Ten Who Missed (Bonus): Zack Greinke
OK, you got me. Back when I first thought up this bananas “Ten Who Missed” idea — that is to do 10 full Baseball 100-style essays on 10 players who just missed getting in the book — I knew for sure that a guy named Zack Greinke would be one of the 10. I mean, how could he not be? Everybody wants more Zack stories, right? So I started writing the essay.
But then I decided to let you vote for the 10 players. And you — yeah, you — came up with the bright idea of NOT voting for Greinke so that you would get a bonus essay.
Clever, aren’t you?
So, yes, here’s your bonus essay. I hope you’re happy with yourselves. The rest of the essays — the Ten Who Missed — will be for paid subscribers and will begin running Father’s Day week.
Now, as mentioned yesterday, this kicks off our Father’s Day spectacular. You can click that link to get all the details of the cool Father’s Day things we’ll be doing here, but the headline is that if you are one of the first 100 people to buy an annual subscription to JoeBlogs (or buy a gift subscription for someone or donate a subscription), you will get a free signed copy of The Baseball 100 inscribed to your dad (or anyone else you would like).
Cool, no? I mean, you didn’t know what to get your father for Father’s Day, did you? I’m making it super easy on you!
On our first day, we got dozens of subscriptions, but I can tell you we’re not at 100 yet. So there’s still time. And if we do go over 100 today, I might just add another 100 books for another 100 subscribers to give to their dads.
Hey, you have to pull out all the stops for Father’s Day, right?
I’ll put the subscribe, gift and donate buttons below just to make it easier. What will happen is that if you are one of the first 100 new subscribers, you will get an email by the end of the week asking for your address, the person you’re giving the book to (even if that’s yourself) and suggestions for an inscription.
Thanks, all. Here are those buttons. And enjoy the Zack Greinke Baseball 100 essay you tricked me into writing.
Let’s start at the very beginning — a very good place to start: When the Kansas City Royals drafted Zack Greinke with the sixth pick of the 2002 draft, I was skeptical. Very skeptical. It had nothing to do with Greinke himself … I had not yet met him and had not yet seen him pitch, which means I had not yet realized that I would become his Boswell or that he would become my Dr. Johnson or that he would have absolutely no idea what any of that means and would care even less.
No, my skepticism was entirely based on one thing: He was a high school pitcher.
A lot of us knew even in 2002, even before it was a major theme in “Moneyball,” that drafting a high school pitcher in the first round was pure madness.
Looking back, after the Royals drafted Greinke, I actually did a pretty deep dive on the subject of high school pitchers taken in the first round, and came up with all sorts of daunting facts, including:
45% of all first-round high school pitchers never won a single big-league game.
90% did not win 50 games in the big leagues.
97% did not win 20 games in a season.
From 1990 through 2002, there were 78 pitchers who either won 100 games or saved 100 games. Exactly zero of them were high school pitchers taken in the first round.
Now, those are 2002 numbers … I’ll give you a couple of updates in a moment. But the point was, based on history, it simply didn’t matter how good Zack Greinke was in high school. Brien Taylor was incredible in high school. So were David Clyde and Jay Franklin and Jackie Davidson and Pat Underwood and Roger Salkeld and Bill Bordley and Les Rohr and on and on and on. Something happened to them, because it’s a long, long road from high school dominance to major league performance.
“You gotta wonder what will go wrong with Zack Greinke,” were the first words I ever wrote about him.
Let me give a couple of updated numbers since you’re probably curious — there have been 436 high school pitchers selected in the first round since the MLB draft began in 1965. Two hundred and six of them — 47% — never won a big-league game, at least not yet. About 64% did not win 10 big league games. And so on. The numbers are still pretty stark.
But, yes, there have been some success stories since I wrote that piece in 2002. Roy Halladay, a first-round pick in 1995, emerged in 2002 after spending some time trying to figure things out; he’s in the Hall of Fame now. CC Sabathia, a 1998 first-round pick, overcame some early issues, became an All-Star for the first time in 2003, and became one of the best pitchers of his generation — he will end up in the Hall of Fame too.
In 2006, the Dodgers drafted a high school pitcher named Clayton Kershaw.
In 2007, the Giants drafted a high school pitcher named Madison Bumgarner.
In 2008, the Yankees drafted a high school pitcher named Gerrit Cole (but he didn’t sign).
And so on.
And, yes, the Royals took Zack Greinke with the sixth overall pick in 2002, one year before the book Moneyball came out. Turns out, Zack was actually mentioned in Moneyball … more as a prop than anything. He represented the dumb things that dumb teams like the Kansas City Royals did — take high school pitchers high in the draft.
