Greatness in Greinke

Polish. After horrifically drafting Colt Griffin in the first round a year before, the Kansas City Royals desperately needed polish. Not a fireballer who looked good on a radar gun but would walk nearly one an inning his first year, but rather a player focused on control. To relate this to the past draft, the Royals needed Jeremy Sowers or Phillip Humber, not Mark Rogers or Homer Bailey. Plain and simple, they needed polish.

With that word, or so Kansas City fans thought, would come a college player packaged as the sixth overall choice in the 2002 draft. Maybe the team would draft Bobby Brownlie or Jeremy Guthrie, those expensive college pitchers with jaw-dropping stats. But surely, fans knew, Allard Baird would not draft another high school pitcher in the first round, not after Griffin. And they believed this, all the way until Zack Greinke was chosen from a Florida high school that June.

Baird and company promised Greinke and Griffin were polar opposites, that Zack had college-like polish. But after August struggles in the Northwest league, Baird looked insane. And then, Baird had a revolutionary idea crazy enough to land him in an asylum: winter ball. Never before had a bonus baby, months removed from cap and gown, pitched in countries unknown. But Allard promised Zack was the kid to do it, basically betting his job on his sanity.

Now, Baird looks like a genius. Puerto Rico was the explanation some used when Greinke flustered Carolina League hitters in 2003, arguably becoming the top pitching prospect in the game. A 1.14 ERA as a 19-year-old? Those numbers were good enough to land him comparisons to Kansas City favorite Bret Saberhagen, and all-time great Greg Maddux. Most of all, it was good enough to change the minds of Royal fans. High school pitchers shouldn’t have polish? Well, Zack Greinke isn’t your average high school kid.

OPP     IP    H   ER   BB   SO
OAK    5.0    5    2    1    1
MIN    7.0    7    1    1    2
DET    7.0    6    2    2    4
MON    7.0    3    0    0    5
NYM    7.0    5    5    2    2

Above is the sample size that Zack Greinke has given us so far, the brilliance he has bestowed as a Royal. In each start, we’ve seen the confidence and control that makes him a top prospect, and in each start, I remain awestruck. His worst start, the last outing against the Mets, was impressive despite the earned run total. Greinke, in true Maddux fashion, threw only 87 pitches against the Mets, proving his skin is impossible to get beneath. He is willing to pitch on both corners, will throw his change quite often, and throws strikes with his curve. Twenty-year-old rookies are not supposed to do this, but he isn’t your average 20-year-old either.

If Greinke stays in the rotation until year’s end, and only injury would prevent that, he’ll end up starting about 24-26 games. Since 1945, only 20 pitchers have debuted and made at least 15 starts at the age of 20. The group is a mixed bag, and it’s interesting to see where Greinke fits in. Below are the aforementioned twenty pitchers, ranked by ERA+:

First	Last	     W-L	  IP	  H	  BB	 K	ERA+
Dennis	Eckersley    13-7	  186.7	  147	  90	 152	146
Dave	Rozem        15-7	  218.3	  222	  34	 92	140
Chet 	Nichols      11-8	  156	  142	  69	 71	128
Dennis	Blair        11-7	  146	  113	  72	 76	118
Bret	Saberhagen   10-11	  157.7	  138	  36	 73	116 
Mike	Witt         8-9	  129	  123	  47	 75	112
Dan	Petry        6-5	  98	  90	  33	 43	110
Oliver	Perez        4-5	  90	  71	  48	 94	109
Dick	Drott        15-11	  229	  200	  129	 170	108
Gil	Meche        8-4	  85.7	  73	  57	 47	106
C.C.	Sabathia     17-5	  180.3	  149	  95	 171	103
Johnny	Podres       9-4	  115	  126	  64	 82	100
Dave	Morehead     10-13	  174.7	  137	  99	 136	99
Bob	Friend       6-10	  149.7	  173	  68	 41	99
Jeff	D'Amico      6-6	  86	  88	  31	 53	97
Vern	Law          7-9	  128	  137	  49	 57	89
Rudy	May          4-9	  124	  111	  78	 76	86
Jeremy	Bonderman    6-19	  162	  193	  58	 108	78
Steve	Avery        3-11	  99	  121	  45	 75	71
Jeff	Byrd         2-13	  87.3	  98	  68	 40	68

Consider that of these 20, the first 12 listed had an ERA better than league average as a 20-year-old. In fact, the average of these seasons has an ERA of 3.98 in just over 140 innings. I think it’s interesting that five of these players are currently in the Major Leagues, and that Sabathia and Perez are both having good years. Below are the average peripherals of this group, and beneath it the listing of Zack Greinke’s thus far:

	ERA	H/9	K/BB	K/9
Group	3.98	8.52	1.36	5.56
Greinke	2.73	7.09	2.33	3.82

Yeah, he’s good. Of the twenty, Greinke would rank in the top four in ERA, H/9 and K/BB. The only concern is his K/9 ratio of 3.82, which would be only in front of Dave Rozema and Bob Friend on the list. So, the logical question is, will a low K/9 hurt Zack’s chances at a big career? Below is a table of the 14 players (Jeff Byrd never appeared in another game after his 20-year-old season) career wins and ERA, ranked in order of their K/9 that first season:

Name          W     ERA+
Eckersley   197      116
Morehead     40       90
Avery        96       99
Drott        27       80
Podres      148      105
May         152      102
Witt        117      105
Blair        19      104
Saberhagen  167      126
Nichols      34      105
Law         162      101
Petry       125      102
Rozema       60      118
Friend      197      107

Everyone below the space had a K/9 below 4.50 during their rookie season. Of the top four winningest pitchers from this group of 14, three had K/9 ratios below 4.50 at twenty years of age. Eleven of the 14 finished with a career ERA+ above 100, and all six of the second group do as well. Here are the peripheral changes this second group had from age 20 as opposed to their career:

	ERA	H/9	K/BB	K/9
At 20	3.67	8.94	1.30	3.74
Career	3.63	9.09	1.88	4.50

In my opinion, Greinke’s peripherals should start to inch closer to Bret Saberhagen’s, as I expect the H/9 and K/9 to rise before season’s close. Saberhagen’s career closed with a K/9 of 6.01, considerably better than the 4.17 he had as a rookie. Zack Greinke has a very bright future ahead of him, and as I said in my Royals season preview, should approach Priest Holmes in terms of Kansas City popularity.

By looking at the previous group, I think we’ve all but guaranteed that Greinke will have a career ERA+ of 100 and will see his K/9 rise. Barring injury, unlike the compareable Dave Rozema did, Greinke should be one of, if not the best of this group of now 21 members. Special? You bet.

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