Baseball 100: Zack Greinke

"Sometimes my arm wants to throw a hard fastball but my brain doesn't want to throw it that hard."

-- Zack Greinke, 2003

Here's a funny thing about baseball: Sometimes, in real-time, you miss the true story of what's going on. Take the 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, all the talk -- ALL the talk -- was about hitting: home runs, outrageous power numbers, steroids, offense out of control.

There was a good reason: All of that was true. Roger Maris' seemingly untouchable home run record was broken six times by three different players. Another 10 players bashed 50 home runs. In 1996, for the first time since the Great Depression, MLB teams averaged five runs per game. That happened again in 1999 and again in 2000. In 1999, Cleveland became the first team in 49 years to score 1,000 runs.

Number of teams that scored 900 runs in a season from 1954 through 1995: Zero.

Number of teams that scored 900 runs in a season from 1996 through 2003: 27.

So, no, we didn't get it wrong in the moment. But we did miss something: In the grand scope of baseball, that was the golden age of pitching. Crazy, right? But think about it: How many all-time great hitters were in their primes from 1996 through 2003? There's Barry Bonds, of course, though he's problematic. A-Rod, same thing. Then there are Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Pudge Rodriguez -- great players, certainly, but are any of them Top 10 all-time? Do you think of any of them the way you think of Mantle or Aaron or Mays, Ruth or Gehrig, Ripken or Bench or Morgan?

But PITCHERS? Wow. Think of the pitchers. Roger Clemens, again, problematic, but he has an argument as the best of all time. Randy Johnson has an argument as the best of all time. Greg Maddux has an argument as the best of all time. Pedro Martinez has an argument as the best of all time. And then there were other really sensational pitchers: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, even the difficult but brilliant Kevin Brown.

The point is that the 1990s were an extraordinary time for pitchers. I like to think of it as the modern movement of pitching. Then, right around 2005 or so, that remarkable generation of pitchers began to decline and fade and retire. It was time for the postmodern era.

And 2005 was when a young right-handed pitcher named Zack Greinke thought about quitting baseball.

* * *

Royals spring training, 2003. Nineteen-year-old Zack Greinke took the mound to pitch for the first time at big league camp.

Royals general manager Allard Baird [loudly]: "I heard there was supposed to be some hotshot pitcher out here."

Greinke [under his breath]: "And you're gonna be impressed."

He could do anything. That was his gift. That was his curse. The young Zack Greinke was unbeatable, at everything he tried. He entered tennis tournaments and won them without losing a set (even though he felt so much pressure that he would break down in tears before matches). He played golf -- remember Ty Tryon, the golfing phenom who earned his PGA Tour card at 17? Yeah, he grew up with Greinke. And Greinke would match him in tournaments.

As a baseball hitter? He was absurd. In Little League, he smashed home runs right- and left-handed. At Apopka High in Orlando, he set the school record for homers. When Greinke saw his baseball future, he saw himself as the next Mark McGwire.

And as a pitcher? In many ways, that was his least favorite thing, but he was unhittable just the same. He threw in the mid-90s, and that word threw is precisely the right one, because scouts generally assumed that he COULD have thrown 100. He just didn't want to throw 100. Well, his arm might have wanted to throw 100. But his mind didn't.

His pitching motion was so easy, so pure, that it hardly seemed like pitching at all. He was just throwing to the plate. You know that awesome shortstop you bring over to pitch every now and again, and he's instantly your best pitcher? That was Greinke. He went 9-2 with an 0.55 ERA in his senior year in high school, and he also hit .400 with power, and he was everyone's player of the year and a sure top 10 pick in the draft.

There were some scouts who thought Greinke's best position was actually catcher.

[caption id="attachment_22807" align="aligncenter" width="399"] Greinke was 16-5 with a 2.15 ERA in the minors before making his big league debut.[/caption]

He could do anything, and this was the thing that most concerned the Kansas City Royals when they took him with the sixth pick in the 2002 draft. The Royals were in the dumps then. Nothing ever seemed to go right for them. They'd had a disastrous series of first-round draft picks. A year earlier, they took a pitcher named Colt Griffin -- he was the first high school pitcher to ever be clocked by scouts throwing 100 mph. Unfortunately, he had no idea where that 100 mph was going, and he flamed out in Class AA.

The year before that, they took a superior athlete named Mike Stodolka with the fourth pick; he began as a pitcher, and that didn't work out, and then they tried him at first base, and that didn't work out. Nothing seemed to work out.

But Greinke, whoa, from his first professional pitch this guy was a phenomenon. At 19, he went to Wilmington and put on a show like few ever had. He went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA, but as impressive as those numbers were, they still didn't fully describe his genius. He was just fundamentally different from other pitching phenoms. He walked 13 batters in 14 games. He baffled hitters with a variety of pitches, including a slow curveball that resembled Bugs Bunny's powerful paralyzing perfect pachydermus percussion pitch.*

*I always remember Bugs' pachydermus pitch as his slowball ... but it isn't. The pachydermus pitch was actually the last one he threw, a full-speed pitch that the Gorilla hitter crushed out of the stadium, the hit that Bugs had to chase in a cab and a bus and eventually caught from the top of the Umpire State Building. So that pachydermus pitch was, in fact, a meatball, not good at all.