And … Moneyball was right. While the Moneyball A’s and other more analytical teams would never draft a high school pitcher high in the draft, the Royals always did.
I mean every … single … year.
1998: Chris George, Klein High School (Klein, Texas)
1999: Jimmy Gobble, John S. Battle High School (Bristol, Va.)
2000: Mike Stodolka, Centennial High School (Corona, Calif.)
2001: Colt Griffin, Marshall High School (Marshall, Texas)*
2002: Zack Greinke, Apopka High School (Apopka, Fla.)
It wasn’t exactly the best way to run a railroad, no.
*Griffin was the first high school pitcher who had a fastball officially clocked at 100 mph. Unfortunately, a radar gun cannot tell you where those pitches are going, and in Colt’s case, alas, they were not going over the plate. By the time Colt was 21, the Royals were already in desperation mode because Griffin could not throw strikes. Kansas City tried to make him into a reliever. That didn’t work, either, and his dream died in Class AA, having walked more career hitters than he struck out.
To be fair, Greinke did look different from other high school pitchers when he showed up to his first spring training. He was only 19, and he looked younger, but he pitched older. “There are people who think he could pitch up here right now,” Royals general manager Allard Baird said, with real wonder in his voice.
Greinke on the mound was one thing. Greinke off the mound was quite another. One image that stays with me from that season: The Royals were having some sort of autograph session for the fans in the stadium; I think some former Royals like Frank White and John Mayberry were signing, can’t remember for sure.
What I do remember is that in the line of kids waiting for an autograph was a baseball player in a full uniform.
“Who’s that?” I asked. Allard Baird smiled.
“That’s Zack Greinke,” he said.
Before getting into some Zack stories, I should say something about his young approach to pitching: Greinke, best I could tell, hated pitching. Well, “hate” is a strong word. It’s more like he was dismissive of pitching. Too easy.
He kind of resented that he was so good at it.
I found this wonderful quote that a 19-year-old Greinke gave to our good friend Bob Dutton. Bob was the Royals beat writer for The Kansas City Star then, and he asked Greinke if pitching coach Guy Hansen had worked at all with him on his delivery.
“He said I have real good mechanics for my age and that he didn’t want to mess with anything — other than getting a little more extension on my pitching and getting a little more, uh, down plane or whatever,” Greinke said. “That pitcher stuff.”
And then he added: “I still don’t know what it means. That’s all they ever say.”
See, Greinke was a natural pitcher the way Bunk and McNulty were natural police. He had been a high school shortstop and that was what he liked. He was also a really good golfer, and he liked that too. He liked tennis, too. As for pitching, sure, he pitched in relief now and again because he had a good arm, but that didn’t interest him much.
Then in his senior year of high school, the Apopka High coach made him a starting pitcher, and it came so easy — too easy for him to take it very seriously. He just naturally threw hard, naturally picked up pitches without really trying, naturally threw strikes.
This is important to understand, I think, if you want to get at what Zack Greinke is all about. It’s not like he was a prodigy in other ways. He wasn’t just NATURALLY a great golfer or a great hitter or a great student. That stuff took effort. But pitching? Let’s put it this way: One day, he was throwing some pitches to his brother, Luke, and at the end of the session, Luke complained that his hand hurt. A couple weeks later, Zack went to pitch at an All-Star Game where his fastball was clocked on the scoreboard. He came back and said to Luke without any emotion in his voice, “OK, I know why your hand’s hurting now. I’m throwing 97 miles an hour.”
Or let’s put it this way: The first time I ever actually talked to Greinke, it was the Futures Game in Chicago, 2003. It was a strange encounter, one I’ve thought about a lot. In that game, all the other pitchers — including further major leaguers Rich Harden, Ervin Santana, Edwin Jackson, Gavin Floyd, Denny Bautista, Shawn Hill and others — were trying to light up the radar gun.
But not Greinke. He seemed to be trying to throw as slow as he could while still getting batters out. His fastball was 88, 87, 89, 90, in that range, again and again, even though he was more than capable, as mentioned, of throwing 97.
When I asked him after the game why he did it, he gave me this answer:
“Sometimes my arm wants to throw a hard fastball but my brain doesn’t want to throw it that hard.”
OK. And when I asked him how he was so successful throwing less than his best fastball, he said this:
“It was just kind of crazy. I mean, I don’t know how … but it’s like everything I threw just kept going over the plate, you know? And it didn’t just go over the plate, but it went over the corners. It was crazy.”
