Alright, let’s talk about something positive for a change. I’m halfway through a piece breaking down the Dayton Moore contract extension rumors, but it’s a lot more fun to talk about Zack Greinke instead.
As everyone knows, Greinke struck out 15 batters last Tuesday, becoming the first pitcher in the 40-year history of the franchise to do so. Most every Royals fan knows about the fact that no one on the team has ever hit more than 36 homers, but the fact that no Royals pitcher had ever struck out 15 batters has long been a nearly equally embarrassing factoid for me. Just as the Royals have never had a truly dominant power hitter, the lack of a 15-K start points to a lack of a truly dominant power pitcher throughout the franchise’s history.
Steve Busby was, briefly, and he probably would have reached the 15-K plateau at some point, but his arm was shredded after just three seasons. Dennis Leonard was perhaps the closest the Royals have come, at least in 1977, when he struck out 244 batters, a franchise record that has never been challenged until this year. That season Leonard struck out 13 twice, 12 once, 11 once, and 10 twice, but never more than that. And in recent years, Kevin Appier certainly had the ability – he once struck out 13 batters in just 5.2 innings – but his propensity for high pitch counts made it difficult for him to stay in long enough to amass 15 strikeouts.
But on one otherwise non-descript Tuesday evening in yet another wasted Royals season, Greinke washed away 40 years of history, and all you need to know about Greinke is that I was neither surprised nor all that impressed by his accomplishment. Okay, I was impressed in the sense that Greinke is always impressive, but there was no sense of astonishment or wonder from my perspective. On the contrary, the way Greinke has thrown since about this time last year, I thought a 15-strikeout start was almost inevitable. I didn’t think he could have a start like this – I thought he would have a start like this, and it was just a matter of time. It just so happened that August 25th was the date. Greinke has made the extraordinary look absolutely commonplace, and there’s no greater compliment I can pay him than to say that when he set an all-time Royals record, I didn’t even flinch.
But I must say, for him to follow up his 15-strikeout performance with a one-hit shutout…for him to follow up a performance never before duplicated by a Royal with a performance that was last done in 1995...okay, even the Baseball Jonah’s biggest fan is impressed by that. If Greinke makes the extraordinary look commonplace, he also makes the inconceivable look merely impressive.
You may have seen the list of pitchers who have followed up a 15-strikeout performance with a one-hit complete game in their next start. It’s a short list – Greinke is just the fourth pitcher to do so, after Pedro Martinez in 1999, Randy Johnson in 1998, and Vida Blue in 1971. That’s two sure-fire Hall of Famers and Blue, who might be in the Hall of Fame today if he weren’t too good for his own good: that season, Blue went 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA and won the MVP award – and threw 312 innings at the age of 21. He would never pitch that effectively again, and he won only 18 games after his age 32 season. (He’s still the answer to that great trivia question: who’s the last switch-hitter to win the AL MVP award?)
I think it’s telling that Greinke once again shows up on a short list with Pedro Martinez, given that I had compared the two extensively early in the season. As it turns out, Greinke could not keep up with Pedro’s pace from 1999-2000, which is less a failure of Greinke than it is a testament to how otherworldly
But if Greinke can’t quite match up to peak Pedro, he still stands taller than every other pitcher in baseball today. After a period of time where Greinke looked almost mortal, Sunday’s start extends a stretch where Greinke has almost returned to the unhittable form he showed at the start of the season.
In Part 1 - his first ten starts - Greinke was 8-1 with an 0.84 ERA, and allowed just 54 hits and 12 walks in 75 innings. But from May 31st – yes, the day I flew to
But much as Greinke pitches better the deeper he works into a ballgame, he’s pitching better as the season enters the home stretch. Part 3 of Greinke's season started on August 14th, and over his last four starts Greinke has allowed just 15 hits in 31 innings, with 35 Ks against just seven walks, and a 1.74 ERA in that span.
He now leads the
Yes, he’s just 13-8. But I think that those who are writing off his chances of winning the Cy Young Award are doing so prematurely. I don’t simply mean that it’s premature to write Greinke’s chances off because there’s still time for him to win his last six starts and get back into this thing. I mean that even if the season ended today, there’s a very good chance that his weak showing in the historically-decisive win-loss department might get trumped by his across-the-board dominance in every other category.
For one thing, while Greinke has only 13 wins going into September, he’s still just two behind Sabathia, and just one behind Verlander, Josh Beckett, and Scott (!) Feldman. There’s a reasonable chance that no one in the
Second, while Greinke may not have a lot of wins, he has every other counting statistic on his side. He has 190 innings, just two behind Sabathia; no one can accuse him of not being a workhorse. With his performance on Sunday, he now has more complete games (6) and more shutouts (3) than any other pitcher in the major leagues. This isn’t a Chris Carpenter situation, where voters will have to judge the merits of a pitcher who might have been more effective on a per-inning basis but wasn’t able to answer the bell every fifth day. When it comes to Cy Young voting, availability matters almost as much as ability; Greinke has both.
(It's worth noting that according to ESPN's Cy Young Predictor, based on a formula Bill James presented in The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, Greinke has edged back into first place.)
And finally, we have to acknowledge that award voters are, generally speaking, a lot more savvy than they used to be. I have made the mistake of giving BBWAA members too much credit in the past – I still can’t believe Tim Raines has appeared on barely a quarter of Hall of Fame ballots the last two years – but I honestly think that Cy Young voters are more inclined to consider the extenuating circumstances for Greinke than they would in the past.
I’ve pointed this out before, but 16 years ago, Kevin Appier led the
(Not only that, but in McDowell’s 34 starts, the White Sox went 23-11 overall. In Appier’s 34 starts, the Royals went…23-11. So Appier didn’t miss out on the Cy Young because his team wasn’t as successful as McDowell’s team was – he missed out on the Cy Young because some of those team wins were awarded to his reliever. He was denied the Cy Young, in other words, because of an accounting decision.)
The reason I point this out is that the most galling aspect of Appier’s disappointing finish in the Cy Young vote is that he received just one first-place vote, from then-Rangers beat writer Phil Rogers. That’s right – neither writer from the KC chapter of the BBWAA gave Appier a first-place vote. Both of them swallowed the conventional wisdom about pitcher wins hook, like, and sinker.
Well, this year I have it on good authority that one of the Cy Young ballots goes to this guy. Times have changed, and I’d like to think for the better. There’s still a lot of baseball to be played, and a memorable September in either direction could render this whole discussion moot. But I think this is going to be a very close Cy Young vote. And my hope is that while Greinke may not win a majority of first-place votes, he may receive a plurality of them, as the anti-Greinke voting bloc gets split up between two or three different candidates (Scott Feldman for Cy Young!)
Ultimately it really doesn’t matter if Greinke wins; awards are fun, but success on the field is what matters. But since we’re not having much of the latter, it would be nice if we could have some of the former to keep this season from being a total loss.
Now that the Joe Mauer-for-MVP train has left the station, it’s time to hop aboard the Zack Greinke-for-Cy Young express. So get out there and remind people that Greinke is, indisputably, the best pitcher in the American League. Remind people that his 13-8 record is the result of having the worst run support of any qualifying major league starter. Remind people that his 2.32 ERA, as impressive as it is, is actually inflated significantly by pitching in front of the defense with the worst defensive efficiency in all of baseball. (This is an underplayed theme, by the way – everyone is harping on his win-loss record, but it’s not hyperbole to suggest that, with an even average defense behind him, Greinke’s ERA could be in the 1’s right now, and it would be almost impossible to deny him the Cy Young vote.)
With five weeks left in the season, it’s far from clear whether Greinke is the