I happily confess to having an irrational and probably unhealthy man-crush on Zack Greinke. This is not a new thing. I was the one who wrote, in Baseball Prospectus 2005, “With apologies to Jon Landau, we have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke.” I have his jersey in my closet – well, not his jersey, I didn’t steal it or anything – the first and only replica player jersey I own.
Much like Will Leitch strutting his stuff in a Rick Ankiel jersey, I can think of no better way of proving my allegiance to the Royals than to wear the jersey of the one man who, for better or for worse, sums up the potential, the youthful exuberance, and the crushing disappointment that the Royals have embodied for so many years.
All things equal, I have always preferred to watch a pitching virtuoso than a hitting genius. No matter how locked in a hitter is, you have to wait around for eight other hitters to finish his turn before he gets another chance. When Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez is on his game, though, he continues to paint his masterpiece pitch by pitch, batter by batter.
More importantly, pitching is action; hitting is reaction. Pitching is a thinking man’s endeavor – your effort is planned in advance, and the man who can throw the pitch that the hitter isn’t looking for is the man who will out-pitch his stuff. Maddux is famous for sometimes setting up hitters in spring training, deliberately delivering gopher pitches in March in order to gain an edge when he faces the same batter when the standings count.
The thing is, ever since the Royals traded away Bret Saberhagen, they haven’t had a pitcher who could overpower hitters with stuff or befuddle them with guile depending on his mood. Kevin Appier could do the former, and Jose Rosado could do the latter, but no one could both.
Until Greinke came along, and as a 20-year-old rookie threatened to re-invent pitching as we knew it. He threw 94 mph fastballs, he threw 88 mph sinkers with movement, he threw 82 mph late-breaking sliders, he threw diving changeups that rode in on right-handers in the low 70s, and he threw two different curveballs, a tight-breaker in the 70s and that ridiculous slow LaLob-like pitch that would get timed in the 50s and drop something like six feet out of the sky. And he threw all those pitchers with pinpoint command.
The most succinct description of his uniqueness came from Rob Neyer, who in one of Greinke’s starts wrote down the velocity of every pitch coming off the radar gun. By the end of his start, Greinke had hit every number between 62 and 94 with the exception of two. You don’t see that from seasoned veterans, let alone a guy who’s supposed to be drinking Shirley Temples.
We all know what’s happened since then, the bout with social anxiety and depression, the time away from the game in 2006, and the rather triumphant return last season, capped off with a brilliant two-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout performance over eight innings against the White Sox on September 20th. Greinke’s game score for that game, 88, is the highest in Royals history for a starter who didn’t pitch at least nine innings.
The story that’s been missed is how Greinke’s pitching style has so radically changed from his rookie season. It started in 2005, when he battled with then-pitching coach Guy Hansen in spring training about how to approach hitters. It seemed Hansen won and the Royals lost: Greinke came out throwing a lot harder, but lacked the touch on his fastball, and after a promising beginning (a 3.09 ERA in his first eight starts) was taken behind the woodshed, with a 6.73 ERA and 189 hits allowed in 136 innings after May 15th.
Even as he regained his rookie performance level last season, he wasn’t the same pitcher. For one thing, his velocity was notably better than it was the last time we saw him. He was routinely hitting 96 in April, and after a shaky start got him moved to the bullpen, he became platonic friends with the third digit on the radar gun, coming close but never quite touching 100. His curveball came in around 83 with tight break and 12-6 movement.
The thing is, that’s all he threw. The slider was completely junked, which I guess I can understand given that it was his fourth best pitch. But he almost never threw his changeup, even when he moved back to the rotation in August, and he literally never threw his ultra-slow pitch. I know a lot of people think of that pitch as a gimmick, a show-offy trick pitch that really doesn’t do anything, but I disagree. He didn’t use that pitch as a show-me pitch; he used it to get people out.
Regardless, watching Greinke’s starts became must-see TV by the end of the year. This year, he’s a year removed from his psychological issues, he’s proven that he can be an effective starter again, and at 24, he’s ready to break out. He’s also just three years from free agency already, so it’s time for the Royals to cut off the tag and see what he can do.
I think they’re doing just that. As Bob Dutton reported earlier this spring, the streamlining of Greinke’s repertoire last season was not Bob McClure’s handiwork, it was his own. McClure has, on the contrary, been working with him to use all of his pitches.
McClure contends Greinke must learn to mix an increased number of off-speed pitches to his repertoire in order to succeed as a starter. Greinke is not only unconvinced. He admits to doubts in matter-of-fact candor.
“It’s always tough for me to believe something until I see it,” he said. “In the bullpen, I was so used to throwing a lot of fastballs and some sliders. When I was starting again, still, the fastball and slider were working.
“Mac keeps telling me, though, that I will have to use other pitches. And I know that. But until I see it, I won’t 100 percent believe it.”
