Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Future of Pitching vs. The Past.

On the morning June 6th, 1968, Bob Gibson had a 1.66 ERA. Even in the Year of the Pitcher, this was a perfectly respectable performance, but his record was only 4-5 thanks to poor support from the Cardinals.

That day Gibson threw the first of five consecutive complete-game shutouts. Then after surrendering a run the next time out, he threw another shutout, then another complete-game with just one run, then two more shutouts. Over a 10-start stretch, Gibson threw 10 complete games, eight shutouts, and went 10-0 with a 0.20 ERA. It’s safe to say that this represents the best ten-game stretch by a pitcher in baseball history. His season ERA at the end of this stretch was 0.96. Even though he would throw four more shutouts in his next seven starts, his ERA rose to a scandalous 0.99 at the conclusion of play on September 2nd, at which point Gibson had made 29 starts (and thrown 263 innings!). He could not maintain that pace through September, but finished the year with his famous 1.12 ERA.

That winter, Major League Baseball lowered the mound, shrunk the strike zone, and restored the balance of play between pitchers and hitters. Needless to say, no pitcher has made it 29 starts into a season with an ERA that starts with “0” since. With many thanks to Baseball Prospectus’ William Burke, I can tell you that since Gibson, only one pitcher has made it to even 10 starts with an ERA under 1. Fernando Valenzuela made it to nine starts in his fabulous rookie season of 1981, and Randy Johnson made it that far in 2000. (We’ll get to the guy who tops the list later.)

Zack Greinke lost last night because the Royals, in an effort to honor their heritage, picked a particularly inopportune time to be shut out for the first time all season. Nonetheless, Greinke has a 0.51 ERA after seven starts. Greinke has put so much distance between himself and a 1.00 ERA that even if he were to, for instance, surrender two earned runs in seven innings in each of his next two starts, he would still have a 0.94 ERA. He has an excellent chance to make it to 10 starts with an ERA in the aughts, which means that Greinke is well on his way to having the second-best start to a season by a pitcher in the last 40 years.

It’s hard to put his performance in perspective, because the best way to put it in perspective it to compare it with other performances, and there just aren’t many comparables. It’s just as hard to compare Greinke himself with any other pitcher, because few pitchers have ever elevated themselves to this degree.

When Greinke was a rookie, I compared him to Bret Saberhagen, and I think this holds up very well. Saberhagen, like Greinke, was a rookie at 20, showed preternatural control, threw four plus pitches, and as his velocity increased in his early 20s he developed into a power pitcher without surrendering his command. Greinke is 25, and at age 25 Saberhagen had what is to this point the best season in franchise history. Certainly Saberhagen belongs on any short list of “most comparable pitchers” to Greinke of the last 30 years.

The thing is – and I know this is almost sacrilegious to say, but Saberhagen himself has said as much – I’m not sure Saberhagen was ever as dominant as Greinke is right now. Saberhagen closed his age-25 season the way Greinke opened his, going 6-0 with a 0.56 ERA in 48 innings. But even Saberhagen only struck out 43 batters in that stretch, and just once struck out more than seven in a start.

But if Saberhagen isn’t perfectly comparable to Greinke, the other obvious candidates aren’t any better. John Hart, speaking on the MLB Network, recently described Greinke as “like Greg Maddux, but with better stuff”. That seems to be a popular comparison to make, but I think that’s a reflection of how well Greinke is pitching, not how he is pitching.

Greinke might have better velocity than Maddux, but I don’t know that he has better stuff. He has different stuff, certainly. He throws 95 and has that divebombing slider and that rainbow curveball. Maddux threw his fastball 87, but with a ridiculous amount of movement. Greinke’s changeup is his fourth pitch; Maddux’s changeup was, at his peak, as good a pitch as there was in baseball. Maddux was always an extreme groundball pitcher; Greinke is a flyball pitcher. Aside from the fact that both were considered the best pitcher in baseball, I don’t think this comparison works at all.

So who else is there? Roger Clemens? Built entirely differently, lacked a finesse component to his game (he never walked fewer than two batters per nine innings in a season), and used a splitter as an out pitch. Orel Hershiser? See Maddux above. Randy Johnson? Um, no. That would also go for fellow lefties Valenzuela and Johan Santana.

That leaves only one transcendent pitcher of the past 30 years. And the more I think about this comparison, the more I think that it might just work.