Like I say, this was the first time I had spoken with Greinke, so I kept trying to figure out if he was messing with me. He didn’t SEEM to be messing with me. There was no obvious motivation for him to mess with me.
And I came to the conclusion then — one I believe firmly now — that he was NOT messing with me at all. This was how easy pitching was for him. He didn’t think about it. He didn’t really have to work at it. He just threw the ball and hitters couldn’t hit it, and that was all he knew and all he needed to know.
I say that Chicago was the first time I had talked to Zack Greinke, but the first time I observed him was at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in 2002. The Royals have this wonderful tradition where they bring up a number of their minor league prospects to Kansas City and take them on a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
And Zack seemed particularly overwhelmed by the experience. He walked around as if hypnotized. At one point, a television reporter walked up to him and asked if he had a minute for an interview.
“Um, no,” he said as he stared at the ceiling. “I don’t feel like it right now.”
The way he said it was … well, odd. It didn’t exactly sound like a rejection; it was more like a weather report of his emotions at that particular moment. The reporter did not quite know how to respond.
“How about in 10 minutes?” she asked.
He brightened. “OK,” he said. And sure enough, 10 minutes later the reporter came back and Greinke did the interview.
“Wow,” Bob Kendrick, now the president of the museum, said to me then. “This guy is playing in his own world, isn’t he?”
Right. His own world. But what a pitcher. Greinke started his first full professional season in High Class A — a lofty starting point for a 19-year-old pitcher* — and was so good that it was frankly ridiculous. His statistics in Wilmington — 11-1, 1.14 ERA, 78-13 strikeout-to-walk — are absurd, and they don’t even begin to describe the way he mesmerized hitters and, again, how easy it was for him. It was boring.
*A classic Yogi-like Greinke quote from that time: “I’m one of the youngest guys in this league,” he said, “and if I move up, I’ll be even younger.”
As for his personality … people were still trying to figure Greinke out. In retrospect, he was clearly trying to figure himself out at the same time. At that Futures Game, we had this rather odd exchange:
“Were you nervous?” I asked him.
“I don’t know if I was nervous,” he said. And then he asked me back: “I mean, I felt something?”
“Something?” I asked. “Like nerves?”
“I’m not sure if it was nerves. I mean there were a lot of people and stuff. And it was on TV.”
Then he looked at me as if he wanted me to explain the emotion that he felt.
“Nervous?” I suggested.
“I don’t know if I was nervous,” he said.
I tried to see if he was messing with me. He did not appear to be messing with me.
You’ve heard some of these Zack Greinke stories before, surely, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining.
I think what makes a good Greinke story so much fun is that you’re never entirely sure where he’s coming from. He’s awkward and cocky, literal and sarcastic, goofy and serious, fiercely competitive and oddly lackadaisical, smart and scattered. Like, one little story, in his first season he gave up three home runs to the White Sox. Reporters, as you might know, often try to couch their hard questions with some pillowy softness, like they might say, “Even though you lost today, did you see some real improvement?”
So, the reporter tried to cushion his question about the homers by saying, “The White Sox lead the league in home runs.”
Greinke looked over and said: “Well, good for them.”
What’s the takeaway from that? Who knows? There was a time he pitched well in a spring training game, and a reporter asked if it was the best he felt all spring.
“No,” Greinke said, and he explained that he felt better in the previous start when he gave up seven runs.
“Why?” the reporter asked.
Greinke looked up at the ceiling. “Because,” he said, “I felt good.”
What do you make of that?
At some point, I have come to realize, you don’t make anything of any of it. He’s Zack. He’s just different. As a pitcher, he has invented and reinvented himself — he has mixed in at least nine different pitches, including a couple that probably don’t have names. One time he was pitching in Wilmington, and he called the catcher to the mound and said, “I want to throw the cutter here.”
The catcher said, “Do you throw a cutter?”
And Greinke said: “No. But I can.”
That’s Zack. He has thrown 50-mph curveballs and fastballs approaching 100. He has won a Cy Young Award, he almost won another, he’s picked up six Gold Gloves, and he has hit nine home runs, including one off Clayton Kershaw.
And more than anything — oddly enough — he has been a baseball survivor. Nobody would have predicted that back in 2006, when he walked away from the game at age 22. He was coming off a disastrous season (5-17, 5.80 ERA), but that was not why he quit baseball. No, it was off the field that he felt a gloom that would not go away. “It’s like every day is a cloudy day,” was the way he described it.
He seriously considered quitting pitching for good then. He had ideas of trying to become a professional golfer or trying to make it in baseball, but as a shortstop. He did return to pitching after getting diagnosed with social anxiety, and the Royals sent him to Wichita in the hopes that pitching in the minor leagues would help him calibrate back to a baseball life.