Royals general manager Allard Baird was deeply worried by Greinke's overwhelming success. Baseball America called Greinke "The Future of Pitching." People in the Royals scouting and development departments were advising Baird to call Greinke up to the big leagues immediately, he was that good. But Baird spent sleepless nights thinking about one thing: It had all come so easy for Greinke. Too easy. What would happen when things went bad -- and this being baseball (and the Royals), things would go bad sooner or later. How would he deal with disappointment? What would he do when things got messy?

"How will he handle it when he fails?" Baird wondered.

This would turn out to be the most important question of Zack Greinke's career.

* * *

On Aug. 10, 2004, Greinke gave up three home runs to the Chicago White Sox in 5 2/3 innings. In the postgame press gathering, one reporter tried to make Greinke feel better.

"Well," he said, "the White Sox do lead the major leagues in home runs."

Greinke stared at the reporter for a moment.

"Well," he finally said, "good for them."

Failure came in 2005. It was not regular old baseball failure, no, it was nuclear failure, and it was everywhere you looked. The 2005 Kansas City Royals were a fiasco. That was the year that manager Tony Pena quit mid-season, at least in part because he was served in a divorce case involving a neighbor. Buddy Bell became the team's third manager in four years on May 31 -- and the Royals began a 20-game losing streak less than two months later.

"I never say that things can't get worse," was Buddy's most famous quote.

All around was death and decay and black comedy. How bad was it? Greinke went 5-17 with a 5.80 ERA, and he was probably STILL the team's best starting pitcher. That's no joke. Jose Lima had a 6.99 ERA that year. Brian Anderson got hurt after four starts. Runelvys Hernandez, oh, wow, he was something else.

And Greinke was utterly miserable. Every day was torture. This was before he understood why he felt like he did -- all Greinke knew was that he hated everything. He had to play games with himself just to keep going. Once he turned to Anderson in the dugout and said, "I'm going to throw my curveball 50 mph this inning." When he threw the curve, Anderson jumped out to see the speedometer: exactly 50 mph.

Even such moments were rare.

[caption id="attachment_22809" align="aligncenter" width="426"] Oh yeah, Greinke can hit a little too.[/caption]

Greinke had already displayed his genius for pitching. In sports, you'll sometimes hear a manager or coach refer to someone as "just a player," or say, "that guy knows how to play." This is an imprecise way of saying that certain special athletes have an innate sense for the moment, an awareness of everything that's happening around them, and they can, in the din of sports chaos, do something that they were not coached to do, something that they rarely or never practiced, and it turns out to be exactly the right thing. Greinke would throw quick pitches. He would throw his fastball at any number of speeds (I once charted a game in which he threw his fastball at every speed between 84 and 92 mph). He played cat and mouse constantly.

But that 2005 season was soul-crushing. And Greinke couldn't take it anymore. One day in spring training, he was expected for batting practice but didn't show up. Greinke missing batting practice was a particularly telling sign because even as he went through his difficulties he continued to LOVE hitting.

"I think I'll be way more excited when I get my first home run in the majors than getting my first win," Greinke had told a reporter when he was in high school, and there's no doubt that even now, Greinke can recall his six big league home runs way more than any pitching victory.

There's a great Greinke story that fits here: When Alex Gordon -- the Royals' next phenom after Greinke -- first reached the big leagues, he struggled terribly. One day Greinke said he wanted to show Gordon something in the video room. Gordon felt sure that Greinke -- who is such a gifted baseball observer that many believe he'll choose to scout after he finishes playing -- had found a swing flaw or a tip that could make a difference.

Gordon went with Greinke into the video room. There, Greinke's first big league home run was cued up. Together they watched Greinke hit the homer off Arizona's Russ Ortiz (Greinke swung so hard that later he admitted he closed his eyes during the swing). Then they watched it again. And then, finally, Greinke told Gordon the lesson.

"Do more of that," Greinke said.

Anyway, Greinke didn't show up for spring training batting practice, and the next day he basically had to be forced to come to team picture day. He was at the end. He walked into Allard Baird's office and expressed his agony. "That was one of the most emotional conversations I've ever had with anyone," Baird would say. "It had nothing at all to do with baseball. I just saw a young man in a lot of pain."

And with that, Zack Greinke went home. He intended to quit. He considered trying golf again and seeing if he could make it to the PGA Tour. For a time, he thought about coming back to baseball, but this time as a hitter. It was during this time that Greinke was diagnosed with social anxiety and depression. He was given medication. He felt better.

He decided to give pitching another shot. The Royals allowed him to take it slow. They put him back in the minors. Greinke found that he really liked that, liked the team spirit in Wichita. Later, they put him in the bullpen. Greinke liked that too, liked the day-to-day rhythms of being a reliever. When I went to Wichita once to write about Frank White, who was managing the team, Greinke saw me from across the room and smiled big and waved to me happily, like a little kid seeing a favorite uncle.