Pedro Martinez.

Start with their repertoires. Both throw their fastball around 94-95; not the fastest in the league, but not far from the top. More importantly, both throw their fastball with precision to both sides of the plate. Both are four-pitch pitchers with an almost uncanny ability to add or subtract from their pitches so that no two pitches are completely alike. There are some differences. Martinez’s changeup was among the best in baseball, while Greinke throws his just a few times a game. Greinke’s curveball is tremendous, while Pedro rarely threw his. But in terms of the sheer variety of pitches they both throw, they’re very comparable.

Both are renowned for their intellect on the mound. Greinke doesn’t come across in interviews as brilliant, but of course he was an honors student in high school, and on the mound had picked up nuances of pitching as a teenager that most pitchers don’t learn until their 30s. Martinez is one of the smartest men in baseball; he has better command of the English language than all but a few players from Latin America, and once earned a standing ovation from a crowd of reporters in Montreal by accepting an award with a speech delivered entirely in French.

In addition to their intelligence, both pitchers have a nasty streak that belies their unimposing build. Martinez famously said of the Yankees, “Wake up the Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I’ll drill him in the ass.” Greinke doesn’t have any quotes quite that memorable, but he’s probably pissed off more opposing teams with a well-placed fastball to the ribs than any other Royals pitcher of the decade. In his first full year as a starter, Martinez led the NL in hit batsmen with 11 in the strike-shortened 1994. In his first full year, Greinke beaned 13 batters of his own to finish fourth in the AL.

Both are flyball pitchers, so that even when they’re at their best, they’re still somewhat vulnerable to the home run. In fact, when Pedro was at his turn-of-the-millenium peak, the home run was about the only way to score off him (as, for instance, in this game, or this one). Of course, when Pedro did give up homers, the damage was generally limited by the fact that no one was usually on base at the time. (In 1999, Martinez gave up nine homers – all of them solo shots. In 2000, 13 of 17 homers came with no one on base.)

Turn-of-the-millenium Pedro was the answer to a question I had had for a long time: what would it be like if you gave the ultimate finesse pitcher power stuff? I mean, look at someone like Jamie Moyer, who's figured out how to succeed in the majors with an 82-mph fastball. What would happen if someone who "knew" how to pitch so well that they could succeed with below-average stuff, like Moyer or late-career John Tudor, suddenly woke up with the best stuff in baseball?

That was Pedro when he was Pedro: the best power pitcher AND the best finesse pitcher in the game. It's obviously premature to put Greinke in the same class, but his stuff is as good as anyone in the game - and the touch he has on his pitches is almost unparalleled.

If the two are similar stylistically, they’re almost identical statistically. Consider this:

In 2008, at age 24, Greinke went 13-10 with a 3.47 ERA.

In 1996, at age 24, Martinez went 13-10 with a 3.70 ERA.

In 2009, Greinke announced his presence to the world with authority, going 6-1, 0.51 in his first seven starts.

In 1997, Martinez announced his presence, winning his first seven starts with a 1.20 ERA.

Break the first seven starts of their respective seasons down even further, and the comparison is even better:

Greinke, 2009: 53 IP, 34 H, 8 BB, 59 K, 0 HR

Martinez, 1997: 52.1 IP, 34 H, 11 BB, 56 K, 3 HR

Martinez, like Greinke, was considered one of the most promising young pitchers in the game for some time, and had shown flashes of brilliance before. (In 1995, he famously threw a perfect game that was ruined when the game went into extra innings and he surrendered a leadoff double in the tenth.) Thus, when he came out of the gate like gangbusters in 1997, it didn’t take long for people to take his start seriously. No one expected 1999-2000 Pedro, maybe, but this wasn’t Cliff Lee, where people kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. There were no SI covers for him that year, but as with Greinke this year, from very early in 1997 it was clear Martinez was taking his rightful place among the best pitchers in the game.

What remains to be seen is whether Greinke can replicate Martinez in terms of psychological impact. I think that, as much as any pitcher in my lifetime, when Martinez was at his peak, there was a sense before every start that you were about to see history that night. As Bill Simmons has documented here (and here and here), Pedro Martinez was not simply a pitcher – he was an Experience.

