Friday, May 15, 2009

Mea Culpa. (For Real This Time.)

I know, I know. It’s all my fault.

I knew I was risking some blowback with this article last week. But in my na├»vete, I looked at the upcoming weekend series – MGD against a depleted Angels team starting a 30-year-old rookie and a 29-year-old journeyman, with their only legitimate starter going up against The Baseball Jonah – and said, “what could go wrong?”

A lot could go wrong. The Royals could score four runs in three games. They could have a game-tying home-run in the ninth taken away by Torii Hunter. They could lose two more one-run games, dropping their record in those affairs to 2-6. Luke Hochevar could give up twice as many runs in two major league innings as he gave up in 40 minor league ones. Brian Bannister could pull himself from a game with a stiff shoulder. Gil Meche could continue to favor his back – I don’t care what he says, when he’s consistently missing the strike zone high like he was yesterday, it all comes back to his back. The Royals could lose six games in a row immediately after winning six in a row, something they’ve done just twice before in their history (in 1979 and again in 2001, both times in late June and early July.)

Let’s take a deep breath, everyone. Good teams lose six games in a row. The difference is they also win six games in a row. (After winning their first nine games in 2003, the Royals went over five years – until June 2008 – before they had another six-game winning streak.)

So don’t panic. This is the AL Central, where the Royals can lose six games in a row in mid-May and still hold on to a share of first place. Just twice before have the Royals awoken in first place after losing six games in a row – in 1980, when they lost eight in a row in late September after already clinching the division, and in 1976, when they lost six in a row in mid-June, but were still 39-26 at the end of that stretch.

The Royals not only are tied for the division’s best record, they still have the division’s best run differential at +9. The only AL team that has allowed fewer runs is the A’s, who have played four fewer games. And unlike the Twins, the Royals haven’t had a favorable home-road split in their games so far this year. (Minnesota has played 23 games at home and just 12 on the road, which has artificially jacked up their record: they’re 14-9 at home, just 4-8 on the road. Remember, the Metrodome is such a huge and unnatural advantage that the Twins have won two world championships – despite the fact that they’ve never won a single World Series game on the road.)

The last six games represent a missed opportunity, certainly, but they did not bury the team, not in the slightest. Essentially, the season starts now for the Royals, Tigers, and Twins, with the White Sox a little behind and the Indians in a sizeable hole. The division looked like a five-way dogfight in early April; it looks like a five-way dogfight in mid-May.

There are some legitimate questions that need to be answered, of course. How long will Soria be out? When will Meche be back at full health? How long until the Royals send Mike Aviles back to Omaha to find his swing? (Put me in the camp of people who think Aviles should be demoted to Triple-A, and that’s not because I think he’s never going to hit. It’s precisely because I think he will. But right now he needs a mental breather for a few weeks, and in the meantime we can call the “Willie Bloomquist is an everyday player!” bluff. Aviles is currently hitting .194/.221/.269, and somehow I think that even the Spork can beat those numbers.)

But the important thing is that despite those questions, and despite the loss of Alex Gordon, the Royals are pretty much where we pegged them: a .500 team, maybe a little better, in a division that’s likely to be won by a .500 team, maybe a little better.

So again, Don’t Panic. Zack Greinke takes the hill tonight, at home, in front of a sellout crowd, against a pitcher with a 7.18 ERA. The six-game losing streak is unlikely to stretch to seven.

If it does, then we can start to worry. Six-game losing streaks are not a definitive mark of a non-playoff team; of the 16 teams that made the playoffs the last two years, 13 of them had losing streaks of five or more during the season, and 10 of them had six-game streaks. But only five had losing streaks that reached seven, just two reached eight, and none reached nine. (Three teams – the Angels last year, the Red Sox and Indians in 2007 – never lost more than four games in a row. If memory serves, the last team that made it through the regular season without losing more than three in a row was the 1989 San Francisco Giants – who then lost four straight to the A’s in the World Series.)

Tonight’s game therefore has a little more significance than your typical game. So I think you will all understand when I say Game Off. The Royals suck, same as they’ve always sucked. Their hot start is just like 2003, and the same fate awaits them. They’ll never amount to anything, especially the guy taking the mound tonight, who’s just another in a long line of first-round busts. I dare say he’s the suckiest ball of suck who ever sucked.

