Lakeland, Fla. — Shane Greene will look you in the eye and tell you, straight up, he wasn’t injured last season. Yes, he had to shut it down for 10 days last July with a dead arm, and sometimes the fingers on his pitching hand will still tingle and go numb, especially on cold days.
But that’s just residue from the neuritis he’s dealt with since 2015. That had nothing to do with his rocky ride last season.
“Just fatigue,” he said Friday after throwing his first bullpen of the spring. “Mentally and physically, last year was a roller-coaster ride for me. I was just as mentally exhausted as I was physically at the end of the year.”
The 5.12 ERA, the 4.61 FIP (fielding independent pitching), the 1.374 WHIP, the 12 home runs allowed in 63⅓ innings, the six blown saves and six losses, the .292 batting average and .508 slugging percentage by right-handed hitters, whom he has dominated over his career — all paint the bleak picture that 2018 was for the Tigers’ closer.
“Baseball will happen,” Greene said. “It will humble you. It’ll be nice when some of those home runs turn into fly balls to the warning track.”
It wasn’t all bad. Greene posted 32 saves, which was tied for fourth most in the American League and seventh in baseball, and he had a 3.6-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But when he did hit that proverbial wall sometime in August, it didn’t give an inch.
Over his last 25 appearances, opponents' slash-line against Greene was a gaudy .302/.361/.531. He posted a 6.94 ERA and 1.58 WHIP over that span. Because of that late-season fade, he’s changed his offseason approach — drastically for him.
“I gave myself a little bit more of a break in the offseason,” said Greene, a notorious gym rat in the offseason. “For the first time in my life I feel like I can actually use spring training to get ready, instead of getting ready for spring training.
“I am kind of using that to my advantage, and hopefully that will make my season seem shorter, not longer.”
It had to seem so strange for Greene to wait until Feb. 8 to through his first bullpen. And his daily routine going forward is going to be different, and take some getting used to, as well.
“I do a lot on a daily basis,” he said. “My discipline is there because I am in the weight room every day making sure I am ready. But at the same time, I am going to change my program a little bit. I am going to have more of a set program.
“Before I would just listen to my body every day to determine what I did that day. This year I am going to sit down and make a set program — on Monday I will do this, on Tuesday I will do this, etc. This way I can make sure I do what I need to do, but not to do too much.”
Remember, too, last year was Greene’s first full season in the closer’s role. Neither his mind nor his body, regardless of how hard he trained both, were ready for the toll that extracted. Think about this: More than half of the Tigers games last season, 83, were decided by one or two runs.
That means Greene, as the closer, needed to be warm and ready to go in the majority of those games.
“You don’t realize how many times you get ready to pitch in the game and you don’t get in,” he said. “As a closer, if we are losing by a run, I am getting ready. I’ve got to be ready. I wasn’t aware that was going to be a thing as a closer. But now I know.”
He worked in 66 games and he probably warmed up without being used in at least another 10 or more.
“The good news is, we were in a lot of close games. That’s what that means,” he said. “Had we won more of those games, I would’ve pitched in more of them and then I would probably have had more days off where Joe (Jimenez) would’ve closed.
“I learned a lot from last year and I am going to carry it over to this year.”
Whether it was due to the fatigue or not, the reality is, Greene’s repertoire wasn’t as consistently nasty as it was in 2017. His spin rate and velocity were down on all three of his primary pitches last season. And, correspondingly, damage by hitters was up on all three.
Here’s a breakdown, using data from Statcast and Brooks Baseball.
SINKER (Two-seam fastball)
Average velocity: 95.5 mph-94 mph
Spin rate: 2,293 (revolutions)-2,215
Average velocity: 83-81
Spin rate: 2,655-2,591
Average velocity: 89-88
Spin rate: 2,656-2585
Greene, if he ever even looked at them, has deleted those numbers from his mind. It’s a new year and clean slate.
“I try to set goals I can control,” he said. “I can’t control what the score is when I get into a game. I can’t control how many save opportunities I get. What I can control is my pitch efficiency when I am in there. Not giving up free bases. Last year my goal was to walk less guys than I did the previous year, and I did that. That’s my goal again this year.
“And to make pitches when I need to. Last year I got into some pitcher’s counts and tried to do too much and paid for it a lot.”
Greene, who signed a one-year, $4 million deal ahead of arbitration last month, comes to camp as the closer, though Jimenez, an All-Star last season in the setup role, is knocking on that door. Greene and Jimenez have formed a tight bond the last two seasons. Jimenez is the go-to guy for many of the young Latin pitchers and Greene is the dean of the bullpen now.
“I don’t really view myself as a leader,” Greene said. “I’ve never been that guy. I’ve always been the underdog trying to work in the shadows. Maybe I lead by example, doing what I do on the field.”
Still, you can walk through the Tigers clubhouse on any given day and see Greene at his locker listening and giving counsel to one or more young pitchers.
“They do come to me and if I can help, I will,” he said. “I will speak my mind when I need to. If they have questions, I will answer them. But everybody has their own journey to get here and we’ve all learned through those journeys.
“My road was pretty tough, so I learned a lot along the way.”