(In light of recent events, I owe all of you – and particularly Trey Hillman – my thoughts on the news that Joakim Soria has been battling a shoulder problem. (AITP exists? Who knew?) But I think you’ll all understand when I say that another pitcher deserves our attention first.)
Four years ago, I somewhat famously (some might say infamously) wrote in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2005, “With apologies to Jon Landau, we have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke.”
With apologies to myself, Zack Greinke is not the future of pitching.
He is the present.
Being a die-hard Royals fan for the past two decades has no doubt made me rather annoying to the other baseball fans I have worked with, fans who would rather not hear me boast that Jeremy Giambi could be the second coming of John Mayberry, or that Jeremy Affeldt might just be the next Sandy Koufax. But I’d like to think that it also made me rather endearing in a pathetic sort of way. “Oh look, Rany’s so cute when he talks about Dee Brown as a future All-Star! Calvin Pickering could hit 40 homers? How adorable!”
Because being a fan means clinging to hope, no matter how absurd that hope appears to be: that’s the deal you make when you sign up. I never gave up hope, no matter how grim things looked, no matter how silly I looked. And if I couldn’t hold on to a reasonable hope regarding the Royals as a team, at least I could put my faith in individual players. I believed in Giambi and Affeldt, in Brown and Pickering, in Mark Quinn and Kyle Snyder, in Chris George and Jimmy Gobble, in Dan Reichert and Jeff Austin.
But in the last 15 years, I have neither hoped more nor dreamed higher for a player than I have for Donald Zackary Greinke. And no player has strained the bonds of those hopes and dreams quite like The Baseball Jonah.
I have been a Royals fan for a quarter-century, but I’ve only ever owned one Royals jersey, and it has a “23” on the back. I love Gil Meche, but I don’t plan my schedule around the nights that he’s on the mound.
I’ve watched Greinke’s career unfold from the day he was drafted, to the positive reports from his first instructional league, from the first whispers that he might be The One that drifted up from Latin America when he played there in winter ball, just six months out of high school, the youngest American ever to pitch down there.
I tracked his every start in Wilmington in 2003, when the Zack Greinke Phenomenon went mainstream. (For the record: July 14, 2003. That’s the day Joe Posnanski introduced Greinke – not just the pitcher, the person – to the sports world. “And that's when you realize something remarkable: Zack Greinke has never been nervous in his entire life. He doesn't even know what it feels like.”)
There are still some who argue that the biggest mistake the Royals made in that magical run of 2003 was not promoting Greinke to the majors and putting him into the rotation by July or August, as the team started to fade down the stretch. Mind you, Greinke was 19 at the time.
He finally made the rotation the following May, at 20, and was terrific from day one. He went 8-11 for a team that lost 104 games, finished with a 3.97 ERA, struck out an even 100 batters against just 26 walks. My daughter Cedra was 18 months old that June, and after weeks of coaching, she finally had her answer down pat. “Who’s the best pitcher in the world?” “Zac-rine-key!” It wasn’t the right answer, mind you. But it was the future of right answers.
And then, of course, someone had to go and remind Greinke that he was a Royal. A solid start to the 2005 season quickly disintegrated; from May 20th until the end of the season, Greinke went 5-13 with a 6.73 ERA, giving up an astonishing 189 hits in 136 innings over that span. The highlight of his season was the home run he tomahawked over the fence at Chase Field – in the process of becoming the first Royal in history to surrender 11 runs in one game.
And then he was gone. Home to Florida, burnt out at the age of 22. He was certain he through with baseball, a sentiment that many people around baseball shared. Baseball is a difficult game, and the culture of baseball is unforgiving. The future of pitching was in the past.
If this were the Royals of old, the story would end here. Only it didn’t. Greinke was nurtured back to health with counseling, medication, and the kindness and patience of two men who have suffered the slings and arrows of my words as much as anyone, Allard Baird and Buddy Bell. Greinke learned to enjoy baseball again, first in Wichita, then in the bullpen, then in the rotation.
He came back a different pitcher. The genius of Greinke as a rookie was that he pitched in defiance of the style of every young hotshot pitcher to come up over the years. He paced himself, he varied the speed on his fastball, he’d throw any pitch in any count, he’d throw pitches that no one had ever seen before. And for the better part of two years, we raved about how precocious this young man was, how he pitched with the guts and guile of a 15-year veteran. Only it turned out that Greinke didn’t throw that way because he was wise beyond his years. He pitched fearlessly because in order to be afraid of failure, you have to care about success. Greinke simply didn’t care enough about the results to be intimidated by the challenge.
So when he returned with a new sense of purpose, he also returned with new life on his fastball. Gone were the days of sitting at 89 and touching 92; now he was sitting at 92 and touching 95, and in the bullpen he was hitting 97 and 98. He streamlined his approach – gone were the LaLob curveballs in the 50s and the occasional attempts to skirt the law forbidding quick pitches, and in their place was a fairly straightforward repertoire: fastball in the 90s, slider in the 80s, curveball in the 70s, changeup in emergencies only.
He announced his return with authority in a brilliant start against the White Sox on September 20th, 2007, allowing just two hits in eight scoreless innings, striking out 10. He followed that up with his best season in 2008, winning 13 games, throwing 202 innings, posting a 3.47 ERA (the lowest by any Royals starter since 1997), and striking out 183 (the most by any Royals starter since 1997). The fans fell in love again. He returned the favor, signing a four-year contract.
If this were the Royals of old, this is where Greinke would get hurt, or suffer another change of heart, or simply continue to tease Royals fans with glimpses of dominance occasionally peeking out between mountains of untapped potential.