My work here is done.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Dark Cloud, Meet Silver Lining.

I guess I should have paid more attention to Will Carroll. Carroll, you might recall, was the one saying “I don’t feel good about this one” when Hillman finally came clean about Joakim Soria’s shoulder even while downplaying the extent of the injury.

It turns out that the injury was not something that would clear up with a few days of rest, which opens up a whole ton of questions. Like, wouldn’t the Royals have been better off putting him on the DL back on April 19th? That was over three weeks ago, meaning there’s a good chance Soria might have already been re-activated. And, as Sam Mellinger pointed out, if Soria’s injury was more than the he-just-needs-a-few-days-of-rest variety, why on earth did Hillman use him in back-to-back games as soon as he was healthy enough to pitch? (For more with Sam, download yesterday's podcast here.)

In his first game after the injury was revealed, on May 2nd, Soria came in to pitch the 10th, threw six pitches in the inning, and then went back out the following inning with a three-run lead. I don’t fault that decision at all – he was already warmed up and in the game, and he only threw 13 more pitches to close it out. But why, if there was any concern whatsoever about the status of his arm, would Hillman use him the following day (barely 12 hours later, actually) to protect a three-run lead in the ninth? Soria wouldn’t pitch for another four days, even though the Royals played an 11-inning game at home in between, after which Hillman said Soria wasn’t available because of “manager’s decision”. In that game Soria pitched as poorly as he has all season, and afterwards the persistent pain in Soria’s shoulder finally forced the DL stint. In retrospect it would appear that the decision to use Soria in back-to-back games aggravated his symptoms.

And while Hillman deserves some of the blame for that decision, the bulk of blame lies on the training and medical staff for clearing Soria to pitch in the first place. On paper the training staff had a good year in 2008; the starting rotation, in particular, was remarkably healthy outside of the rib-cage injury to Luke Hochevar. But the training staff, led by head trainer Nick Swartz, has never had a particularly strong reputation around baseball. I make that statement not as a medical judgment of my own – I’m much too far from the situation to render that kind of judgment – but simply as a reflection of what I’ve heard from people around the game.

Injuries to Royals players have an annoying tendency to linger, or to recur after we’ve been told they were healed. This isn’t a new problem, either; this goes back to 2000, when Jose Rosado complained of shoulder pain after four starts, the Royals declined to order an MRI – hey, those puppies are expensive! – and instead skipped his turn in the rotation once. Rosado took the mound again on April 30th, and gutted his way into the sixth inning and even got the victory. Afterwards the pain in his arm was even worse, so the team finally caved and ordered the MRI – which revealed that Rosado’s rotator cuff had been reduced to hamburger meat. Rosado would never pitch in the majors again, the career of a two-time All-Star over at age 25.

I certainly hope that a similar fate does not await the Mexicutioner. His MRI, the Royals repeatedly reassure us, is completely normal. But even ignoring the possibility that this is a lie – the Royals have already lied once about the condition of Soria’s health – sometimes the worst news you can get about a pitcher complaining of arm pain is that “nothing is wrong”. Something is clearly wrong, or his arm wouldn’t hurt. The problem is that the Royals don’t know what’s wrong – and if you don’t know what’s wrong, you can’t make it right. Maybe it’s true that all he needs is a little rest, and he’ll be back in a few weeks, good as new. If that’s the case, the Royals will be fine. Juan Cruz is perfectly capable of functioning as the closer in the short term.

But it’s also possible that after a few weeks of rest, Soria’s still feeling arm pain – in which case, what do you do? When the medical tests and the symptoms disagree, trust the symptoms. Show me a pitcher that’s been accused of malingering, of refusing to pitch through the normal soreness that every pitcher feels, and I’ll show you a pitcher whose got an arm injury that’s gone undiagnosed. Mark Prior was accused of being a faker by the Cubs right up until the moment the doctors did exploratory surgery on his rotator cuff and found that the MRI had somehow missed the fact that somewhat had set off a bomb inside his shoulder.