It’s too early to answer whether there is such a thing as The Zack Greinke Experience. But it’s not too early to wonder. Remember, Greinke today is at the same point that Martinez was in early 1997, when he was still an Expo, when the world outside his hometown was just starting to learn how extraordinary he was. It was only after he had proven that he could sustain this level of performance for months, even years, before the hometown fans (with home now being Boston) approached each of his starts anticipating – no, expecting – something they had never seen before. Something no one had seen before.

As Simmons wrote, “Sometimes Pedro lifts me to a higher place, the same way Bird and MJ did. Every time you count Pedro out, he responds. Every time he gets challenged, he roars back. Every time you think he's extraordinary, he does something that makes you think he's just a little bit greater. And honestly, I don't know what else to say. I love the guy. I've never even met him, but I love the guy.”

Greinke isn’t there yet, for the simple reason that it’s only been seven starts. But in two of his last three home starts, the buzz in the crowd, the way the fans sustained their passion from his first pitch to his last, is unlike anything I’ve seen at Kauffman Stadium in a long time. (The middle start, played in a rainstorm on a Wednesday night, drew barely 10,000 fans. But even that crowd was awfully rowdy for its size.)

So yeah, the Zack Greinke Experience is certainly possible. For the first time since Kevin Appier was in his prime, I do everything in my power to adjust my schedule around the Royals every fifth night. And for the first time ever, when Greinke is on the mound, I feel like I’m watching something more than just a Royals game. I’m watching an artist at work, and the art he creates hits me at an almost spiritual level. I know that the other team has to do everything almost perfectly – like the Angels did Saturday night – to have a shot. Every time out I feel like I might see something I’ve never seen before. And yeah, as much as I can love a guy I’ve never even met, I love Zack Greinke.

Why do I bring this up? Why don’t we just let the years play out and see how Greinke compares to Martinez down the line? Because if Greinke really is the second coming of Martinez, then a look at what happened to Pedro after his first seven starts of 1997 is rather instructive. And more than a little encouraging.

Martinez was nearly as dominant the rest of that season, posting a 2.10 ERA, but went just 10-8 the rest of the way due to criminal lack of support. He finished 1997 with a 17-8 record, a 1.90 ERA, and 305 strikeouts (the Expos/Nationals record by more than 50). He won the Cy Young Award. He was then traded to Boston in a trade (for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas) that in retrospect signaled the death knell of baseball in Montreal.

In his first season with Boston, he “slumped” to a 19-7, 2.89 ERA season, and finished second in Cy Young voting to the Blue Jays’ Roger Clemens. He made up for the disappointment by going 23-4, 2.07 in 1999, and 18-6, 1.74 in 2000. This was at the height of the Steroid Era – the league ERAs were 4.87 and 4.92, and in the middle of all that Martinez put up the lowest ERA by any qualifying AL starter since 1968.

Oh, and remember how I made the case that Greinke could be the second pitcher of the divisional era to have an ERA under 1 after ten starts? The only other pitcher to do that was Pedro in 2000, whose ERA after TWELVE starts stood at 0.99.

Montreal benefited from just a fraction of Martinez’s exploits, because they didn’t lock him up to a four-year deal right before he went nuclear. But the Royals did, to a $38 million contract that Greinke is doing his best to earn in his first season alone. Just to give you an idea, if Greinke pitches the same way Martinez pitched from ages 25 to 28, you’re looking at this over the next four years: 77 wins, 25 losses, a 2.16 ERA, and 1153 strikeouts in 905 innings.

Martinez started a slow fade after 2000. He was still the best pitcher in the league, inning-for-inning, but was available for fewer and fewer innings, until after 2005 he was suddenly unable to compensate for one too many arm injuries. (Though I strongly feel that in the right role, Martinez would still represent an outstanding gamble for any team so inclined to tender him a contract at mid-season.) But at least on the issue of durability, Greinke has a big edge on Pedro.

For one, he’s listed at 6’2” and 200 pounds, compared to Martinez’ 5’11” and 170. For another, he’s pitching a decade later, a decade which – largely due to pitchers like Martinez – saw the pitch count adopted throughout baseball as a thoughtful way to protect pitchers’ arms. Greinke’s career high in pitches is 117. By comparison, Martinez had thrown 120 or more pitches 14 times in his career before 1997 – and then the pace picked up. In 1997 alone he would do so 11 times, reaching a high of 139 pitches in a start. In 1998, he did so 12 times, including 140 twice. In 1999, 12 more times; in 2000, “just” seven times. In 2001, he missed two months with an injury and made just 18 starts.

