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.