These are not the Royals of old. This is not the Zack Greinke of old. He is not the future of pitching. He is not just some vessel transporting that most cursed of possessions, potential. Like an alchemist who has suddenly found the philosopher’s stone, Greinke has overnight transmuted the weighty iron of his potential into brilliant gold that he molds into goose eggs every fifth day.
It took Greinke five years to become an overnight sensation, and what a sensation he is. He threw 38 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest in Royals history, before the streak came to an end when Mike Aviles’ relay throw hit Gerald Laird sliding into third base, allowing Laird to score. If Aviles holds onto the ball, that streak would be at 43, which would put Greinke at 12th all-time and give him the longest streak since Orel Hershiser set the record in 1988.
(The irony is that Greinke's scoreless streak ended on an unearned run, given that as I wrote about last year, Greinke's pitching style makes him as unlikely to surrender an unearned run as any pitcher in baseball.)
Laird’s cheap run only succeeded in making Greinke mad. He retired the next 13 batters in order; Laird’s double was the only baserunner Greinke surrendered after the second inning. For the second straight start, Greinke went the distance, which had not happened since Jamey Wright did it in 2003. For the second straight start, Greinke whiffed 10 batters, which had not happened since Kevin Appier did it in 1996.
(Remember, over a seven-year span from September 1999 to September 2006, a Royals pitcher reached 10 strikeouts in a game exactly once – by Blake Stein on June 17, 2001. Greinke has done it twice in a week.)
Greinke was so dominant on Friday night that the Royals won, 6-1, they never appeared in any danger of losing the game, and I still had trouble falling asleep because they didn’t win 6-0. The way he’s throwing now, you have to wonder if he’s simply going to start another streak right away. As it is, he’s the third pitcher of the Retrosheet era (since 1954), after Hershiser and Don Drysdale, to go six straight starts without surrendering an earned run. He has a chance to be the first with seven straight starts.
Unfortunately, that scoreless streak is completely unofficial because Greinke had the audacity to record his streak over two seasons. So let’s just look at this season. Greinke leads the majors in wins, with four. He leads in ERA, with 0.00. In the Retrosheet era (since 1954), only one other pitcher gave up no earned runs in his first four starts: Fernando Valenzuela, in 1985. (Amazingly, Valenzuela also gave up just one run in his first four starts in his rookie season, 1981.)
Greinke leads the American League in strikeouts (36) and strikeouts per nine innings (11.17), along with complete games and shutouts. And suddenly, there seems to be no dream that seems out of Greinke’s reach.
A Cy Young Award? He has to be considered the early favorite. Three hundred strikeouts? If he makes 34 starts, he’s on pace for 306 Ks. If 300 is a stretch, the franchise record of 244, set by Dennis Leonard in 1977, is not. The first Sports Illustrated cover shot by a Royal since, who, Bo Jackson? With our man Poz working on the inside now, you have to think that it’s coming.
There will be bumps and potholes along the way, no doubt. Greinke will give up an earned run or two at some point this season; he may even, perish the thought, lose a game. But for once, Royals fans can forgo basking in the dream of what may come, and can instead bask in the memory of what just happened. On a Friday night in Kansas City, in front of a sellout crowd, with fans in the bleachers putting up K cards with every strikeout, Zack Greinke threw a masterpiece effort to give the Royals an uncontested hold on first place.
On the day after Tony Gonzalez, the best player in the Kansas City sports scene for the past decade, was traded to Atlanta, Greinke made his best pitch to be Gonzalez’s replacement. On the day before the Chiefs began their first draft under new management in two decades, Greinke announced his intention to make Kansas City a baseball town again. Bob Dutton’s lede began, “Is this the night, after more than a generation, that baseball truly became relevant again in Kansas City? Maybe. Just maybe.” Bob Dutton, folks. I write stuff like that all the time – I’m Dr. Hyperbole. Dutton is Mr. Tell-It-Like-It-Is. When he says that this game might be the tipping point for baseball in Kansas City, that’s an opinion you have to take seriously.
The best part of Friday night’s game came afterwards, when Joel Goldberg interviewed Greinke about his outing. It wasn’t the answers Greinke gave, it was the way he delivered them: with a goofy grin on his face, almost like he couldn’t believe how much fun he was having. Like he had suddenly realized that he enjoyed playing baseball, and that he enjoyed being rooted on by a sellout crowd, and that the 36,363 in attendance might have equally enjoyed watching him play. Maybe he realized that all the years it took getting to this point didn’t hurt his relationship with the fans of Kansas City – it only strengthened it. And that we’re all very much looking forward to enjoying the next four years together.
Maybe Greinke won’t single-handedly carry the Royals into the postseason this year, though I’m certainly not about to rule that out. But the saving grace here is that, as a wise man once said, “I have seen the future, and it’s much like the present – only longer.” If the next four years look anything like his last four starts, Greinke is going to have plenty of chances to pitch us into the playoffs.
In the meantime, let’s enjoy what we have, starting Wednesday night against the Blue Jays. Greg Maddux was Must-See TV in the mid-90s, and the Pedro Experience was the greatest show in baseball at the turn of the century. But since Pedro lost his fastball there hasn’t been a truly transcendent pitcher in the game, the kind of pitcher that entices even fans of other teams to tune in every five days because they’re afraid they might miss something historic. It’s too early to proclaim 2009 the start of the Zack Greinke Experience. But it’s not too early to hope, and it’s not too crazy to dream. With Greinke, nothing is too crazy to dream.
Not even this: the best pitcher in the world just might be Zac-rine-key.