Even before throwing a pitch in an Atlanta uniform, it appears that Shane Greene has been anointed the team’s new closer.
How did he get here? What should we expect? Let’s take a look.
Before the bigs
Unlike fellow Trade Deadline acquisition Chris Martin, Greene’s road to the majors was a bit more straightforward, though not without its own trapdoors. Hailing from Clermont, Florida, Greene was undrafted out of high school and went on to play Division II baseball at the University of West Florida. However, towards the end of his first season of college ball, he went down with the dreaded elbow problems and corresponding Tommy John Surgery, losing his athletic scholarship as a result. (By the way, educational institutions offering athletic scholarships, that’s pretty messed up to yank away a guy’s ability to attend your school because he got hurt doing the athletic activity you wanted him to come to your school and do, just saying.)
Greene ended up transferring to Daytona Beach Community College, and while it’s unclear whether his rehab allowed him to get into games (the absence of available stats from DBCC suggests “no”), he experienced a huge velocity uptick post-surgery that intrigued the Yankees enough to draft him in the 15th round of the 2009 MLB Draft. Greene worked as a starter throughout the minors, steadily making his way up the ladder rather than skipping rungs. He wasn’t posting eye-popping stats, and didn’t get much prospect hype, not appearing on ranked lists and being described as a sleeper if nothing else. But, he was added to the Yanks’ 40-man roster ahead of the 2014 season, and made his major league debut not long thereafter.
In the bigs
Greene’s first major league outing saw him enter into a 12-2 game for mop-up duty, and it was over very quickly. He issued a walk, another runner reached on an error, and after a strikeout, he issued two more walks and was pulled from the game despite the Yankees having a nine-run lead at the time. Weirdly enough, that outing came in the third time Greene had been added to the 25-man roster that season already, but he was sent down after that one appearance and didn’t re-emerge until July, at which point he stuck in New York’s rotation for good after allowing two runs in 13 1⁄3 innings with an 11/2 K/BB ratio. By te end of the season, Greene had posted a 98 ERA-, 95 FIP-, and 90 xFIP- over his first 80 or so MLB innings, putting up 1.0 fWAR for a competitive Yankees team that missed the playoffs by four games.
That was it for Greene in New York, however. In the offseason, he was part of a three-team deal that sent Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks to the Yankees, Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba from the Tigers to Arizona, and Greene to Detroit. The Tigers really ended up getting the shaft in the deal, as Ray and Gregorius both started putting up 3-win seasons, and Greene, well... not so much.
By the time he got to Detroit, Greene had lost a tick of velocity and had gotten very hittable. He wasn’t exactly a whiff maven as a rookie, but allowing contact on over 72 percent of non-strikes and over 92 percent of strikes doomed his season — his strikeout rate dwindled to a near-unplayable 13 percent, and his run prevention stats ballooned to a 169 ERA-, 125 FIP-, and 118 xFIP-. The Tigers sent him down to Triple-A and then recalled him a month later, but his next three starts were all just as terrible as the three immediately before (he had a combined Game Score of 129 across six starts, or an average of 21.5 per start, which is about as poorly as possible that one can pitch). Long story short, the idea of Shane Greene, reliever, was made manifest. He made a couple of relief appearances with the Tigers that year, but then shoulder soreness shut him down for the rest of the year. He finished the 2015 campaign, his first with the Tigers, with just 0.3 fWAR.
2016 initially saw Greene start in the rotation (though he recorded a save in his first game of the season while waiting for his turn to start), but after just three outings (one good, two bad), the plug was pulled on him starting for good. The velocity returned, and with it came the whiffs and the strikeouts. Greene was stung by a comically low strand rate that led to a ballooned 138 ERA-, but his homer allowance rate was tiny, leading to a 73 FIP- on top of a 93 xFIP-. Pitch mix-wise, Greene threw more cutters and sliders as a reliever in lieu of a changeup that he largely phased out, and also cut back on his sinker.
Greene’s role didn’t really change in 2017, as he continued serving as a set-up type arm and occasional fill-in closer. What did change was that he reversed his pitch mix alterations, becoming a sinker-first hurler with a slider as his backup, and the cutter relegated to a third pitch. He also made use of his four-seamer a rarity, even as his velocity ticked up with a full commitment to throwing in short bursts. His inputs didn’t change much, but the results were better due to BABIP and strand rate variation that paid him back for what he suffered through in 2016. He enjoyed a 61 ERA-, 86 FIP-, 96 xFIP- season.
