We are taking a break from the Making An Ace series to do a two-part series on Zack Greinke. The third part of Making An Ace will be posted next week.
The legacy of Zack Greinke just never ceases to stop being entertaining. I mean, did you notice that the lead picture of this article is Greinke in a batting helmet? Or did you just accept it as normal, seeing as the 35-year-old is sitting on a career high three home runs this season?
Let’s just start with a classic Greinke quote:
“You’re not allowed to write about me if you haven’t seen ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ See it, and then get back to me.”
This writer has seen The Shawshank Redemption, thankfully, and it is one of said writer’s favorite movies.
Jack and I will be taking this week to just appreciate Zack Greinke. Today, I will be taking a look at Greinke’s amazing career and tomorrow Jack will be looking at Greinke’s Hall Of Fame chances as well as assessing his current trade value.
Before we start from the beginning, let’s start from the end. Zack Greinke is 35 years old, which is quite old by baseball standards, and yet:
- Greinke is currently sitting on 2.7 fWAR (15th-best) and 3.3 bWAR (6th) as we approach the All-Star Game
- Speaking of the All-Star Game, Greinke was just nominated to his sixth All-Star Game
- At the prime age of 35, Greinke has set a career high with three home runs... again, before the All-Star Game
The tale of Zack Greinke is just truly unique and amazing.
Zack Greinke was drafted by the Kansas City Royals with the 6th overall pick as a high school senior from Apopka, Florida. Greinke was the Gatorade National Player Of The Year for 2001-2002 as the best high school baseball player in the US. Over his high school career, Greinke hit over .400 with 31 home runs but he also become a starting pitcher his senior year, when he had a 0.55 ERA and a whopping 118 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Even though Greinke started as a hitter and only became a starting pitcher his senior year of high school, the Kansas City Royals viewed him as a pitcher. He was drafted in 2002 and made the majors by 2004. But it wasn’t just a taste of the Majors - as a 20-year-old, Greinke posted a 3.97 ERA over 145 IP. That would be the start of Greinke’s 16-year career that is still going on.
In what seems to be a running theme for his whole career, Zack Greinke’s seven year career with the Royals had lots of ups and downs. In 2005, Greinke struggled massively, leading the AL with 17 losses. Part of this was due to the Royals being bad but a lot of it was due to Greinke’s 5.80 ERA.
However, things somehow got worse for Greinke. During Spring Training in 2006, Greinke left the team due to personal reasons. Greinke would end up being diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder and was put on the 60 day disabled list due to psychological reasons. He would spend the season working with a psychologist and started taking anti-depressants, eventually making a come back with three appearances out of the bullpen totaling 6.1 IP on the year.
That would be the only season that Greinke pitched less than 120 innings.
Greinke came back fully in 2007, starting in the rotation before finishing most of the season from the bullpen. However, come 2008, Greinke was back in the rotation for good. And man, was he good. Greinke would go on to stockpile 26.2 bWAR over 7 seasons for the Royals, peaking in 2009 when he made his first All-Star Game and won his one and only Cy Young, throwing 229.1 IP with a 2.16 ERA vs. an amazing 2.33 FIP and an insane 10.4 bWAR.
Speaking of Zack Greinke’s Cy Young, this is what he had to say about it (years later):
“I’ve only kept one award in my whole life, and it’s the coolest thing ever. Mizuno gave me a samurai sword for winning the Cy Young. It’s awesome.”
And there we have it. Greinke doesn’t care about Cy Young awards. He cares about samurai swords. Zack Greinke is awesome.
However, that may not be the actual highlight of Greinke’s Royals career. It might be this:
In Greinke’s fourth career at-bat, he homered off Russ Ortiz and the Arizona Diamondbacks. And that wasn’t a cheap shot - Greinke crushed it to left-center. Later, as the story goes, Alex Gordon was in a massive slump. Greinke, ever-the-scout, took Gordon to the film room to help him out. What did Greinke show Alex Gordon? He showed Alex Gordon this hit, several times, and told Alex Gordon, “Do more of that.”
