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Arizona Diamondbacks SnakePit Awards: Pitcher of the Year, Zack Greinke

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Two-thirds of a season of Zack was enough to win him a second ‘Pittie

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

How long ago it seems now, that the D-backs signed Zack Greinke to what was, is, and likely will remain for a while, the most expensive contract in franchise history. Six years, and $206.5 million dollars - at the time, the largest ever for a right-handed pitcher. The first year was shaky, Greinke only being worth 2.3 bWAR, with an ERA hardly any better than league average (4.37, 102 ERA+). Though it was still enough to get him the 2016 ‘Pittie, with Zack turning 33 that October, and his velocity apparently inexorably declining, it seriously looked like the deal was going to hand-cuff the Diamondbacks for the remaining duration. The main question seemed to be how much money they would end up having to eat.

But Greinke re-invented himself, even as his fastball continued to be not so fast. The following year, he went 17-7 with a 3.20 ERA - the resulting 147 ERA+ was the third-best in his career to that point, as was the 5.7 bWAR. His ERA was nearly identical in 2018 (3.21), and he picked up another All-Star appearance for his resume. But before Opening Day this year, David Schoenfeld of ESPN listed Greinke as Arizona’s worst current contract - quite why it wasn’t Yasmany Tomas escapes me. He said, “If Greinke’s contract was viewed as a good deal, they’d have traded him this offseason -- and that hasn’t happened.” That was the common perception: moving Zack would require Arizona to eat a lot of, if not all, the remaining salary.

But perhaps what that failed to take into consideration was Greinke pitching, arguably, even better still. Over 23 games, he had a 2.90 ERA and was worth better than a win a month. It was simply through pitching smarter, not harder. As Fangraphs noted, in his first start of the year, Greinke threw an 87.9 mph changeup to A.J. Pollock... followed by an 87.7 mph fastball to Cody Bellinger, “a sequence that raises etymological questions about the word changeup.” Why that’s so effective, is illustrated by the Tweets above: they may be the same velocity, but differ in every other way. He got batters to chase his pitches, with an out of the zone swing rate this year of 35.2%, comparable with Max Scherzer (35.4%).

And then there was his eephus, a true thing of beauty. Grienke threw twenty-three pitches this season which were clocked by pitch fX at a velocity which wouldn’t get them a speeding ticket on most highways: 65 mph or less, On July 5, he struck out Rockies’ pitcher Antonio Senzatela with a 59.3 mph pitch. In a world where it seems almost everyone is throwing in the high nineties, Greinke zagged when everyone else zigged, and regularly made batters look very, very silly with a pitch whose velocity you feel you might be able to reach, with only a small amount of training. And in terms of what I mean by “very, very silly,” I give you this.

Glorious. But it wasn’t always like that. Two games in, Greinke had a 9.31 ERA, having surrendered six home-runs to the first 44 batters he faced. His opposing OPS was 1.129. Which makes it all the more remarkable that his ERA was down to below three by the middle of May. This was due to a stretch of eleven games from April 20 through June 13 with the following combined line:
Zack Greinke: 11 GS, 6-1, 71.2 IP. 46 H, 13 R, 13 ER, 10 BB, 57 SO, 1.63 ERA
His control was also impeccable. From the last start of the above period through July 26, Zack faced 206 batters, and walked four, while striking out 46. Per FiveThirtyEight, “In the month of July, Greinke threw 479 pitches. None was in a 3-0 count.”

It was, simply, a joy to watch Greinke pitch, each and every time he took the mound - and that’s not even considering his talents with the bat (becoming the second Diamondback pitcher with a two-homer game) or the glove (earning his sixth consecutive Gold Glove). For this category is for Pitcher of the Year. Given his consistent level of excellence, it was probably not too much of a surprise that - despite that supposedly “worst contract” - at the trade deadline, he was dealt to Houston, bolstering further an already fearsome Astros’ rotation. There’s no doubt that Zack’s 2019 performance was a major factor in maximizing the return Mike Hazen was able to receive, and minimizing the cash required.

For two and a third years of Greinke’s service, the Diamondbacks received no less than three of Houston’s top five prospects (Josh Rojas being the exception), while having only to pay $24 million of the $77 million left on Zack’s contract. It was a deal which went from zero to completed incredibly quickly: less than 24 hours. Compare and contrast the two-month long dance which was required for the trade of Paul Goldschmidt to St. Louis. But it’s a deal which would have been unthinkable, had Zack not been turning in one of the best spells of his career. By doing so, he helped the D-backs improve their farm system and gave them the flexibility needed to address other positional holes this winter.

He’s still going to be missed in Arizona, there’s no doubt about it. We were reminded of that, watching him pitch for the Astros through the playoffs and on into the World Series. We’ll be reminded of that every time he takes the mound for them in 2020 and 2021. We’ll be reminded of that, on each occasion his interactions with the media turn into something akin to brilliant surrealist performance art. But it’s far better to have seen Zack go out as a Diamondback at the top of his game, than slipping sadly into the darkness of designation for assignment, like certain big-ticket acquisitions I could mention. Like Patrick Corbin before him, being memorialized with the 2019 ‘Pittie as Pitcher of the Year is the way to go