Soria is so indispensable to the Royals largely because he’s not fazed by anything. No one thought he would become a closer when he was acquired in the Rule 5 draft, and even today no one would accuse him of having closer stuff. What he has is a closer’s mentality. He’s fearless on the mound, and he never, ever loses his composure. He’s about the last guy on the team you’d suspect of exaggerating pain symptoms. If he says his arm’s hurting, I don’t care how many imaging studies come back negative – there’s something wrong with his arm. And this time, the Royals better not let him anywhere near a pitching mound until they are totally, completely, utterly certain that his arm is 100%.

That may be a long way off. As Will wrote yesterday, “I'm worried that there's something more going on here.” You and me both, brother.

The silver lining here is that tonight’s starting pitcher is Luke Hochevar, who has probably been the most effective pitcher in Triple-A this season. I didn’t see this coming. Even though I’m not surprised to see Soria get put on the DL, I didn’t expect the Royals to use this injury as an opportunity to revamp their rotation. I would have expected someone like Carlos Rosa, who has taken to the bullpen nicely (17 Ks, 4 BBs in 17.2 innings in Omaha), to get an opportunity instead. Or I would have thought that Hochevar would have been called up to use in long relief while waiting for a rotation spot to open up.

Just last Thursday on the radio show, I asked Assistant GM Dean Taylor about what the Royals planned to do with Hochevar given how well he was pitching, and nothing in his response suggested that Cool Hand was about to replace Sidney Ponson in the rotation. Which was not surprising, given that Ponson was coming off his best performance (one run in 7.1 innings) the day before.

So give the Royals credit here: they didn’t have to make this move. They could have left Hochevar in Omaha, or brought him up to use in long relief, but instead they made the move that gives the team the rotation that they had last summer – and that I recommended last winter that they stick with. It took us longer than I would have liked to get here, but now the Royals have their five best starting pitchers in their rotation. Plus, we can at least entertain the possibility that Ponson, who has made just 15 relief appearances in his career, will see his stuff improve in short stints and be far more effective as a reliever than he was as a starter. Hey, it’s worked for Jamey Wright and Robinson Tejeda.

And in the long run, it’s possible that Hochevar’s brief return to Triple-A will be the best thing for him. For the first time in his pro career, he was able to completely dominate hitters at a level before he was promoted. He made six starts, each arguably better than the one before – topped off with an eight inning, five hit, no walk, nine strikeout performance in which he got 14 groundouts and just one flyout.

Hochevar has succeeded by focusing on what he does well: throw strikes and get groundballs. In 40 innings, he’s walked just 10 batters, and has a phenomenal groundball/flyball ratio of 3.68 – which has led to just two home runs. His 0.90 ERA is not going to last, driven as it is by allowing just 28 hits – his BABIP is about .250, which is unsustainable. But he’s whiffed a solid 30 batters in 40 innings, a ratio which is actually better than it looks precisely because he has surrendered so few baserunners per inning.

The biggest reason for concern with Hochevar is that he hasn’t done much to conquer his platoon splits. Last year RHB hit just .244/.319/.348, but LHB hit .314/.371/.475, and that weakness has persisted this season. In Omaha this year, RHB hit just .168 against Hochevar, but LHB have hit .286 with five walks in 42 at-bats. It’s not a fatal weakness, in part because major league teams are so insistent on carrying seven or eight relievers that they can’t stack their lineup with eight left-handed bats all that easily. But it’s something he’ll need to continue to work on as the season goes on.

For the remainder of the season, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect Hochevar to put up an ERA in the mid-4s, maybe a little lower if something really did click for him in Triple-A. If he’s the Royals’ fifth-best starter – and depending on how you feel about Brian Bannister, even if Hochevar is their fourth-best starter – then this is one hell of a rotation. There isn’t a single guy in the rotation that projects to be significantly below-average, which is the first time I can say that since, I don’t know, 1991? The 1994 Royals had David Cone, Kevin Appier, Tom Gordon, and Mark Gubicza all pitching well, but no reliable fifth starter. The 1991 Royals had Appier, Mike Boddicker, and Bret Saberhagen – and while Gubicza was terrible that year, Gordon and Luis Aquino both pitched well when they were used as starters. In any case, it’s been a long, long time.

Get well soon, Jack. With a rotation that should consistently keep the Royals in ballgames – and with an offense that doesn’t figure to blow opponents out all that often – I expect that we're going to have a lot of close leads to protect all season long.

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.)