Anatomy of a player: Zach Greinke

Zach Geinke during his complete game against Seattle. Royals at Mariners, April 14, 2008 (Icon/SMI)

Introduction

In my last article, I wrote about the very talked-about Phil Hughes. Now, I’d like to change gears and write about a pitcher who doesn’t get a lot of press, Zach Greinke. Greinke is only 24, but it seems like he has been around for quite a long time. In fact, he has been around for a long time, after breaking into the majors in 2004, when he was just 20.

If that sounds a lot like Hughes, it should. In fact, the comparisons are pretty amazing. If you are a Hughes fan, read on and see one of the possible outcomes for him.

Background

Greinke was drafted in the first round, No. 6 overall, by the Kansas City Royals in 2002. After signing with enough time to get a few starts in 2002, Greinke exploded on the scene in 2003 and was considered a top prospect, nearly ready for the majors. After a few starts at Triple-A in 2004, Greinke took the league by storm his first year, posting a 3.97 ERA in 24 starts.

Back then, he was considered a very polished pitcher for his age with not as much upside as you might think considering he was 20 and pitching in the majors already. Concerns got louder in 2005 when Greinke went through a sophomore slump.

Dan Fox wasn’t on the bandwagon and had this to say: “What would really excite me as a Royals fan is if I saw him add two to four miles per hour on his fastball (which is not out of question by any means since he is so young).” At that time Greinke was working in the low 90s and comparisons to Greg Maddux abounded. Off-the-field issues in 2006 lost him much of the beginning of the year. He was then diagnosed with depression and went back to Double-A for most of the season.

At the start of the 2007 season, little was expected from Greinke. He started out meeting those low expectations with a 5.71 ERA in seven starts and was moved to the bullpen. Then, a light went on and Greinke started pitching well, with increased velocity on his fastball. An increase in velocity when moving to the bullpen isn’t unheard of, but when inserted back into the rotation Greinke kept that velocity and blew away hitters. Mike Fast did an excellent job of looking at this transformation last year. Greinke ended the season with a 3.69 ERA and a 3.76 FIP to match. That leads us to this year, where Greinke is tearing up the league with a cool 3.33 ERA though a slightly higher FIP.

What Greinke throws

Greinke is your classic right hander with a four-seam fastball, a curveball, a slider he uses mostly to right-handed batters, and a change-up he uses mostly to left=handed batters. Here is a plot of his movement.

Let’s look at these pitches one by one, starting with the fastball. Greinke has indeed added several mph and is now throwing his fastball at 94. Just as Fox suggested, this has made a tremendous difference in the results. He is generating league-average horizontal movement and several extra inches of vertical movement with the pitch. Sometimes when a pitcher increases his velocity the movement suffers, but Greinke still has above-average movement with significantly more speed than a league-average pitcher.

But wait, it gets even better. One reason Greinke has been compared to Maddux is his ability to add or subtract from his fastball. The question is whether he still possesses this with the new-found velocity. Here is a simple plot showing how pitchers who have thrown at least 100 fastballs vary their speed.

Where does Greinke rank? At 2.0 mph, very high compared to his peers. Greinke has thrown a fastball at 89 mph and 99 mph this year. This means even if a hitter is sitting dead red and gets the fastball, he still has to deal with how fast it is coming in. As Warren Spahn said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” Throwing your fastball at 96 one pitch then 92 the next might not seem like a lot, but to a hitter that is the difference between a line drive in the gap and a line drive foul because you pulled it.

Greinke’s fastball is a plus pitch in every way. Sometimes when a pitcher has such a strong pitch he relies on it heavily. Greinke is not that way, however, throwing his fastball about 60 percent of the time, which seems like a very happy medium.

