For Tigers’ Greene, harnessing fastball is key

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — You’d have to be pretty cold and uncompromising not to give Shane Greene at least a partial pass for his inconsistencies the last couple of seasons.

He’s had to transition from starter to reliever, all the while dealing with a serious vascular condition in his right shoulder and arm. He still deals with blood clotting in his arm, and his index and middle fingers on his right hand still go cold from time to time.

“They’re still not 100 percent and who knows when they will be?” Greene said Wednesday. “People ask me all the time can I tell the difference? Is it affecting me? And I have no idea. I don’t remember what it feels like to have normal fingers.”

So, yes, he’s had some ups and downs. His ERA in two seasons with the Tigers is ugly (6.44) and his WHIP is worse (1.46). But there have been long stretches where he’s been devastating, nearly unhittable.

He gave up one earned run in his first three starts of the 2015 season, before the freak injuries (ulnar neuritis, then a pseudoaneurysm in his shoulder) derailed him. A severe blister not only put him on the disabled list last season, it also facilitated his move to the bullpen.

Last June and July, opponents hit just .200 against him and he allowed seven runs in 222/3 innings —often working in the seventh and/or eighth innings.

He was at his best from July 1 through Aug. 13, when allowed just three runs over 15 innings, with 16 strikeouts. Opponents hit .170 against him in that stretch.

But from Aug. 17 on, he was tagged for 20 runs in 18 innings, with opponents feasting at a .355 clip.

The guy who pitched in June and July, the guy with the hard sinker, sweeping slider and nasty mound disposition, that’s the Shane Greene the Tigers are counting on seeing for a full year.

“Shane Greene this year is a reliever from the get-go and he really enjoys that role,” manager Brad Ausmus said before the pitchers and catchers worked out Wednesday. “He likes coming in an emptying the tank for three or four outs. He will be better and more consistent this year.”

Greene, who broke camp in the starting rotation the last two seasons, has never worked a relievers’ program in spring training. So even though he pitched the final five months out of the bullpen, he is marking new territory in terms of physical preparation.

“I don’t know if coming to camp as a reliever is going to help, but having last year under my belt is definitely going to help,” he said. “I know what to expect as opposed to going out there and just, trial and error every day until I figure out what’s going on.”

One thing last season taught him, for sure, was how to respond to the physical toll working out of the bullpen takes on a body and an arm.

“You are going to wake up some days and feel like you’ve been hit by a truck, and you are going to have to pitch that night,” he said. “It’s just part of the game and something you’ve got to get used to.

“Once they call your name, the adrenalin starts pumping and the competitive fires get going and the other stuff goes out the window.”

Greene threw a 35-pitch bullpen session on Tuesday and 25 of those pitches were fastballs — which shows where Greene’s emphasis is. He has targeted poor fastball command as the cause of his inconsistency last season.

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“The days I struggle are when my fastball command is down and I am either leaving it up (in the strike zone) or the hitters aren’t swinging at my off-speed stuff because I am not throwing the fastball for a strike,” he said. “That is a major key for me.”

Greene throws three variations of a fastball — a hard, two-seam sinker (95 to 97 mph), a four-seamer (95-97 mph) and a cutter (90 mph). When he’s right, the sinker is a major weapon, but opponents hit .327 off that pitch last season — which points to the command problems.

He actually threw the cutter more often than his sinker (38 percent to 29 percent), according to Brooks Baseball.

But, when he is able to establish the fastball, his slider becomes pure evil to hitters, especially to right-handed hitters. He got a 19 percent swing-and-miss rate on the pitch last season and a .172 opponent’s average.

“I was encouraged by last season,” Greene said. “I would imagine most people in this room want to get better every day no matter how good or bad they did last year. I know I showed good signs and bad signs, but I believed I helped the team win.

“I did my job more often than not. I had a couple of blow-ups. If I can limit the blow-ups throughout the course of the year, I will be happy.”

So will Ausmus, who would like to count Greene among his late-inning options along with Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson, Bruce Rondon and, of course, closer Francisco Rodriguez.