The Royals were never really competitive while Greinke was pitching for them and he was eventually traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for prospects in 2011 while the Brewers made they playoff push. We all know how the 2011 playoffs went and in 2012, Greinke was traded to the Angels for prospects, one of which was quite important to the Arizona Diamondbacks — Jean Segura. Thanks to the Greinke trade to the Angels, the Diamondbacks were able to eventually acquire Segura from the Brewers and eventually trade Segura and Mitch Haniger for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker. It’s amazing how these things end up impacting other things later on down the road.
After all this, Greinke finally got his first big contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signing a 6-year, $147 million with an opt-out after three years. At the time, this was the biggest contract ever given to a right-handed pitcher.
Greinke would end up pitching for three seasons in LA. I know we all hate the Dodgers, but we should really take a moment to appreciate just how insanely good Greinke was over those three years:
602.2 IP, 2.30 ERA, 156 ERA+, 2.97 FIP, 8.3 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9
That is one of the best three year spans you’ll ever see, with Greinke putting up 17.7 bWAR in 3 years. You have to give respect where it is due.
However, Greinke opted out after three years to become a free agent. And in one of the biggest shocks, the Diamondbacks landed Greinke with a 6-year, $206.5 million contract. Greinke is now on his third All-Star Game with the Diamondbacks, which is surprisingly the most for Greinke (only 1 with KC and 2 with LAD). I won’t bore you with anymore story telling from here - we all know how that story has gone, so far.
Part of what makes Zack Greinke truly remarkable is how much he has changed over his career. Greinke’s always been known as one of the game’s true thinkers and he loves to be involved with scouting.
What’s so fun as a Diamondbacks fan is that the Greinke we have is nothing like the Greinke of old. For starters, let’s look at Greinke’s fastball velocity over time:
For the first time in his career, Greinke is averaging below 90 MPH on his fastball, down from over 95 back in 2007 (we don’t have velocity data available prior to 2007). He was even higher when he was a rookie.
As expected when you have velocity like that, Greinke was a power pitcher when he was younger. At times, he was throwing his fastball nearly 75% of the time:
I mean, look at that. There are 7 pitches on that list. Two of which he only really started throwing in Arizona... in his 30s. This man is just crazy.
However, despite having great velocity at times and having an arsenal of pitchers, Greinke has never been a super elite strikeout pitcher. He’s certainly good - his 8.2 K/9 is very good (and needs to be adjusted for the lower strikeouts in the 2000s) and peaked at 10.5 K/9 in 2011. Where Greinke truly truly shines is his command: Greinke’s career walk rate is a miniscule 2.1 BB/9 and the highest he ever threw in a full season was 2.7 BB/9. During his career as a Diamondback, Greinke is sitting at 1.9 BB/9, which is just absurdly low, and he’s currently sitting on a 1.17 BB/9 in 2019 which is practically unfathomable over a course of a full season.
But aside from the important things, Greinke is just really fun to watch. I mean, look at this:
Just look at all of those sub-70 MPH curveballs. Or Eephus. Or floaters. Whatever you want to call them. They’re absolutely hilarious and Greinke has been throwing more and more of them as he gets older. They’re so rare that they don’t even exist at Fangraphs as a pitch type. I bet there are more than one Pitter here that could throw a baseball more than 70 MPH and here is Greinke striking out dozens of Major League hitters with a pitcher slower than 70 MPH.
But it’s not just pitching that Greinke has been good at. He’s also an outstanding fielder, having racked up five Golden Gloves... all of which happened in his 30s. Greinke has 80 DRS in his career - that is 37 higher than the next active pitcher (Mike Leake).
It was hard to find good video, but this highlight video from 2017 has three plays from Greinke, which are conveniently at the beginning:
Greinke also likes to steal bases. He ‘only’ has 9 stolen bases in his career, but that is also the most from any pitcher from 2004 through today. Second place is Greg Maddux with 6. And what makes this all the more amazing is that Greinke did this while playing 7.5ish years in the AL, where he barely had an opportunity to hit (26 total PA in these years).
Here’s a video called “Pitchers Stealing Bases! (Basically Zack Greinke)”. I mean, that title alone is just a perfect way to describe Greinke... but then you see his head-first slides and you start to realize just how awesome Zack Greinke is.