Greinke’s curveball is more of a slurve than the 12-to-6 curve you might expect. He generates a ton of horizontal movement and only average vertical movement. As we have seen, this isn’t a great recipe for success, but Grienke hides the pitch well with nearly the same release point and a smaller hump due to the lessened vertical motion. Also, Grienke is throwing the pitch nearly 20 mph slower than he throws his fastball! That is a monstrous difference, so everything about his curve is positive except the lessened vertical drop.

To right-handed batters, Greinke uses his slider as an out pitch a lot. When the batter is in a hole at 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2, Greinke throws his slider about a third of the time and he almost always starts the pitch on the outside corner, only to have it tail out of the strike zone. Again, Greinke’s movement on the pitch is only about league average, but the deception is high with the same release point and hiding it in the same vertical plane as his fastball.

To left-handed batters, Greinke prefers his change-up. That pitch clocks in at about 82 mph, producing another huge velocity drop for a batter. His change moves slightly more down and away from a left-handed batter than his fastball, giving him a strong weapon against them.

Unlike his slider, however, Greinke isn’t using the pitch as a strikeout pitch. In fact, on 0-2 and 1-2 he is throwing the pitch about 2 percent of the time! Greinke uses the pitch mostly when he is behind in the count 1-0, 2-0 and 2-1 when a hitter might be expecting a fastball. The ability to throw an off-speed pitch in hitter’s counts, especially to a hitter who has the platoon advantage, is huge.

To sum up: You can make a good argument that each of Greinke’s four pitches is a plus pitch. His fastball is probably a plus-plus pitch and his curve looks to be a plus-pitch as well. His other two offerings look solid as well and are both probably no worse than average.

In addition, he mixes his pitches extremely well. He has thrown a pitch at 70 mph and one at 99, and every speed in between. That huge range give him plenty of leeway to adjust to different hitters. Some pitchers just have a plan A on how to attack a left-handed batter but Greinke has the ability to throw completely differently to the same left-handed batter each time he comes to the plate.

The future

If it sounds like I am gushing over him, I am, though I am not the only one. Greinke’s future looks extremely bright. He is past the injury nexus without any arm troubles to speak of. He throws four pitches extremely well. His control is very good. He changes speed well.

Basically, he is a pitcher without a hole in his game right now. By any measure, Greinke is not just a good pitcher but has become an elite pitcher in the league. He is not a No. 2 or No. 3 starter, he is an ace and he is only 24. If you asked me which pitcher will be the most successful over the next seven years I would take Zach Greinke. The only spot on his resume is the depression, which seems to be completely under control and which I think has been blown out of proportion. If you are going to dock him points for makeup, it should be just a small deduction.

Recently, trade rumors have surfaced around Greinke, although apparently the asking price is high. Greinke will be arbitration eligible again next year and be a free agent after the 2010 season. It seems not very likely that the Royals will be ready to contend then, so the thought is maybe the Royals should trade Greinke for prospects. Unless they are offered a king’s ransom, though, if I were Royals GM Dayton Moore I would hold on to Greinke and try to sign him to an extension.

Rany Jazayerli put it this way earlier in the season: “If Moore hasn’t already broached the subject of a long-term deal with Greinke’s agent, he’s not doing his job.” I am going to go one step further. As long as Greinke isn’t asking for keys to the city, Moore should lock him up now before the secret is out. Many people shudder at signing a pitcher to a five-to-seven-year contract, but if there ever was a pitcher you would be willing to give a real long-term deal to, it is Greinke. Lock him up now and more than likely the contract will look like a steal in three years. Back up the Brinks truck and pay the man.

Greinke’s agent is SFX, which is more willing to talk about buying out a few years of free agency than, say, Scott Boras. If I am a GM of another team and Greinke is indeed on the market I would be willing to trade the farm to get him. I certainly would be willing to make a higher offer for Greinke than, say, C.C Sabathia. Not only does Greinke have several years of team control left, he probably is just as good right now as Sabathia. No matter how you slice it, Greinke is at the top of the game right now and we should start giving him the recognition he deserves.

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