Zack Greinke dials up the heat against the Netherlands

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke looked spotty in his first three spring training appearances, so it stood to reason that he might receive an emotional jump-start playing an exhibition game against a Netherlands team that was talented enough to earn a spot in the World Baseball Classic semifinals. During his postgame media scrum Saturday, Greinke was asked if he felt any extra excitement taking on a lineup with Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts and Jurickson Profar at the top.

"There was less excitement, if anything," Greinke said, in his typically deadpan, understated way. "I don't know. I'd rather face real lineups that you're going to face during the regular season."

If Greinke was less than inspired by the disruption in his Cactus League routine, he certainly couldn't argue with the results.

After getting flogged in a previous start against Mexico's WBC squad and posting radar-gun readings that raised yellow caution flags, Greinke took some encouraging steps in Arizona's 12-5 victory over the Dutch squad. He gave up one run over five innings, and he flashed his entire four-pitch repertoire in a 70-pitch outing that included 50 strikes.

Even better, Greinke's velocity ticked upward from an average 88 mph reading in his previous appearance. He generally trafficked in the 90-91 range with his fastball, and dialed up one 92 mph heater to Netherlands outfielder Wladimir Balentien.

So how does Greinke rate his spring performance thus far as he moves closer to a season-opening matchup against Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants on April 2?

"I guess I'd say 'solid,' " Greinke said. "I'd like for it to be better, for sure. All the pitches could be a little crisper. The location could be a little better. I feel pretty good out there for the most part. But I'm not quite where I want it to be."

This spring marks a noticeable departure from February 2016, when Greinke arrived in Scottsdale to a barrage of questions about his six-year, $206.5 million contract. Lately he has been dogged by questions about a different number. When his radar-gun readings were underwhelming in his early outings, a natural debate ensued: Is he just pacing himself to be in peak form by the opener or has he lost enough zip at age 33 to make this a development worth monitoring closely?

The onlookers in Arizona's camp -- from manager Torey Lovullo to catchers Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis -- say it's too early to pass negative judgments.

"If it were a different time of the year, I would probably be a little bit concerned," Lovullo said. "I would be worried about fatigue and stuff like that. I still think he's climbing on the 'up' elevator. He knows what he needs to do to get where he wants to be on April 2."

Greinke's velocity peaked at an average of 94 mph in 2007, when he was 23 years old and moving closer to a breakout with the Kansas City Royals. As the FanGraphs numbers show, he has gradually become less dependent on the fastball and more reliant on his secondary pitches with experience and time. He threw his 91.3 mph fastball a career-low 48 percent of the time in 2016.

The gun readings might not be scrutinized so exhaustively if the results were consistent, but Greinke's first season as a Diamondback was a puzzler. His ERA jumped from 1.66 during the 2015 season in Los Angeles to 4.37 in 2016. Factor in Shelby Miller's implosion after his arrival from Atlanta by trade, and it helps explain how the Diamondbacks went from a trendy spring training pick to 69-93 and fourth place in the National League West.

Regardless of how hard Greinke throws, he's a wonderful all-around athlete with a refreshingly analytical approach to the game. He recorded his second pickoff of spring training Saturday and produced a single and a well-struck ball to the outfield in three plate appearances. He also gave a typically thoughtful response when asked if there's enough of a spread between a 91 mph fastball and an 87 mph changeup to keep opposing hitters off-balance.

"With my changeup, if they were the same velocity, I wouldn't be upset," Greinke said. "It's more a movement pitch than a changeup."

As the spring progresses, Arizona's catchers are discovering what a delightfully creative process it can be to work with Greinke. He has the smarts and the competitive instincts to adjust, and they can see him adding little flourishes with each Cactus League start.

"You don't want to come out the first day and go all out and then be behind the eight-ball with an injury," Iannetta said. "You want to work your way into it. He's not vying for a roster spot. He's not trying to make the team. All he's doing is preparing for Opening Day and trying to be the best pitcher he can be, and it's a process. He's right on track."

On the 1-10 spectrum of euphoric to downhearted over his performance, Greinke is somewhere in the middle right now. And that's fine with the Diamondbacks. At this stage of his career, he has earned the right to proceed at his own pace.