What happens to Greinke after his current contract is up is not really worth contemplating at the moment. What is worth contemplating is that whether or not Greinke can lead the Royals into the playoffs this year, there is an excellent chance that the Zack Greinke Experience will continue next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. So let’s not fret too much about his loss on Saturday, or the three-game losing streak, or the fact that we’re percentage points out of first place at the moment. If Greinke really is the best pitcher in baseball, this won’t be our last chance to ride his right arm into the postseason.

And in the meantime, every fifth game, the Zack Greinke Experience is Must See TV.


(Just a reminder: last week’s show is podcast here. This week’s show is tomorrow (i.e. MONDAY) at 7 PM CDT, not Thursday. Our special guest is Sam Mellinger, who I'm told is a blogger of some renown. I’ll also be on WHB tomorrow morning around 9 AM. And in light of recent events, I’ll hopefully have something up on Soria/Hochevar/Ponson before Tuesday night’s game.)


Casper said...

Good stuff, per usual, on Greinke.

As for the Royals as a team, I've been waiting for this to happen, the end of the winning streak, to see how we'd respond. Look, we've won before, but it's whenever we have stopped winning that we have always seemed to establish a new bar for losing. I'm going to be watching with a lot of interest this next game against Oakland to see how the team handles itself and plays the game. Personally, I think it's a "must-win." Maybe not for the standings so much (it's still early in the year) but because it will, at least to me, tell me with more finality than any other game so far this season, what kind of a team we have.

Mike said...

Sam Mellinger over at Ball Star has been looking for a nickname for Greinke for a couple weeks now...and while ProZack, The Burrito, The Sandman (ZZZZ) and (my favorite) The Lawnmower Man are clever...and while the explanation of the Baseball Jonah had me convinced at first...Rany, I think you've nailed it.
Zack Greinke - The Experience...are you Experienced?

Consider: As noted, how often does a city or fanbase turn out solely for one player? Brett, Bo, Saberhagen, Appier and now Greinke. Going to the ballpark when he starts, it's electric. I was one of the few in attendance on that Wednesday vs. Toronto, and every borderline pitch, the crowd became viscerally angry at the umpires for scorning our Greinke's pitching performance. Watching that game from the outfield seats was, indeed, an Experience. Just like his shut out of the White Sox. There was nothing pulling me away from the TV that night. And I'm glad I was watching to Experience that game.

Anonymous said...

I haven't looked up the stats or anything, but on a gut level Zack reminds me more of Steve Carlton than any other pitcher I've seen

Anonymous said...

Perhaps you can convince Sam to move on from his obsession with the ballpark name and concentrate on what he actually does best, write about the Royals.

Anonymous said...

If he keeps pitching this well the games will get so crowded no one will go (tribute to the great Yog).

I've attended three Greinke starts so far. He never seemed in danger (and one of those starts was the sloppy 5 inning 107 pitch game against Cleveland on a frigid night).

The Monday game against the Sox was the most gratifying. Though he gave up six hits I thought he was so very close to a no-no. It's in a situation like that that you learn how much luck is involved in a no-no.

Curtis said...

I think I was more impressed by his loss than a couple of his victories. He seemed to be behind in the count a whole lot, and he was not getting nearly as many swings and misses as usual, and several balls were hit pretty hard. He was fortunate that the defense made several nice plays. So the whole time I was sitting there thinking he didn't have his best stuff.

And then at the end of the game you look up and see that he had given up one run and just a few hits and no walks in eight innings. And that was without his best stuff. Simply amazing.

Nathan said...

I agree with Curtis. Greinke was struggling Saturday--for him--but for a lot of pitchers, that could've been the best game of the year.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Curtis. He clearly didn't have his best stuff, but he only gave up 1 run. He's a terrific pitcher right now.

Tim said...

Funny thing, I was there that middle start on that cold wednesday night, and let me tell you the atmosphere was electric.
Every fan in the stadium knew we were going to win, every fan knew that Greinke was going to dominant, and really him surrendering his first run just upped the excitement.
It was literally like a gladiator just scratched a lion with his sword, you were just waiting for the lion to turn and bite off his head.

Anonymous said...

with soria now on the dl and who knows what the real problem may be, how about signing pedro to be a late inning reliever/closer and perhaps set up soria when he gets healthy

adoyleBU said...

