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Zack Greinke is both lucky and the best

Both things can be true, and it's been absolutely absurd to watch.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Greinke is in the middle of a 43-2/3 scoreless innings streak, apparently something of a Dodgers tradition every decade or three. The last time Greinke allowed a run was June 13, when he allowed two and sent his ERA skyrocketing to 1.95 on the season. He's now at 1.30 and getting hilariously close to Bob Gibson's modern-day benchmark of 1.12. With another 21 scoreless innings, he'll get there and set the scoreless-innings record along the way.

Whenever a pitcher gets on a run like this -- not necessarily a scoreless streak, but a string of unfathomably excellent starts -- there's a question that seems to be on everyone's lips and tweeter-fingers. Is it luck? Is the pitcher getting lucky? Is this real or some sort of mirage? Is it luck? Huh? ANSWER THE QUESTION.

This can serve as an all-purpose response, then. At least the first part can. We'll examine Greinke's historic run and offer two truths.

Truth #1: Of course Zack Greinke has been a little lucky

It shouldn't even be an argument. I'm so mad at you right now for making me type this out.

Michael Clair at MLB.com had a thorough, compelling look at Greinke's performance with runners in scoring position, pointing out all the diving catches and line-drive outs that Greinke has benefited from ... and there haven't been that many. If you're looking for circus plays and assorted deux ex machina, they're not there.

Just looking at those plays tells just a part of the story, though, and it highlights why it's so hard to analyze pitching in general. Greinke's streak doesn't have to be a testament to good fielding and lucky plays. It's more about unfathomably good timing, even in ways that are impossible to see without cracking a hitter's head open and examining the hidden thoughts inside. Here's a raw look at where Greinke's pitches have been in the strike zone during his scoreless streak, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

greinke

There have been 23 pitches during the streak that have been right down the middle of the danged plate. Right there, for anyone to wallop. More than half were first-pitch get-it-ins, others ended at-bats, and a couple even went for hits, but they're all similar in one very important way: The hitter usually wasn't looking for the ball right down the middle of the plate. Part of that has to do with Greinke's craftiness and unmistakeable skill. Another part of that has to do with 23 different hitters not being ready for a specific pitch at a specific time.

Eventually one of those hitters will look for it. As evidence of this, I present Mike Trout's home run against Greinke just a few days ago. It was in an exhibition game, sure, but presumably Greinke was trying as hard as he normally does. He threw the wrong pitch at the wrong time to the wrong hitter, which is something that's happened to every pitcher in the history of the game. It will happen to every pitcher until they retire.

That's not to take away from anything Greinke has done. Them's just the odds. In that famous 1968 season of Gibson, there were 10 times that a hitter was looking for the exact pitch that Gibson threw and hit it over the fence. It happened 10 to 15 times every season for Pedro Martinez at his peak. They usually didn't allow them, of course, but there were always a couple. To avoid them for 43 innings in a row is a combination of skill and good fortune, like a slugger hitting a home run in four straight plate appearances. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

And it's not just the pitches down the middle we should focus on, either. Pick any of the pitches, any of them at all, and realize that baseball allows for runs to score in completely nonsensical ways. At any point during the streak, a hitter could have swung at a pitch above his eyes, reached on a dribbler to third, advanced on a fielder's choice, and scored on a broken-bat looper just over the first baseman. The odds are at least decent that you saw a dumb run like that in the last baseball game you watched.

Embracing a scoreless streak like Greinke's is like appreciating a no-hitter. Yes, everything has to line up just the right way, but ... hey, look at everything line up just the right way! No-hitters have always been a metaphor for every championship season in baseball history -- took some skill, took some luck, was sure a lot of fun, wheeeeeeee, let's do it again! You can swap scoreless-innings streaks in, and the metaphor works just as well.

Truth #2: Zack Greinke is pitching as well as he ever has

The streak is an outlier, but it doesn't happen without this truth. It's what makes the whole thing possible.

There's this weird myth that's survived about Greg Maddux being a master of control who thrived because hitters couldn't make solid contact against him. It's a half-truth, though, because it ignores that Maddux in his prime was always better at missing bats than the average pitcher of his era. Striking out 6.6 batters per nine innings doesn't sound like anything special to us because we're living in the Strikeout Era, but it was comfortably above the league average.

This is relevant to Greinke because it illustrates a larger point: The best pitch in baseball is a fastball with movement that goes exactly where the pitcher is trying to put it. Maddux could do that. Greinke's getting there. The walk rate is tumbling:

Zack Greinke, walk percentage
2013: 6.4%
2014: 5.2
2015: 4.3

That's just the surface-level stat to look at, though. When a pitcher is in the middle of a fabulous season or string of starts, one my favorite traditions is looking at Brooks Baseball's data on release points, realizing that I'm wholly unqualified to analyze them, and close the tab having learned absolutely nothing. Except with Greinke, there's actually something in the data that dummies like me can spot. He's been repeating his mechanics flawlessly when throwing his four-seam fastball during the scoreless streak.

His horizontal release point:

gre

His vertical release point:

greinke

Usually with any pitcher, for any pitch, the blob kind of spreads out for a bit. Or, like the curveball and slider release points for Greinke, there's a little bit of a scattershot pattern because no pitcher can have flawless mechanics. Right?

Greinke, though, has been a wizard with his fastball mechanics. It's the black dot on both of those graphs. There's very little variation, even as the pitches are going around the zone, mostly where he wants to throw them. He has baseball's best pitch right now -- a fastball that does what he wants. He happens to complement it with two of the better off-speed pitches in the game, too. Now look back to the first graph, the one from the previous section. Look at where the majority of his pitches have gone during the streak. Up and in to a right-hander, and up and away to a left-hander. They're close enough to tempt, missing just enough to limit any damage, and he's throwing them at will.

The reason Greinke is succeeding so much is because he's missing the strike zone in all the right ways, at all the right times. His walk rate is tumbling even as he's throwing a plurality of his pitches out of the strike zone. Occasionally he'll throw one down the middle, and that he's gotten away with it every time is the lucky part. The fact that he's throwing unhittable pitches far, far more frequently than the meatballs? That's the skill part, and it's compelling enough to where we shouldn't need the novelty of a scoreless streak to appreciate it.

If the scoreless streak happens to occur, though? Heck, yes, bring it on, because it certainly doesn't hurt our ability to appreciate it. If anything, it makes dorks like me take a closer look and spread the word. So, yes, Greinke has been lucky because any pitcher who gives up exactly zero runs over an extended stretch is lucky in some capacity. But that doesn't mean that he isn't pitching the best baseball of his career, which was already filled with mostly excellent pitching.

The odds are still good that Greinke's streak will end short of Orel Hershiser's record, but that's just window dressing. Zack Greinke has leveled up, and he's going to be a Guggenheim partner by this time next year because of it. This is what happens when great timing and great pitching collide, and it's fun to watch.

★★★

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