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2017 Rebound Candidate: Zack Greinke

Tim Heaney

Before RotoWire, Tim spent a decade with and USA TODAY Fantasy. The Boston University alum was a finalist in the FSWA awards and competes in some of fantasy baseball's biggest expert leagues, including Tout Wars and LABR. He squeezes in fantasy advice between rants about television, music and craft beer. Tweet him @Tim_Heaney.

Even on the back of his numerous years of success, only blind faithful would imagine Greinke duplicating that historically fortunate 1.66 ERA from 2015 and buy him as a strong fantasy ace.

Of course, 2016 was an especially cruel regression. After several injuries derailed his season, Greinke couldn’t find his way home.

Not even following a rebound from a 5.50 ERA at the end of April with a 3.82 in May and a sparkling 1.63 in June, to give him decent first-half numbers (3.62 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.49 K/9, 1.73 BB/9, 4.33 K/BB). An oblique strain erased his July as well as that early progress, and after he returned, he fell off the tracks in his ugly second half (6.02, 1.52, 7.84, 3.65, 2.15).

More ugly stuff:

Around the plate and pitch speed

  • Four-seam average velocity dip of .5 mph
  • 7.60 K/9 (lowest in three years) and 20.1 K% (lowest since 2010)
  • 2.33 walk rate, huge jump to match 2013
  • 10.4 swinging-strike percentage, lowest since 2012

While those three indicators remain above-average, he struggled to turn them into more strikeouts.

Homers and batted balls

  • 1.30 HR/9, highest in a full season
  • 13.9% HR/FB, highest in a full season
  • 45.9% ground-ball rate, a slight but noticeable dip
  • 71.9% left-on-base rate, worst since 2011
  • 30.7% hard contact rate, highest since 2007
  • 90.5 Z-contact rate, or how often hitters make contact swinging at his pitches in the strike zone – woof

He felt the pain moving from spacious Dodger Stadium to tater-friendly Chase Field: 4.81 ERA there, compared to 3.94 on the road.

Accentuating the positives

But many of his struggles can be blamed on his adjustment to a new team -- even one in the same division as his old club – plus his oblique strain and the shoulder issues that ended his season.

Greinke even brought the heat a bit more during his final three starts in June, he averaged 92.2, 92.5 and 92.6 mph. This could’ve meant one of two things: Either he was getting more of his juice back, or the increase might’ve contributed to his oblique strain. Of course, his average vFA (per PITCHf/x) were 91.7, 91.8 and 91.8 in each of the previous three seasons, so the velocity didn’t mark too big a drop-off and could come back with proper adjustments.

Also encouraging: Greinke’s weakened BB/9 and SwStrk% still would rank him above the league average in both if he had logged enough innings.

In fact, his first-pitch strike percentage (67.8) was a career best. If he had qualified with enough innings, he would’ve ranked among the league leaders. Fantasy players should appreciate when a pitcher gets ahead 0-1 that frequently. Of course, with his K collapse and batting-practice work with home runs, he needs to work on sequencing and other adjustments to his game.

Switching catchers from Welington Castillo, now with the Orioles, to new arrival Jeff Mathis should help. Mathis’ pitch framing dwarfed Castillo’s last year, and the vet could help with Greinke regain his confidence to put hitters away with the right mix.

Bounce back or fade away?

Even with these reasons for optimism, risks remain. At 33, more health woes may plague him. His home park still will pester pitching and could stand in the way of him returning to Cy Young territory. Arizona’s bottom-tier defense probably won’t improve drastically.

Greinke was primed to experience some correction from 2015, but last year’s crash was exaggerated. A healthy Greinke presents a huge buying opportunity, considering how the starting pitcher market overall may dip after last year’s offensive barrage. It’s difficult to give up on someone who had a 2.63 ERA or lower in his previous three seasons, even if some of that came from a helpful environment.

No longer should be deserve consideration as a top-10 fantasy SP, but depending on how a drafter’s league values starting pitching, he could serve as one when being drafted as a No. 2, somewhere in the top 20 or 24. Aim for a rational baseline of Greinke splitting the difference between 2015 and 2016 -- something near a 3.50 ERA, 8.00 K/9, 2.00 BB/9.

If the Diamondbacks continue rebuilding and trade Greinke to a better situation, those numbers could improve to elite lengths.