Greene’s struggles are a mystery the Tigers hope to solve in Toledo

Right-hander Shane Greene has struggled since opening the season with three great starts.

Right-hander Shane Greene has struggled for the Detroit Tigers since opening the season with three great starts.

Over the first three weeks of the season, New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was repeatedly raked over the coals for the trade in which he acquired Didi Gregorius at the cost of talented right-hander Shane Greene. While Gregorius struggled mightily at the plate and looked lost on the bases, Greene appeared to be a revelation for the Detroit Tigers, particularly in his first three starts of the season. Greene was pitching so well that he not only looked like the Tigers’ new ace; some scouts were predicting that Greene might contend for the Cy Young Award before all was said and done.

How quickly things can change. Only six weeks later, the 26-year-old Greene is back in the minor leagues, demoted last week after a string of poor pitching performances that had raised his ERA to a ghastly 5.82. Over the span of his last 45 innings in Detroit (encompassing a total of 10 starts), Greene had pitched to an ERA of 8.60. In the meantime, his strikeout rate fell to well under a strikeout per inning, an alarming number for a power pitcher. So what could have happened to Greene in such a short span of time?

At his best, Greene throws a live fastball in the vicinity of 93-94 miles per hour, with an ability to sink the ball within the strike zone. He throws strikes consistently, has a good cutter and a decent slider, and seems to know how to mix his pitches. Dating back to his days with the Yankees, Greene displayed a good mound presence and seemed to have a feel for the subtle art of pitching. I saw Greene pitch a lot for the Yankees in 2014 and came away impressed. Looking nothing like a rookie, he always seemed to be in control while on the mound.

That mound presence disappeared in recent starts. So did the sinking movement of his fastball. When asked for specific reasons behind his problems, both Greene and manager Brad Ausmus struggled to come up with a tangible and cogent answer. “I don’t know,” Green said bluntly when asked to pinpoint why he had been failing. Ausmus was a little more enlightening, suggesting that it’s possible the right-hander’s mechanics had fallen out of sync. But Ausmus wasn’t 100 percent certain. As for other possible reasons, Ausmus couldn’t come up with much. The manager doesn’t feel that Greene has lost any confidence, nor did he even hint that Greene’s velocity had fallen off.

None of this is meant to pick on Ausmus. Even beyond Ausmus, no one within the organization seems to know exactly what has caused Greene to transform from being one of the league’s best pitchers in April into becoming a human punching bag for opposing hitters. His sudden downfall can be categorized as a mystery, at least for the moment.

If there is a positive development to be gleaned from the Greene situation, it’s that the Tigers do not believe that he is injured in any way. That is a relief, given the plague of elbow problems around the game and given that Greene already underwent a Tommy John surgery in 2008 while he was still in college.

So for now, Greene will attempt to turn around his season at Triple-A Toledo, where he will work with a new pitching coach in Mike Maroth, the former Tigers left-hander. Greene will certainly put in his work for the Mud Hens; described as a “tenacious” worker by Ausmus, Greene is not the kind of guy to sulk about a demotion. When he struggles, he will only work harder. That has always been Greene’s reputation.

The Tigers hope that a minor league stint in Toledo will allow Greene to improve his change-up, which has long been his weakest pitch. If he can upgrade his change, that will only make his fastball look livelier. As with most players who are sent back to the minors, there is a hope that Greene will have more success against weaker hitters, hitters who will not capitalize on mistake pitches as often as major leaguer hitters do. Sustained success will lead to more confidence, which may help the situation if, in fact, confidence is one of the problems that Green has been encountering.

While the Tigers are optimistic that Greene will straighten out his fortunes at Triple-A (and they need him to, given their lack of depth in the starting rotation), his situation is yet another reminder of baseball’s unpredictability. Who would have thought that Greene could suddenly pitch so badly that he would have to return to Triple-A for the first time since the first half of 2014? Similarly, who would have thought that Joba Chamberlain could become such an important part of the bullpen after enduring such a dreadful second half and postseason in 2014? Or that Anibal Sanchez would have an ERA of 5.16 through his first 13 starts of 2015?

The game’s mysteries, especially as they pertain to pitchers, remain alive and well.

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About Bruce Markusen

Bruce Markusen is the manager of digital and outreach learning at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY. He is the author of seven books on baseball.