutter break, we should be seeing much more strikes with his cutter.

Although Greene’s cutter hasn’t been the most consistent pitch, his slider has been unhittable. He has thrown 34 sliders and none have resulted in a base hit. Batters are only putting his slider in play around 9 percent of the time he throws it.

Greene has tallied seven strikeouts in the 10 at-bats he has used the slider, and batters are swinging at Greene’s slider 5.91 percent less often than they did last season, yet they are whiffing on it 4.2 percent more often. The increase in break and velocity on his slider is responsible for a good portion of his success with it, but so is his command — more on that later.

Among all major league relief pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings so far this season, 134 have thrown a slider. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, Greene’s slider is the best linear weighted slider when weighted to 100 pitches. His slider is also fifth-best in horizontal movement among all relievers who have thrown at least 30 sliders this season.

Shane Greene’s Slider PITCHf/x

Year Velocity H-Movement V-Movement
Year Velocity H-Movement V-Movement
2017 83.93 7.58 1.45
2016 82.89 7.15 1.34
2015 80.18 7.08 0.39
2014 82.69 6.65 2.56

What makes his slider so effective apart from break? One word: location, location, location. Compare the two slider heat maps below, from last year and this year. He is locating his slider almost perfectly on the edge of the strike zone, away from right-handed batters and inside on left-handed hitters. His command has been terrific with the slider, a huge part of why he has been so successful with it so far this season.

baseballsavant.mlb.com

Another plus to Greene’s arsenal is his spin rate, something we have only been able to recently track, thanks to Statcast’s data. His spin rate on his pitches and ability to limit the distance when contact is made really separates him from the average reliever. According to Statcast, Greene has the 16th-highest slider spin rate and second-highest cutter spin rate among MLB relievers. He’s also in the top 40 in average spin rate of all his pitches. In terms of average distance on pitches put in play, he has the 22nd-lowest average among 113 relief pitchers with at least 200 pitches.

With exception to Justin Wilson, Greene has been the Tigers’ best reliever so far this season. He has the second-highest strikeout rate, the highest left-on-base percentage, and the highest ground ball percentage. He’s the only Tigers relief pitcher who has pitched at least 10 innings and not allowed a home run. In fact, Greene is also the only Tigers pitcher to not allow an extra base hit.

Greene has the second lowest ERA- and FIP-, and second best win probability added (WPA) on the team. If Greene is able to iron out the remaining issues with his cutter and continue to throw the slider like he is, he will continue to be one of the best relievers the Tigers have in the bullpen. This means he could be the reliable late inning relief pitcher we saw glimpses of last season — which is something that the Tigers desperately need.