We—presumably like the Detroit Tigers, perhaps even at this very moment—have been brooding over what to do with and about Shane Greene. For the Tigers, this is one aspect of the broad and compelling question of what to do with and about their 2016 season, which is now in grave jeopardy. Over the past week, they’ve suffered the following indignities: (1) the rehabilitation, from a fractured elbow, of their fine hitter J.D. Martinez is proceeding only glacially, so they have to figure he’ll be out for another month; (2) Jordan Zimmermann, probably their best starting pitcher, went on the DL with a neck strain, which may or may not be the reason he had serious trouble getting outs during the preceding six weeks; and (3) Daniel Norris, a starting pitcher on whom they were counting, suffered an oblique strain and likewise went on the DL. The Tigers, according to Rotoworld, are “confident” that Norris will be back in two weeks, but that strikes us as magical thinking. The over-under, we think, is about a month.
Steven Moya should be an adequate or better substitute for Martinez, and the Tigers’ hitting is otherwise fine. But what’s the deal with their starting rotation? For one thing, they are fortunate that Michael Fulmer, in the first 12 starts of his career, has pitched even better than you’d have expected their top prospect to. Justin Verlander is the useful 3rd starter he’s been since he turned 30, though not the ace he was before that. The Tigers seem committed to Mike Pelfrey, to whom they gave a 2-year contract last winter. Pelfrey is a storied innings-eater, though it would be more accurate to say that the innings eat him. He’s got positive value if he keeps his ERA at about 4; at the moment, it’s 4.78, and his FIP is even worse. They’ve got to hope that Zimmermann comes back strong, though if he’s got an ETA no one’s told us about it.
Beyond that, there’s chaos. So depending on how you calculate it and the sunniness of your disposition, the Tigers, in the short and possibly the long term, need two and perhaps three starters. There’s of course always the chance of a trade—the farm system is thin, but not as thin as it was until recently, and there are a couple of good, very young hitters who could be attractive to a team that’s going nowhere. But meanwhile, let’s review the Tigers’ in-house options:
–Norris, if and when he returns. Last time he strained this very oblique, it took a month for him to reappear, and in general he’s as fragile as a thoroughbred. He’s only 23, he’s a former first-round pick, and was a top-40 prospect before the start of the 2015 season. However: he hasn’t been an effective pitcher, including during his stints in the minors, since he was in Triple-A in 2014. His FIP in 17 MLB starts is 4.56.
—Anibal Sanchez. From 2010 until he got hurt in 2014, Sanchez was a good major league starting pitcher. Last season, not. Towards the end of the season, Craig Edwards of Fangraphs produced a detailed and judicious article concluding that “[t]here is nothing definitive to indicate Anibal Sanchez is done.” We ourselves, using our own half-assed mode of statistical analysis, thought he was worth a shot this season. In 12 starts this season, however, the slash line of hitters facing him is .289/.375/.537, which is to say that you’d be an MVP candidate if all you did was hit against Sanchez. We view this as definitive evidence that he’s done, and that’s before his atrocious performance yesterday.
—Matt Boyd. A former medium-level prospect with an ERA of 7.52 in 15 major-league starts. He’s pitched very well in AAA this season, but that happened last year, too.
—Buck Farmer. His name could be a 50’s movie star’s pseudonym (cf. Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter), and he’s been shuttling between Toledo and Detroit for more than a season now. He’s been effective in low-leverage relief for the Tigers this season, and he’s only 25, but his ERA in 7 career MLB starts exceeds 10, and that’s not a typo. In fact, he’s never been an effective starter anywhere above single-A, so something tells us he’s not the answer.
—Matt Crouse. Just to show you we’ve done our due diligence, we mention this guy, whom we’d never heard of until a couple of hours ago. He’s a 26-year-old non-prospect who’s been a moderately effective starter as he’s inched his way through the Tigers’ system over the past six years. When you look in the dictionary under “soft-tossing lefty,” he’s the guy whose picture you see. Likewise not the answer, we think, though if someone asked us to bet that Crouse will get at least one start with the Tigers between now and the end of August, we’d make that bet cheerfully.
