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System Sundays Supplemental: Scouting Conner Greene, and Some Bullpen Thoughts

Taking a look at what the Randal Grichuk trade accomplished and added.

MLB: FEB 27 Toronto Blue Jays Photo Day Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

Ohhh, so that was the ‘pen plan.

Just last Sunday, I penned a column about the Cardinals’ bullpen. In it, I expressed some frustration that the Redbirds had seemingly missed out on most of the opportunities to upgrade said relief corps, and wondered aloud as to the why of it. With Addison Reed having just signed a contract with Minnesota, I felt the last really good candidate for the Cards to bring in a free agent upgrade for the ‘pen was gone.

Well, the good news is that the trade market exists, and while Dominic Leone was not a player who was obviously available in trade, the way some other relievers on less competitive teams than the Blue Jays very clearly are (or should be), it should serve as an object lesson to never underestimate the number of options available to upgrade a team that he was dealt.

As it stands now, I feel much, much better about the Cards’ bullpen going into the 2018 season. Admittedly, one setup reliever can only make so much difference in a team’s overall talent level, but as we’ve discussed before in these electronic pages, the addition of a pitcher always adds value in both his own contributions and in pushing other pitchers one spot further down, increasing the quality of every spot as a result. The Redbirds now have, in Tyler Lyons and Leone, two potentially elite setup/fireman type arms, both of whom struck out well over a quarter of the batters they faced in 2017. They can afford to slot Luke Gregerson, who has enough experience and closer bona fides that he should be able to satisfy the coaching staff’s desire for a proven commodity, into the closing role, and still have two of their best arms available for strategic deployment, rather than paint by numbers inning-defined usage.

Sam Tuivailala offers a third very exciting arm to see in setup work, and while Brett Cecil saw his strikeout rate fall off last season compared to previous years, his overall performance was quite solid. There is some concern, I think, to be expressed over the fact the Cardinals have so many bullpen spots committed to pitchers without minor league options, limiting their flexibility in terms of rotating fresh arms in from Memphis, but there is a depth of talent in the ‘pen now that I think makes it a potential strength of the team. It’s also still a potential weakness if things turn wrong, of course, but that’s as much the nature of bullpens in general as it is a reflection on this particular group. The Cardinals may not have a hammer at the end of the game to match the Craig Kimbrels or Kenley Jansens of the world, but they have a depth of talented arms and the potential for impact additions during the season as some of the high minors pitching talent pushes ever closer to the big leagues.

The other pitcher included in the Randal Grichuk trade is the hard-throwing, enigmatic Conner Greene. ‘Enigmatic’ is the nice way of saying a pitcher kind of sucks, but has enough talent we’re not really sure why he sucks, in case you’re wondering. (Kidding. Sort of.) Greene was one of the highest-rated arms in the Jays’ system a couple years ago, but has since backed up, seeing his talent fail to translate into on-field results.

If Greene had been in the Cardinal system when I made the big VEB list this year, I think I would have slotted him in at number 22, right behind Evan Mendoza and ahead of Junior Fernandez. He and Fernandez are both big-stuff righties who haven’t seen the numbers reflect that stuff yet, but Fernandez had some arm troubles in 2017 that I feel knock him down a peg further than Greene, whose health has been a non-issue to this point. That said, Junior is still younger, which is a point in his favour, but for now I’ve got Greene just above him.

#22a: Conner Greene, RHP

6’3”, 185 lbs; Bats/Throws: Right/Right

DOB: 4 April 1995; Drafted Rd 7 2013 (Blue Jays)

Level(s) in 2017: New Hampshire (Blue Jays AA)

Notable Numbers: 132.2 IP, 15.1% K, 13.6% BB, 52.1% GB%, 0.47 HR/9

So, what’s so great about this guy?

Conner Greene throws hard. That’s basically the long and short of what he brings to the table, what makes him an intriguing arm talent. Even in an era when velocity has become commonplace and commodified, Greene has rare arm strength, and that alone is enough to make him noteworthy.

Which isn’t to say velocity is the only thing Greene offers; just that it’s the main thing. He’s shown good feel for an average or slightly better changeup in the past, while his curveball looked better in 2017 than it had before. He throws a slider as well, though it appears to have stagnated a bit. For my money, his high arm slot is a better fit for a curve anyway, so I’m not surprised that’s the breaking ball with more promise for him.

But in the end, it all comes back to velocity for Greene. He sits comfortably at 94-96 with his fastball, and can push it higher when he wants to. He’ll touch triple digits nearly every time out at least once, and sometimes multiple times within a start. The high arm slot gives him excellent plane on the pitch as well, similar to that of Michael Wacha, but Greene’s fastball is also a heavy, more naturally grounder-inducing pitch than that of Wacha, who has upped his ground ball rate the past few years largely due to increased use of his secondary pitches.

The problem with Greene, as should be apparent from the stat line posted above, is that he simply doesn’t miss many bats. For whatever reason, his fastball, as fast and as heavy as it is, is just hittable. Greene’s command has never been great, but as he’s moved up the ladder in pro ball the hitters have gotten more patient, and he’s seen both his walk rate and the number of unfavourable counts in which he finds himself climb. The unreliability of his secondary pitches doesn’t help matters, either, as he often struggles to locate anything but the fastball. For a pitcher capable of pushing 100, Greene simply doesn’t get the ball past that many hitters.

The good news is that while hitter tend to make a lot of contact against Conner Greene, they don’t necessarily make a lot of good contact. He generates lots of ground balls with that heavy fastball, and also, interestingly, a ton of infield fly balls. Minor league batted-ball data is nowhere near as reliable as it is in the majors, of course, but Greene induced 25.4% infield flys in 2016, and 28.8% in 2017. (Remember, infield fly balls are tracked as a percentage of all fly balls, not all batted balls.) So it appears that he is incredibly difficult to square up, but not all that hard to make contact against. Add a high walk rate to that ease of making contact and you have a pitcher with bad numbers, in spite of very little high-quality contact being made against him.

Personally, I think a big part of Greene’s issues is the simple fact he doesn’t repeat his delivery at all well. Watch the video I’ve posted below, and you can see even at regular speed how much he varies in his mechanics. His glove hand doesn’t do the same thing every time, much less his actual throwing hand, and his release point is noticeably different at times to the naked eye.

For my money, Greene is a reliever long term, though if he continues to develop his curveball I suppose there’s a chance he could turn into a stuff-first mid-rotation starter. I wouldn’t wait on that possibility, though, particularly in a system like the Cardinals’, with so many other options matriculating up through the pipeline. As a reliever, Greene could see his velocity tick up from 93-97 to something more like 95-99, and if he’s pitching closer to 97 consistently perhaps he misses more bats on speed alone. The curve is probably the more important pitch on which to focus as a reliever, rather than a change that generates weak contact but still few empty swings.

If he’s good, it’s going to look like: There’s something of both Joe Kelly and Nathan Eovaldi in Greene’s profile, in that all three pitchers are possessed of elite-level velocity, yet have never gotten the swings and misses such elite stuff would seem to predict. Both Kelly and Eovaldi have carved out very nice major league careers all the same, though, and there’s plenty of reason to hope Greene can do the same.

via MLB Prospect Portal: