On the morning
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.
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.
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.
In addition to their intelligence, both pitchers have a nasty streak that belies their unimposing build.
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,
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,
In 2009, Greinke announced his presence to the world with authority, going 6-1, 0.51 in his first seven starts.
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
What remains to be seen is whether Greinke can replicate
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
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
In his first season with
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.
For one, he’s listed at 6’2” and 200 pounds, compared to
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