And, funny thing: It worked. Zack loved Wichita. He loved playing on a winning team. He loved the camaraderie of minor league ball. I have a very distinct memory: I went to Wichita to write a story about the manager, Royals’ great Frank White. I saw Zack in the dugout. He smiled and waved happily to me.
It was the first time I saw him with a genuine smile on his face.
He returned to pitch in the Royals bullpen the next year, then he became one of the league’s better starters in 2008, then he had a season for the ages in 2009, going 16-8 with a league-leading 2.16 ERA, a league-leading 2.33 FIP, 10.4 bWAR, 8.7 fWAR, he allowed just 11 home runs in 229 innings, he was truly remarkable.
That was the year I wrote the cover story about him in Sports Illustrated. He did not want to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated*, so he refused to pose for a photo. Instead, SI photographer Robert Beck took my favorite ever photo of Zack, from behind and not showing his face.
*After he appeared on the cover of SI, he told our guy Bob Dutton: “There’s a lot more interesting stuff going on right now. They should have something else on the cover. Playoff basketball or something. So it’s a mistake. They’ll probably sell their least amount of magazines in a long time … except when NASCAR was on the cover.”
Two years later, he was traded to Milwaukee, where he helped the Brewers make it to the National League Championship Series. A year after that, he was traded to the Angels for the stretch run. A few months after that, he signed a six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers, and finished top 10 in the Cy Young voting in each of his three seasons there. Then he opted out of the Dodgers deal and signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona.
Then he was traded to Houston, where he pitched in two World Series.
And finally, the journey came full circle, and he’s back in Kansas City trying to get people out purely on guile and a fastball that’s actually slower than his slider. As I write these words, he has pitched 22 innings and struck out six batters. But he somehow also has a 2.86 ERA.
Also as of this writing, he has the same career bWAR as Clayton Kershaw, and that’s a higher WAR than Max Scherzer or first-ballot Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. Zack is going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
But you want more Zack stories. Of course you do.
In 2006, I went on something called “The Royals Caravan” — I guess they don’t do them anymore. The idea was to send a couple of players and a former Royals star on a bus to various town around Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, maybe Arkansas, to talk up the Kansas City Royals. I tagged along on the Caravan three or four times. They do blend together.
But I’m pretty sure in 2006, the Royals sent out Jeremy Affeldt and a guy named Emil Brown, who after four years of playing on seven different Triple-A clubs, had emerged as a pretty good hitter. This, alas, was the best the Royals could offer to their distant fans. But, anyway, we had a great time and Affeldt told me my first favorite Zack Greinke story.
This was after Greinke’s disaster season — but really it was one of the most disastrous seasons for any team at any time in baseball history. The Royals lost 106 games, their manager quit in the middle of the year, they lost 19 in a row at one point, and their third manager that year, Buddy Bell, when asked if things had hit rock bottom, said simply and correctly that things can always get worse.*
*There are SO many hilarious and incredible stories about that team, but this isn’t the place for them — I’m not saying that they will be included in my new book, WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL (coming out in 2023), but I’m also not saying that they won’t.
Anyway, Affeldt told a Greinke story — I think the story happened in 2004, Greinke’s rookie season. Affeldt was that team’s quote-unquote closer, and late in the year he was trying to hold down a two-run lead in Chicago. Unfortunately, he gave up a walk-off, three-run homer to Joe Crede and the Royals lost again.
Affeldt was obviously fuming at himself. He started shouting out loud, “You know what, it wasn’t even that bad a pitch!”
At which point Greinke walks over and says, “Uh, yeah, it was a bad pitch.”
Affeldt looked up at Greinke in amazed disbelief.
“Thanks, Zack,” he finally said.
“No, really, I went back and looked at the video,” Greinke continued. It was a bad pitch. Right down the middle.”
“No, like I could have hit it out. It was right over the middle.”
At which point Affeldt felt the anger drain from his body as he thought about the absurdity of it all.
“Thanks, Zack,” he said again, and Greinke, satisfied, walked off.
This would fall under the “Brutally Honest Zack” story genre. There are others, so many others, like this one reported in a wonderful Greinke oral history in The Athletic. A teammate with the Dodgers, catcher A.J. Ellis, made the beautiful mistake of asking Greinke what he would do to help L.A. get out of its slump. He didn’t answer at first, but later Greinke walked up to Ellis and said, “I’ve been thinking about your question. … The first thing I’d do is trade you.”