I must confess to being shocked by this information. I mean, Greinke had the most diverse repertoire I’ve ever seen from a 20-year-old pitcher – wasn’t that his own doing? My friend John Sickels – I’ll never forget this – sent out a scouting report of Greinke when he was in Omaha, a few weeks before his major league debut, and described with some incredulity that Greinke was pitching to Triple-A hitters with a detached curiosity, changing speeds and varying his tempo just to see what would happen, like a junior high kid dissecting an insect to see what was inside.
I wonder if, on some level, Greinke was already suffering from some depression – that the reason he threw all those weird pitches in 2004 was because he really didn’t care what would happen. And because he didn’t care, he also wasn’t afraid of failure, and in a perverse way that’s exactly how you want a young pitcher to feel. So maybe the fact that Greinke needs to be reminded that he can't expect to keep getting hitters out with only two pitches is a reflection of the fact that his treatment for depression is working. That’s a tradeoff we’ll all take.
Nonetheless, if McClure can get through to Greinke, and get him to combine the approach that worked in 2004 with the improved velocity he has shown since then...he could kick some serious ass. So when the Royals took the field against the White Sox this past Sunday on WGN, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Greinke pitch. I couldn’t have been more excited. Oh, the results were great – four hits, one walk, six strikeouts in six innings – but it was his approach on the mound that I wanted to see. It was everything I hoped for.
His first pitch of the game was a batting-practice fastball right down the middle, which even Jerry Owens can hit for a triple. Greinke went ahead 0-2 on Orlando Cabrera, but didn’t bury the curveball enough and Cabrera was able to score the runner with a groundout. Then after getting ahead of Jim Thome 0-2, he again left a curveball up to high and Thome blooped it to left for a double. I was starting to get worried.
But Greinke got out of the inning, and then he started to roll. He threw nothing but fastballs and curves the first two innings, but the curveball was the slow, 70s variety, not the harder curve he threw more of last year, and the difference in velocity on his two pitches was keeping the White Sox off balance. Then the second time through the lineup, he expanded the repertoire.
He broke out the changeup that we saw precious little of last year, and it was nasty. No, it was nasty. He also mixed in several mid-80s sliders as an out pitch – I thought it was a hard curveball, but post-game quotes indicated it was a slider, which is a reminder that 1) Greinke’s slider is more of a downer than a sweeper, and 2) I am not a scout. If memory serves, all four of his pitches – fastball, changeup, curveball, slider – resulted in strike three at least once during the game. Most guys are happy if they have one out pitch. On Sunday, Greinke had four.
He gave up a home run to Carlos Quentin on a fastball, and as long as he’s a flyball pitcher he’s going to be prone to the occasional big fly. But he has such superb control and such a strong ability to miss bats that he can still flirt with a sub-3 ERA even if he gives up 20-25 homers. Statistically speaking, the pitcher he reminds me of most is Curt Schilling, who in 2001 had an ERA under 3 even though he surrendered 37 homers. (That seems like a record, and it turns out it is – no other pitcher has allowed that many homers with an ERA under 3.)
As I wrote the other day over at Baseball Prospectus (sorry, registration required) Greinke and Schilling share another desirable quality: they both allow very few unearned runs. Schilling’s has allowed just .179 unearned runs per nine innings, the lowest rate in major league history for anyone with 600 runs allowed or more. Greinke has been even better: he’s allowed just nine unearned runs in his entire career, or .178 per nine innings, despite the fact that in his three full seasons in the majors, the Royals have finished second, first, and fourth in the AL in errors. As the average pitcher allows roughly .42 unearned runs per nine innings, that means Greinke’s ability to limit unearned runs is the equivalent of lowering his ERA by about 24 points. That comes out to about 5 runs over a full season, which isn’t chump change.
It helps that he’s a flyball pitcher, as flyballs don’t turn into errors as much as grounders. But also, he’s a fabulous defensive player himself – he would have been a third or fourth round pick at shortstop, and even though he’s a flyball pitcher, his range factor (1.78 plays per nine innings) is above the norm for a pitcher (1.65). And I’ve never seen him rattled by a misplay behind him on the field. He’s like the anti-Jeff Weaver in that regard.
If Bill Simmons can call Larry Bird the Basketball Jesus, I propose a new name for Greinke: The Baseball Jonah. Both were entrusted with a great blessing (prophethood for Jonah, four plus pitches for Greinke). Both struggled to convert their gifts into tangible results (the people refused to believe Jonah; Greinke lost 17 games in 2005.) Both did the unthinkable and walked away from their gifts. Both came to see the error of their ways, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Greinke while on hiatus from the team in 2006.
I can’t speak to the Biblical version of the story, but in the Islamic narrative, given a second chance, Jonah is wildly successful, returning to Nineveh and converting almost the entire city to the path of God. Let us hope that The Baseball Jonah is equally triumphant in the second act of his career.
There’s no reason he can’t be, because he absolutely has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young award, like, this year. Which is sort of nice, because the Royals’ playoff hopes for the next three years are almost entirely dependent in having Greinke turn into a Cy Young contender. He’s got the talent. He’s got an organization that didn’t give up on him when he was at his lowest. Now it’s time to see how high he can fly.