I realized that though I had been writing about Zack Greinke ever since he was drafted, I had never before seen him happy.

* * *

Me: "So how do you feel today?"

Greinke: "Really? That's what you want to ask me?"

Me: "Yeah, not really."

-- A baseball conversation with Zack Greinke, 2017

The first rule of the Baseball 100 is that we don't talk about the Baseball 100, meaning I'm not going to justify why players are ranked here or there. But I'm not unaware that ranking Zack Greinke as the 100th best major league baseball player ever will spark some very strong emotions and, likely, some near-violent disagreement.

For that I will concede that Greinke did not rank No. 100 in my formula. No. He ranked No. 72. For various reasons, I thought that was too high and made a few adjustments. But the point is that Greinke is not a borderline Baseball 100 guy. He's absolutely one of the greatest players in baseball history.

I mentioned at the top that the 1990s and early 2000s offered the greatest generation of pitchers in baseball history; that era ended right around 2005. Do you know who has the best season for a pitcher since 2005?

Zack Greinke.

In 2009, Greinke won the Cy Young Award for Kansas City when he had a league-leading 2.16 ERA, a league-leading 2.33 FIP, and a league-leading 1.073 WHIP. He allowed 11 home runs all year. His 10.4 Baseball Reference WAR is the best in baseball since 2005. His 8.6 Fangraphs WAR is the best in baseball since 2005.

That year was so utterly remarkable, and it's easy to miss because the Royals were so bad that he only went 16-8. This was near the end of pitcher won-loss records mattering much to people, but still, had he gone 19-5 or 21-3 like he should have, people would realize that was one of the great pitching seasons ever.

OK, do you know who has had the lowest ERA in a season since 2005?

Zack Greinke.

That happened in 2015 with the Dodgers; Greinke went 19-3 that year with a 1.66 ERA. He pitched 222 innings and again led the league in WHIP (0.844). It wasn't quite as good a season as 2009. But it was still pretty legendary. That 9.1 Baseball Reference WAR ranks second in what you might call the postmodern era of pitching.

[caption id="attachment_22808" align="aligncenter" width="369"] Greinke's career WAR is 65.3, which is already well into Hall of Fame level.[/caption]

Since returning to the starting rotation, Greinke is 163-80 with a 3.11 ERA and a 132 ERA+. He's a postmodern pitcher, there's no doubt about that. Greinke doesn't finish games -- he has only 16 complete games in his career, and only four since 2011. He has never won 20 games in a season and, realistically, probably never will. His fastball velocity dwindles -- this season, for the first time, his fastball averages less than 90 mph.

But he keeps going -- another All-Star season this year -- because he has his own way of getting people out. He throws at least seven distinctly different pitches, and this is if you count his fastball as one pitch, which it's not. He gets strikeouts, rarely gives up walks and he fields his position marvelously; one scout calls him a second shortstop (Greinke has won Gold Gloves in each of the last four seasons). You can't run on him; he's so quick to the plate and changes his windup so easily that the last three years runners are 9 for 26 trying to steal against him (he also has 18 pickoffs in his career).

Greinke's career WAR is 65.3, which is already well into Hall of Fame level; Greinke has a higher WAR right now than Dennis Eckersley or Juan Marichal, Sandy Koufax or Whitey Ford, and he's 34 and still one of the best pitchers in the game.

It wouldn't be right to say that Greinke is underrated; he has already made more than $200 million in this game, and he's got another $100 million-plus guaranteed. But I think it is right to say that Greinke is one of those pitchers that people categorize as a "good pitcher" when he is, in fact, an all-time great pitcher.

* * *

OK, one more, my favorite Greinke story, I've told and written it before many times, but I can't tell it enough:

Jeremy Affeldt began his career with the Royals. One day, he was pitching in relief, and he gave up a home run. After the inning ended, Jeremy raged at himself, as pitchers will in such moments. He screamed for a while and then muttered, "Man, that wasn't even that bad a pitch."

"Actually," a voice said, "it was a pretty bad pitch."

Affeldt looked up quickly and with some anger -- who would say that to a pitcher just seconds after giving up a homer? It was Zack Greinke, still a rookie. Affeldt heard himself exhale. "Thanks, Zack," he said finally.

"No, really," Greinke said, "I want back to the clubhouse and looked at the pitch on video. It was really a bad pitch. Right over the middle of the plate. And it was up. I mean, it was a bad pitch."

Affeldt stared at Greinke. He could not believe this was happening. Who was this Martian?

"Thanks, Zack," he said.

"Right down the middle," Greinke said. "I could have hit it out."

And that's when Affeldt felt himself beginning to smile. This kid wasn't like anybody else. In Greinke's mind, Affeldt realized, he wasn't rubbing it in, no, he had gone back to the clubhouse to look at the pitch to help out a teammate. He WAS NOT helping, but he was really trying.

"Thanks, Zack," Affeldt said, and this time he meant it. Years later, I saw Jeremy, and we laughed about that story all over again. Then Jeremy said, "Zack has turned into one heck of a pitcher, hasn't he?"

"He has," I said.

"I always knew he would," Jeremy said. "Zack was always different."