Zack Greinke has been outstanding for the Arizona Diamondbacks in his nine starts this season, but what has changed for the 33-year-old right-hander from 2016?
The answer may lie in the mitt on the other side of home plate.
There was no nagging injury to overcome or change to mechanics. The main difference for Greinke this season has been working with veteran catcher Jeff Mathis in all nine of this starts.
Mathis was acquired by the D-backs during the offseason along with catcher Chris Iannetta and those two, along with Chris Herrmann, formed a completely new platoon behind home plate. His 13 years of knowledge and experience in MLB were seen as a huge asset in working with this pitching staff.
In 2016, Greinke was coming off his best career season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 32 starts that season, he was 19-3 with a ridiculous ERA of 1.66 and 200 strikeouts, coming in just behind Jake Arrieta in the NL Cy Young voting.
Based on his performance, it was understandable — albeit surprising — when Arizona shocked the baseball world and signed Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million deal.
But his deal, which averages a MLB-record $34.42 million per-year, left many questioning if the D-backs had paid too much for too long considering Greinke would be 38 in his final year of this contract.
His performance in 2016 didn’t help fans get over that feeling of buyer’s remorse. The righty was far from being the ace he was for the Dodgers in 2015. He went 13-7 in 26 starts with a 4.37 ERA, the second highest season ERA of his career. His strikeout total of 134 was also his lowest since 2007.
However, 2017 has seen Greinke return to form in many ways. In nine starts, he has led the D-backs to a 5-2 record with a 3.09 ERA, 66 strikeouts and only 11 walks.
As the season has progressed, Greinke has seemed to become more dominant on the mound. Greinke struck out seven or more batters in each of his last five starts, striking out 11 batters in two of those games. The most he struck out in his first four starts of this season was six.
At this point last season, Greinke was 4-3 with a 5.08 ERA and the D-backs were 19-23.
The majority of his starts in 2016 were caught by Welington Castillo, who was known for his effectiveness at the plate as opposed to behind it for much of the season, with a handful of starts caught by Tuffy Gosewisch.
When speaking about the Greinke and Mathis pairing with MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert on April 20, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo sounded committed to doing it based on the success he was seeing.
“I think that if I’m seeing a certain comfort level or results that are very positive, if it lines up, I will continue to do that,” he said.
Mathis has been effective in his starts with Greinke as a catcher. His Range Factor per game is the highest of his career at 8.90, and his caught stealing percentage of 38 percent is also close to his career best of 41 percent, set in 2012.
Mathis’ batting average of .183 leaves something to be desired, but the D-backs have effectively sacrificed offensive output for an effective and more valuable relationship between pitcher and catcher. Greinke is currently averaging 1.13 strikeouts per inning with Mathis catching him this season, so you might say it is worth it.