And yet we’re still not done. And you know where this is going: for a pitcher, Zack Greinke is a really good hitter. For his career, Greinke has a .223/.263/.335 line for a 59 wRC+. That’s better than Jeff Mathis, who was drafted in the first round and has acquired over 2800 PA. His .110 ISO is higher than Ketel Marte had when the Diamondbacks acquired him from Seattle. And while playing as a hitter in an ever-increasing strikeout environment (he moved to the NL in 2011), he only has a career 19.1% K%.
Let’s admire some Greinke dingers:
Nothing beats hitting a home run off of Kershaw. And Greinke smacked that at 105.8 MPH.
A two homer game. First Diamondback to do that since Micah Owings. And neither of them were cheap shots: the first homer was 102.8 MPH to dead center and 414 feet. The second was 101.4 MPH and 384 feet to left, clearing the fence by several rows.
And all three of these homers came in his age 35 season. Unreal. These are his only dingers as a Diamondback, so far. Will he get any more?
What’s amazing about Greinke is that when he squares a ball up, he’s got some really impressive power. He’s averaging 93.3 MPH on his fly balls and line drives so far this season. That’s the same average as Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen and higher than Charlie Blackmon and literally hundreds of other MLB hitters.
If Greinke had developed as a hitter instead of a pitcher, would he have made the MLB? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it seems like it would be in his favor. Greinke seems to think so:
“I wish I had a chance to do it, but I kind of can’t. That probably would be the most exciting way to have made it -- two different ways. That’s like a lifetime dream of mine.”
Looking at Greinke’s baseball career and just the astounding body of work - not just pitching but also fielding and hitting - are truly amazing and worthy of admiration. And yet there is still more to Greinke that makes him just so fascinating.
He is quite the character. For instance, he likes bat flips:
Zack Greinke is a minority owner of one Chipotle™ franchise and it’s his favorite burrito place. But he was quite unhappy when they raised the price of guacamole:
“I like the guacamole. Now, I don’t really love the guacamole. So I get it when I feel like it. They changed their guacamole from $1.50 to $1.80. I mean, $1.50 is already pretty darn high. So they changed it to $1.80, and I’ll never again get guacamole. It’s not about the guacamole itself, I just don’t want to let them win.”
He loves baseball more than anything:
“I just wanted to make this clear: I can’t live without baseball...It’s to the point where it caused problems with my girlfriend because she knows baseball is more important than her. I say, ‘Hey, I’m sorry. I love the game that much. You’re not even close to being No. 1 -- that’s how much I love baseball. I couldn’t live without it.”
He dreams about the future:
“There definitely will be flying cars, but whether there’ll be flying cars for most people to use, it’ll probably take a long time to straighten everything out, all the rules and hassles. It’ll take a while to figure out how to keep people from crashing into each other.”
And lastly, Greinke has a very interesting opinion on throwing a no-hitter:
“It’d probably be more of a hassle than anything... A bunch of nonsense comes with it. I don’t think about no-hitters, ever.”
And yet, these few quotes only provide just a small hint as to the entertaining human being that is Zack Greinke.
In regards to the current state of Greinke, he is 35 years old, has an ERA below 3, and just got selected to his 6th All-Star Game. And despite all of the overwhelmingly positive things that I’ve talked about with Greinke today, we are starting to slowly see cracks in the armor. His FB velo has dropped below 90 MPH on average. His strikeout rates have dropped considerably the past three years and so has his swinging strike rate (at 9.3%, Greinke is below league average for the first time in many years).
On the flip side, Greinke’s walk rate is at a career best and he still has a .284 xwOBA, good for 79th percentile in the MLB. Greinke has successfully transformed himself into a finesse pitcher. It’s truly amazing to see that change over time and how he just continues to be ahead of the game.
It’s hard to say how long Greinke can keep this up. The more his velocity declines and the fewer strikeouts he gets, the less margin for error he will have. This is really to be expected for a 35-year-old pitcher. But if there was any pitcher I would pick to continue succeeding well into his late 30s, it would be Zack Greinke. But Diamondback fans need to accept the fact that Greinke is aging and we will only be able to appreciate Greinke for a short time, however long it ends up being.
We’re not just appreciating Zack Greinke, Pitcher. We are appreciating Zack Greinke, Baseball Player.