Tim - That gladiator and lion analogy is so fantastic that I think I'm going to have to steal it the next time he gives up a run when my roommate and I are watching him pitch. I'll probably add more cursing to it though (ie - "just waiting for the lion to turn and bite his effing head off").

cito 4 ever said...

Thanks for an inspired piece of baseball writing. Thinking back to Pedro's heyday (if only someone would give him a chance this year!) reminded me of so much that is glorious about the game. Hopefully new generation players like Greinke, Longoria and others will bring a bit of the magic back.

Lance said...

My grade school years (1960-1964) were spent in Bloomington, MN. I was there for the last year of the Miller's and then the first four summers of the Twins. I lived less than a mile from Metropolitan Stadium. I loved Camilo Pascual and that is who Zack reminds of. Camilo came to the Senators, who were terrible, at age 20. His breakout year was at age 25. He was a strike out pitcher (leading the league for 3 straight years) with a fastball he would throw inside and a big, bugs bunny curve. Pascual was righthanded, 5'11" and 185, slightly smaller than Zack. I like the Pedro statstical comparison, but Camilo fits the bill better in terms of style, motion and similarity of pitches.

Walt Z said...

whomever just anonymously suggested we sign pedro is awesome. right now KC has five starting pitchers throwing well: greinke, meche, davies, banny and reportedly hochevar. this represents absolutely the best case scenario any one could have hoped for coming out of spring training.and if there's any silver lining to the soria shoulder soreness, it's that it led to hochevar replacing the fat prince in the rotation.

although many believe quality starts are a stupid stat (mostly because the worst possible quality start results in a 4.50 ERA for the night), this stat seems to correlate well with wins and position in the standings. as i have mentioned before in this forum, KC basically needs at least 85 and probably closer to 90 QS to contend.

why not sign pedro to help out in the pen? it certainly will take pedro 2-4 weeks to get ready for the big leagues... but he then represents a big time insurance policy for soria's shoulder and/or meche's balking back.

go royals!

Bart said...

I 2nd "The Experience" as a nickname. Kind of a Rany/Simmons collaboration. Rany, you know you're going to be on the podcast before long since Simmons loves the Royals so much this year.

rey rey said...

I love the idea of signing Pedro to close (not knowing how long Soria may actually be out).

Connecticut Mike said...

Interesting piece Rany. My question is, when are we going to get some of these Greinke starts on TV? I would love to see some of them, but I cannot justify spending the money on just to see him.

Are the Royals going to have a Saturday Fox game or Sunday night ESPN game at some point this season? When is the last time that happened?

Anonymous said...

If you can get MLB Network, they have the Orioles/Royals game scheduled for this Thursday (I believe that's a Greinke start).

Anonymous said...

I take that back...I see that Meche is scheduled to pitch Thursday, Greinke Friday.

Anonymous said...

Watch out for Johan Santana, he's got a 0.78 ERA now after 7 starts....only .26 behind Greinke in the same amount of starts. Biggest difference between them seems to be Santana has no SHO's or CG's. In fact, Johan hasn't pitched beyond the 7th in any game yet.

Anonymous said...

That's not the biggest difference, Devon. The biggest difference is 4 at-bats against Johan get to come against pitchers or some bench player pinch hitting and not Thome, Ortiz, or any other American League DH.

Zack Greinke Fan said...

Great stuff on Greinke. I love your in depth analysis and comparison.

So when will we see you wearing the new Zack Greinke shirt at Kauffman?

Here it is in case you haven't seen it:

Anonymous said...

The Experience is a perfect nickname

Anonymous said...

I was wondering about the possibility of, when Gordon comes back, maybe trying to work out a trade of Teahen and either Bannister or Hochevar to the Rangers for Michael Young and some prospect like Max Ramirez. It might be worth looking into. Teahen's versatility makes him an asset though.

Curtis said...

BTW, pitchers have had only twelve official plate appearances against Santana this year in seven starts. There are a couple of walks and a couple of sacrifices in there as well. But a bunch of 0-fers overstates it. In most of the games, by the third at bat, the pitcher is being hit for.

Andrew said...

Interesting stuff, Rany, but I would point out that in Pedro's magical 2000, his ERA actually stood at something above 1.00 after five of his first seven starts, whereas Greinke's current 0.51 after seven starts is the highest it's been all season.