One day, late in the 2008 season, Greinke walked up to starting catcher John Buck and backup catcher Miguel Olivo and says to John (one of my favorite people), “When you’re catching me, I’m starting to second-guess myself. So I don’t want you to catch me anymore.”
Buck was obviously hurt — Greinke had been pitching great to him. But Greinke explained that when he’s on the mound, he needs to pitch without thinking. “You’re too smart,” he said to Buck. “You make me overthink myself.”
Olivo said, “Wait, so, I’m dumb?”
And Greinke, as only Greinke could, said: “Yeah, but I like throwing to you.”
“How do we both want to punch him, but we both get it and appreciate his honesty?” Buck told The Athletic.
Here’s the final punch to that story — the next year, Greinke made 33 starts. Olivo caught 32 of them. And the other was caught by the ice cream man, Brayan Peña. That turned out to be Zack Greinke’s Cy Young season.
So wait, is Greinke mean? A jerk? Yeah. Kind of. But also not. His teammates, for the most part, love him. They see him as a larger-than-life character, sort of like Drax the Destroyer from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” who took things so literally that stuff like that would constantly go over his head.
“Nothing goes over my head,” Drax said. “I would catch it.”
Plus, there’s a playfulness that just naturally tempers Zack’s honesty. One time Greinke saw the lovable backup catcher Brayan Peña eating ice cream. I can tell you there isn’t a soul who doesn’t just love Brayan Peña.
“You want to know why you’re not an everyday catcher?” Greinke said, and Peña settled in to get some advice from the master about his catching technique.
“Because you eat too much ice cream,” Greinke said. Peña didn’t know what to do except get up and give Zack a big old hug. He would say that from that point on, whatever city they went to, Greinke would get Peña the best ice cream in town.
Everybody loves the handwashing story. But here’s something you might not know — it happened TWICE. The first time, I believe, it was 2014, a week before the end of the season, and the Dodgers were having a serious meeting about getting ready for the playoffs. Manager Don Mattingly was going over how important it was for them to raise their energy level, raise their focus, they were coming off a loss in the NLCS and this time they needed to go all the way. And then Mattingly said, “OK, does anybody have anything else to say?”
And Greinke says, “Yeah. After you guys are done using the bathroom, wash your hands. It’s really gross.”
The next spring training, the Dodgers were having a tense meeting — there had been a couple of fights between teammates, and everyone was trying to figure out how to come together. And so there was another team meeting to clear the air, and once again Mattingly asked if anyone else had anything to say.
And Greinke says: “Yeah. After you guys are done using the bathroom, wash your hands. It’s really gross.”
“Somehow,” one player in the clubhouse that day said, “everybody knew he was going to say it again and also nobody knew he was going to say it. That’s Greinke.”
OK, let’s finish this off with my favorite Greinke story. This one falls under the genre of “Bizarrely Arrogant Zack” stories (BAZ). This is a guy, after all, who on Players Weekends — when everybody takes on a goofy nickname to put on the back of their jerseys — uses the nickname “Greinke.”
I’d guess every Greinke teammate has a BAZ story. Greinke probably has told every pitcher at one point or another, “I could definitely take you deep.” He once walked up to All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy and said, "If I wanted, I could probably be a better catcher than you.”
Anyway, the story comes from 2007, the year Alex Gordon was a rookie. The Royals through the years have had numerous mega-hyped rookies — from Clint Hurdle to Johnny Damon to Bobby Witt Jr. to Greinke himself — but Gordon might have been the most hyped of them all. He was the first player to win Baseball America’s “Amateur Player of the Year” and “Minor League Player of the Year” in back-to-back seasons. He grew up in a family that idolized George Brett (his brother was named Brett) and Alex had clearly patterned his swing after Brett’s.
Kansas City invested ALL of its hope in this one guy.
And Gordon clearly felt it. He was hitting .185 at the end of May. He had 48 strikeouts in 47 starts along with three home runs. It was pretty bad. And then one day, Greinke walks over to Gordon and says, “Follow me.”
You have to understand that for all the goofiness, the aloofness, the arrogance, Zack Greinke understands baseball, and particularly hitting, on a spectacularly high level. It’s like Greinke, Greg Maddux, Tony Gwynn and Charley Lau on a mountaintop. So Gordon was legitimately excited that Greinke would offer him some way to get out of the worst slump of his life.
Greinke takes Gordon into the video room. And there, he has cued up — a video of Greinke hitting his first big-league home run against Arizona. They both watch the home run, and then there was a couple of seconds of silence.
“Do more of that,” Greinke said, and the meeting was over.