Surgery to success: The story behind Shane Greene’s breakout

There wasn’t much hype about Shane Greene as he slowly made his way through the minor league ranks, and seemingly for good reason. He was a 15th-round pick, not a big-bonus guy. He didn’t make any national prospect lists before or after the draft. His stuff didn’t seem that great, including a changeup that was clearly a work in progress. And his minor league numbers were mediocre at best; in 562 career minor league innings, he had a 29-43 record, 4.39 ERA and 1.48 WHIP. That doesn’t exactly scream “can’t-miss prospect!”

But just look at him now.

He exploded on the scene by posting a winning record and a 3.78 ERA, with 81 K’s in 78 2/3 innings, while making 14 starts for the New York Yankees in 2014, then jumped out to a hot start with the Detroit Tigers this season. He has had some bumps since, but still boasts a 1.19 WHIP. And his current stuff, including a big mid-90s sinker and two solid breaking pitches, makes one wonder how he slid under the radar.

But it’s fair to ask: Is this 26-year-old right-hander the real deal? As is often the case, this one isn’t just about what the numbers are showing, but rather the type of player/person Greene is. Even if the peripherals indicate the league will catch up to him, given the challenges Greene has overcome and the adjustments he has made already, it’d be tough to bet against this guy.

Learning more about who Greene is as a player today involves looking at his backstory. Let’s just say he hasn’t long been this Shane Greene, with this velocity, featuring these pitches. Greene, always a pitcher, was worked hard as a young player. Too many Little League innings, way too many showcase-tournament innings and way too many high-school innings. They didn’t stop him from getting a scholarship to West Florida back in 2008, but all those years of overuse had worn down Greene’s arm. “I was the kid that threw three innings every Little League game, and I pitched year-round in high school,” Greene said before a recent game. “My elbow hurt a lot.”

The Tigers’ starter then detailed his woes. Elbow tendinitis was the least of it. His growth plate was actually growing away from his bone at one point. He had a hairline fracture in his pitching elbow in high school. He had bone spurs. His elbow had just about had enough.

But Greene was fortunate to have a James Andrews disciple coaching at West Florida, and they decided the famed doctor better have a look. “Surgery was the best option,” Greene said.

Even though it cost him his scholarship, it gave him a new lease on life. But there he was, a right-handed pitcher with high-80s velocity coming off arm surgery — not exactly the type of player who’s in high demand. After declining West Florida’s offer to work his way back to a scholarship, Greene and his dad spent some time trying to raise the pitcher’s profile. Greene’s father was hunting buddies with Jeff Deardorff, a scout with the Yankees and a former Clermont, Florida, neighbor of theirs. If they could persuade Deardorff to watch a bullpen session and maybe say a few good words to a local college program, the Greenes might be able to get something cooking.

The schedules wouldn’t link up for the two for a while, despite the many phone calls. So the Greenes packed up and took the session to Deardorff’s house. Literally. They set up shop in a park across the street, and Greene brought his friend to catch and his friend’s 10-year-old sister to hold the radar gun. All they needed was for Deardorff to cross the street.

Jeff Deardorff, who played for five organizations as a career minor leaguer, deserves the credit for finding Greene … with a little help from the Greene family. Rick Stewart/Getty Images
Deardorff was impressed with Greene’s easy motion, and when he asked the girl for a radar-gun reading, she said “92.” The Yankees scout quickly took over gun duty, and the velocity remained. “I threw mostly 90-91 that day, but I hit some 92s,” Greene said with a smile. Deardorff then invited him to Tampa to throw at the Yankees complex.

Greene didn’t squander the opportunity, ramping up his workouts before heading to Tampa. He faced three hitters there and felt good about the results. But it was Deardorff who seemed most pleased; he had a huge smile when he met the pitcher coming off the mound. “Do you know what you were throwing?” Greene remembers the scout asking him. Of course he didn’t, but it turns out Greene sat consistently at 93 mph and even hit 95 that day.

A week later, the Yankees drafted him.

The work, of course, was just beginning, especially on his changeup, which was fringe-average when he was drafted. But it has slowly gotten better. “I just need to trust it,” Greene said of the pitch, which has above-average drop and arm-side run when compared to the average major league right-hander’s changeup.

“It would be nice if I could shave another couple of miles per hour off it, though,” he said. The gap in velocity between his two-seamer and changeup is only about seven miles per hour now, a bit less than the average two-seamer-to-changeup gap. But even a changeup without that gap can be useful, especially if he coaxes ground balls. And Greene’s ground ball rate on the changeup right now is over 60 percent, according to PITCHf/x data.

Greene has another weapon he can use against lefty hitters in his cutter. By boring in toward lefties — but not dropping into their wheelhouses like some sliders do — the cutter gives them something else to think about. “By moving it in on their hands, the cutter keeps them off my two-seamer,” said Greene.

There is a slight problem that crops up from time to time. The grips on his cutter and slider are very similar, as you can see below:

The cutter (left) and slider (right) have very similar hand placements. The difference in movement comes from how Greene lines up the seams, and how he releases the pitches.

He tries to stay behind the ball on the cutter but around the ball on the slider. Sometimes he loses the feel for getting around that slider. That happened to him in the minors — that’s what led to him learning the cutter — and has been happening to him more since his hot start. “I’ve lost it a little bit again,” Greene admitted, quickly adding that it has been better the past few starts.

The pitch data reflects that the slider has ben different this year. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the velocity range on his slider is three mph bigger in 2015 compared with ’14, the spin rate is down more than 10 percent and the pitch has two inches more drop than it used to. “My slider has been getting big, and my cutter has been getting big,” Greene said.

Losing the feel for either a slider or cutter — when a pitcher has both — is not uncommon. In fact, Zack Greinke once said he thought it was impossible to throw both a cutter and a slider well (though Jake Peavy disagreed). But Greene feels he’s uniquely suited for the task: “I hold all my fastballs with my two fingers together, so I can focus more on release than grip” he said.

Either way, the only solution to improving the two pitches, and separating them better, is mere practice. And the good news is the slider’s vertical movement seemed to return in his most recent outing. Considering all the hard work and effort that Greene has put in to get where he is today, and the obstacles he has had to overcome, finding the feel for his slider seems quite doable. As such, there’s no reason to believe he can’t return to being the strikeout/ground ball pitcher he was last year.

We hoped you liked reading Surgery to success: The story behind Shane Greene’s breakout by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

One Response to “Surgery to success: The story behind Shane Greene’s breakout”

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  1. gm says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Please update the caption to better show which grip is for which pitch.