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Tigers’ Shane Greene is having the best season of his career

Detroit’s closer has been an All-Star caliber closer thus far. What has gone into his high-level performance?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers organization of past decade has been full of staples: power hitters, hard throwers, and bad bullpens.

Most notably, though, has been the presence of a frustrating, if still effective closer. I am sure that I do not need to remind any Tigers fans of Jose Valverde, Francisco Rodriguez and Joe Nathan.

Enter Shane Greene. The right-handed starter-turned-reliever has been up-and-down during his tenure as a Tiger, but is currently dominating the opposition at the start of the best season of his career.

Greene has saved 18 of the team’s 22 wins on the year, and it would hardly be outrageous to assume that if somebody else were in that role – including past versions of Greene himself – the Tigers’ already bad 22-32 record would be even worse.

Through 24 innings, Greene has struck out 27 batters with a 1.13 ERA and 0.83 WHIP. His FIP sat at a career-low 2.89 prior to a defensive debacle accounting for his only blown save, where the Miami Marlins scored five unearned runs to cap off a series sweep. The number is now at a less exciting (but still strong) 3.52 and his ERA+ is 418 – a full 249 points higher than his next-highest career mark. With 19 of his 24 appearances being in save opportunities, he has consistently faced high-leverage situations and has performed admirably during them.

How exactly did Greene go from a shaky-at-best closer to a door-slamming star?

The easy answer is that he is throwing strikes and getting whiffs. He is currently sporting a career-high strikeout rate (28.4 percent) and the lowest walk rate per nine innings (2.63) he has posted to date.

For the more complex explanations, it begins with his wOBA, which is currently in the top 3 percent of the MLB, at .218, also a career best. He has (surprisingly) benefited from strong defense, or just some good fortune, as his expected wOBA (xwOBA) is .276 — though this would still be above league average and a career high by quite a wide margin.

From there, it goes to specific pitches and where they land in the strike zone. While his cutter is a deadly strikeout pitch, his sinker has served as the main weapon in his repertoire. Its extreme dip causes batters to pound the ball straight into the dirt. This has resulted in a career high 51.7 percent ground ball rate, and one of his highest ground ball to fly ball (GB/FB) rates. Opponents are also whiffing on pitches high in the zone, and the breaking ball is the best it has been in his career, forcing an extremely low average on batted balls low in the zone.

The chart below depicts batting average on pitches thrown by Greene that were connected on this season. Note that batters are 6-for-51 on pitches in the lower half of the zone, and it does not get much better when moving up.

The same chart has much more red when observing the 2018 season, especially in that same bottom-half. This is because, in 2018, Greene allowed more line drives than ground balls, which are more likely to result in base hits. With more grounders and fewer liners in 2019, average launch angle against Greene has dropped from 13.1 percent in 2018 to 11.7 percent.

Despite this, hitters are still hitting the ball a bit harder off Greene than other pitchers; his exit velocity, barrel percentage and hard hit percentage are all higher than league average, and he has allowed a higher exit velocity in 2019 than at any other point in his career. So how are his ERA, WHIP, wOBA, BAA and xBAA all at or near the best in baseball?

The short answer: he’s throwing strikes and getting a lot of swings and misses.

League average strikeout and walk rates are 21.5 percent and 8.3 percent, respectively. Greene is at 28.4 percent and 7.4 percent. Greene’s cutter and slider have both produced higher whiff rates than his previous marks. The sample is small, but there is certainly evidence to suggest that the career high strikeout rate isn’t flukey. It’s tough to know if he can continue keeping home runs in check while allowing harder contact than normal. So far, much of that harder contact has been on the ground, and he will need to keep it there.

If Greene maintains this sort of dominance, he is going to be quite valuable to a contender in July. The question is whether or not he can keep it together long enough for the Tigers to cash in. Greene is somewhat notorious for getting hot for a few months and then struggling again for long stretches. The nerve issues in his fingers, and that history of erratic swings in his stuff and results mean that Greene has never fully earned the fanbase’s trust. Here’s hoping he can manage the likely regression and continue to post zeroes in the ninth inning. Whether he becomes a trade chip or part of the Tigers’ future bullpen, they need him to continue pitching at his best.