That brings us, at length, to Shane Greene, who is a very interesting case. Quick highlight/lowlight reel: He was a putative non-prospect with TJ surgery on his resume, but he was nonetheless the Yankees’ minor league pitcher of the year in 2013, performed well after being plugged into their starting rotation in the middle of the 2014 season, and got traded to the Tigers that offseason in a three-way deal that it would bore both you and us to describe. He was every wiseguy’s sleeper pick for 2015. He won a job in the Tigers’ starting rotation in spring training last year, only to go down for the season with a “psuedoaneurysm” (don’t ask us) in the middle finger of his pitching hand, but not before he’d become one of 2015’s Least Valuable Fantasy Players. A 6.88 ERA in 80-plus innings will do that to you.
Greene had offseason surgery on the pseudoaneurysm, and was good enough in Spring Training this year to win a job in the rotation again. After three starts, with mixed results, he went down with a blister on his finger—same finger as before, apparently, but not a “pseudoblister.” He returned a month ago and has been tremendous (,208/.252/.232 slash line against him) in 15 relief innings since.
So is relief pitching Greene’s destiny? That was, on the surface, the consensus for a long time. One very typical comment among many, from the 2014 Baseball Prospectus: “his fastball/slider arsenal spells bullpen.” But not so fast. As even BP acknowledged, Greene actually has a bunch of different pitches, all of which can be squeezed into the fastball/slider category only because life’s too short to invent any Greene-specific categories. Thus, for example, scrutinize the work of beloved Fangraphs editor Eno Sarris, who has qualified for a Ph.D. in Shane Greene Studies. In a fanatically detailed dissection of Greene’s pitching, Eno concluded that Greene’s breaking pitches differ so much among themselves that it’s “way too dismissive to call him [just] a fastball/breaking ball guy.”
If that’s so, then maybe Greene’s got the stuff to be a starting pitcher after all, even though he’s apparently abandoned the changeup that, some thought, would be the pitch that put him over the top. Again, not so fast. Greene’s career-long problem is that he has big trouble getting left-handed batters out, and if you can’t do that, you can’t be a major-league starter, no matter how many pitches (or “pseudopitches”) you’ve got. No problem this season, though, at least since his return to the bullpen: he’s faced 24 left-handed batters and given up three singles, a triple, and no walks. A small sample, but still, and he was almost as good in Spring Training. And Greene’s not a guy who gets appreciably more vulnerable as he goes through a lineup for the second or third time. If he really can get left-handed hitters out at all, he should be able to do it as a starter. If he can replicate his 2016 stats so far as a regular member of the rotation, he’s a very valuable pitcher, both to the Tigers and to us—a groundball/strikeout guy whose numbers are roughly those of Kenta Maeda.
So Greene is the Tigers’ best option for the rotation, and we should all grab him, right? Again, not so fast. Before Greene got hurt, he started three games, and his record against lefties wasn’t great: 27 batters faced, 7 hits (including two doubles), 4 walks, and a hit batter. Moreover, Greene hasn’t given up a home run to anyone this year, which is true of only 7 guys who’ve pitched as many innings as he has. Since Greene has always given up about one home run every nine innings to hitters of any persuasion, you have to think that’s going to change at least a bit, and his numbers will go down when it does.
Look, we don’t know what to do. Our best (though very tentative) guess, noting that Greene’s velocity is up a bit overall from last year, is that when he’s relieving and knows he’s going only an inning or so, he throws a bit harder and as a consequence does a bit (or maybe a lot) better. What this evidently does is make him an effective setup guy against hitters from either side. The fact that Detroit manager Brad Ausmus is going to Sanchez, Boyd, and possibly Farmer before he tries Greene as a starter again, while relying extensively on Greene as a reliever—if Greene pitched as often over a full season as he has in the past month, he’d lead the league in appearances–suggests that Ausmus sees it the same way. Which means that Greene is worth owning and even plugging into your lineup if you need a reliever and don’t have a closer. Do you bench him when he starts? Probably, though we wish him well.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.