Acceding to the full-time closer role in 2018, Greene suffered arguably his worst season to date (-0.1 fWAR) due to a wild spike in his homer rate (despite the de-juiced ball). His 96 xFIP- was essentially the same as his other relief seasons, but his FIP- jumped to a poor 108 and his ERA- crested at 116. From the outside, it looks like Greene worked really hard to rein in the walks that had limited some of his effectiveness in 2017 (which was notable because they came despite him pounding the zone), but the result was a more hittable overall profile.
Shane Greene, the 2019 pitcher
So, how did all of the above lead to the Braves paying a notable, if not ransom-level, price to acquire Greene? Well...
When you look at Greene’s stats to date, what jumps out most is his hilariously low 26 ERA-. This in and of itself is easily explained: batters have managed just a sub-.200 BABIP against Greene so far, and he has a wild wOBA-xwOBA gap of .061 (.282 xwOBA, very good but not elite; .221 wOBA, which is just silly). For all the sturm and drang that Greene had to deal with earlier — shoulder issues, losing his rotation spot, strand rate issues, homer spikes with the de-juiced ball — the universe appears to be paying him back all at once. Greene’s 80 FIP- is nothing he hasn’t managed before, but those looking for reasons that he’s not just the same ol’ okay-reliever Shane Greene can perhaps look at his 83 xFIP-, a career best. Driving that mark are two things you definitely like to see: more strikeouts than ever before, and more grounders than ever before.
At this point, Greene’s pitch mix isn’t really new for him, though it is a very odd one across the reliever landscape. He’s primarily a sinkerballer, with a cutter and slider mixed in, and very infrequent use of his four-seam fastball and changeup. Both his cutter and slider are strikeout pitches (the slider is generally not used against lefties), but he’s more than happy to try to get outs earlier in the count with his sinker. The motion on his pitches, however, is wild:
As you can see, his sinker is pretty much a sinker with a bit more run. The cutter and slider, though, are super-weird. Both are thrown slower than usual, providing more separation from his sinker, and both have exaggerated motion. The slider itself isn’t really a slider, it’s some kind of weird half-eephus / half-slurve monstrosity. Below are two videos that show you kinda-sorta everything you need to know about his slider: 1) the 0-1 pitch is it at its most ridiculous; 2) the 0-2 pitch, even though it got the strikeout, shows some of the issues Green can run into sometimes with it losing shape. While he hasn’t paid the price for it much this season (though he did allow a grand slam on one), his slider can get amoeba-y and either hang without scooting side-to-side, or actually quiver in the other direction, towards a righty’s bat.
Put all these things together, and 2019 Shane Greene is a guy who throws a lot of sinkers in the zone but has good enough movement and bite on his secondaries to get more whiffs than average, even when trying to elicit contact with his primary offering. His sinker tends to get hit hard but into the ground; the cutter and slider don’t tend to get hit at all, and hitters often misjudge their motion and pop up the resulting contact if they don’t whiff.
But, in the end, it’s hard to look at Greene this season as anything other than the beneficiary of seven boatloads of luck. He’s definitely been good, and represents an improvement over what the Braves have run out there in relief this year (and really, who doesn’t?) — but this is just a minor clarion call to not be disappointed of his ball-in-play variance becomes normal rather than ridiculously fortuitous. Shane Greene has pitched well this year, just not 75-percent-fewer-runs-allowed-than-average well. The Tigers are not a strong defensive team, either in positioning or in range, so this isn’t a case of a defense helping Greene’s sinker play up, either. It’s just run-of-the-mill variation, and while it’d be awesome if it kept up, awesome and likely don’t always intersect.
Greene is projected for a high-3.00s, perhaps low-4.00s ERA/FIP for the remainder of the season, or around 0.2-0.3 fWAR over the remaining two months of the year. Of course, just like Chris Martin, those WAR fractions aren’t quite why the Braves acquired him. While the Braves will retain his services into 2020, during which he’ll likely earn around $6 million in arbitration, hopefully the past 1,700 words have made you cognizant of the extent to which things beyond Greene’s control have affected his success (or lack thereof). The Braves can probably count on Greene being a serviceable reliever in 2020 (to the extent anyone can be counted on for such), but staking a claim for much beyond that is speculative. Good-not-spectacular is what the Braves have in Greene, and he’ll have to make further strides to live up to the lofty run prevention peak his starts are currently perching on.
Here’s Shane Greene making Victor Robles and Trea Turner look bad earlier this year with the slider. Boy, he may be a worthy acquisition for his ability to do that to Turner alone. (Turner has a career 112 wRC+... 106 against everyone else and 144 against the Braves.)