One Reason Not To Worry About Greinke

Zack Greinke is the best pitcher in baseball. As a Royals fan, I’m biased, but I’m not alone. If you look at CHONE’s own runs saved above replacement, Greinke is the top pitcher projected for 2010. But I’m not interested in a “who is the best pitcher” debate at the moment. When all factors are taken into account, I can imagine good arguments for any one of a number of pitchers, including (but not limited to) Greinke, Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, and Kei Igawa. My goal in this piece is not to argue Greinke’s case, but to argue that one “knock” on Greinke — his past struggles with depression and social anxiety disorder — should not be considered a significant factor.

Before I start, let me make three things clear: 1) I am not trying to minimize the seriousness of mental health issues; 2) I don’t have any special “inside” information; and 3) I am not a doctor, psychologist, or any other sort of expert or mental health professional; this is a lay opinion of a baseball blogger writing from the “outside.”

I’ve read comparisons of pitcher value going forward in which Greinke’s past mental health issues that caused him to leave baseball for a time in 2006 are given as a reason to grade him down. I disagree; if it’s a worry at all, it’s a relatively insignificant one. This isn’t meant as an “inspirational” piece about the power to overcome obstacles, either — there’s a place for that, but frankly, I’m not sure professional athletics is the arena to which we should look… that’s a rant for another time and place. This is more cold-blooded: it’s about how this should (not) factor into valuations of Greinke.

First of all, despite the way many of the bandwagon-jumping pieces that came out during Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young campaign made it sound, it’s not as if Greinke was out of baseball until right before his historically great 2009. Greinke’s problem actually came to a head four years ago, in 2006. His ‘comeback‘ to the major leagues full-time was three years ago, in 2007. He pitched well in 2007 and 2008 already — he’s been back for a while, and has been fine.

Second, the time off in 2006 as well as the lighter 2007 workload means that Greinke (who has never had a significant injury in his professional career, as far as I know) has fewer miles on his arm — another important factor for his value. So that at least partially (and in my mind, more than fully) offsets whatever risk Greinke’s condition involes.

Third, think for a moment about how many people you know that have struggled or have ongoing struggles with mental health that requires some sort of ongoing treatment (and again, I don’t know any specifics regarding Greinke’s treatment). It seems quite likely that a fair number of baseball players (including very good ones) are dealing with this sort of stuff, and we simply haven’t heard about it (some we have, as with Khalil Greene‘s difficulties) because they’ve managed to keep it private. Do you really think professional baseball players are that much different from the rest of us?* If they can deal with it, so can Greinke, who has been dealing with for a few years now.

* And no, I’m not including the ‘shocking‘ increase in the number of players who needed AdderAll prescriptions after baseball banned greenies (which, unlike steroids, definitely didn’t help players’ performance in the past, even if they did do them, which they totally didn’t.).

Fourth, again without minimizing the seriousness of mental health issues, keep in mind that in February 2006, Greinke was just 22. Undoubtedly, social anxiety was the primary factor in Greinke’s difficulties at the time, but it’s also an age at which many people are at a crossroads. In The New Bill James Historical Abstract, James recounts the 1978 tale of the 22-year old Robin Yount, who, like Greinke, had been brought up at a very young age and was going through something of a career crisis, as the Brewers were considering moving him off of shortstop. Like Greinke, Yount thought about leaving baseball entirely (in Yount’s case, to take up professional golf). Some saw this as immaturity, but, as James writes after he returned to baseball

…Yount became a better player than he had been before; his career got traction from the moment he returned. What I didn’t see at the time was that Yount was in the process of making a commitment to baseball… What looked like indecision or sulking was really the process of making a decision… In the biographies of men and nations, success often arrives in the mask of failure (p. 594)

Greinke’s case (aside from the obvious) is obviously different than Yount’s, but there are similarities. Greinke, too, wanted to leave baseball behind for good. But that’s clearly not the case now. Contrary the “Zack’s just so goofy!” stereotype sometimes projected onto him (due to some memorable quotes), the main picture one gets is of a guy who is super-competitive (in everything — Brian Bannister has called Greinke “the most competitive peson I’ve ever met in my life.”) and driven.

Moreover, given baseball’s relative unconcern with its drinking problem, why would teams be concerned about a guy who got help for a treatable problem four years ago when they don’t seem to care all that much about players hitting the town every night while on the road? I’m not moralizing, I’m just “wondering” which is more detrimental to high-level athletic performance. Who knows?.*

* It’s hard to imagine, but maybe Greinke also hits the town with a world-historically awesome entourage of Kyle Farnsworth (Drama), Brian Bannister (“E”), and Billy Butler (Turtle). Um, not that I watch that stupid show.

But I digress. There are many reasons why someone might (wrongly, in my opinion) prefer one pitcher or another to Zack Greinke. Relative to all the various factors, Greinke’s issues with social anxiety shouldn’t be one of them.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

36 Responses to “One Reason Not To Worry About Greinke”

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  1. Albert says:

    talk about getting carried away with 1 great season. Let’s see a little more of Greinke before we proclaim him the best pitcher in baseball, it’s premature at this point I think. He’s good and 2007 and 2008 back that up, but how likely is it he maintains that 2009 level performance?I’d say very.

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  2. Albert says:

    very unlikely*

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  3. Tobias F. says:

    Yeah I wouldn’t label him the best pitcher in baseball just yet either. He certainly had the best season last year and his 2 previous years were solid but a guy like Halladay has been dominant for years and Lincecum has put together a couple GREAT seasons too. Put it this way if lets say Prince Fielder puts up a monster season this year that happens to be better than Pujols’ would people proclaim him to be the best 1B in baseball? I highly doubt it.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      Maybe if Prince put up a better season than Pujols’ best… by over a win

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      • Tobias F. says:

        Good point Cy Greinke. It’s an honor to have somebody of your caliber reply to one of my posts.

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  4. Bartaksu says:

    Consider that Greinke’s K/9, BB/9, BAA, HR/9 and ERA have all gone done over the last FOUR (really only 3, but the trends hold) years, while maintaining an almost identical BABIP.

    I wouldn’t say he is the best pitcher in baseball (yet), but he is certainly in the top 5.

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  5. marcello says:

    Wow, so far 3 people have completely missed the point of this post.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      LOL @ people who think Ol’ Doc Halladay and Timmy Lincecum are better than me! Roy is past his prime and Tim pitches in a far inferior hitting league. I could’ve struck out 300 if you gave me all those pitchers and pinch hitters =)

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      • Tobias F. says:

        Yeah the more I think about it the more laughable it is that I even think that Hallday or Lincecum is on your level. And if anybody mentions Felix that’s even funnier, if you had the Mariners’ defense you probably would’ve put Pedro’s 99 and 00 seasons to shame.

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      • Zack Greinke says:

        I might be willing to kill for King Felix’s defense!

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    • geo says:

      I think some people read the first sentence and stopped right there. What do you want to bet that the comments are going to degenerate into a “who’s the best pitcher” discussion, rather than a discussion about the true subject of the post?

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      • Jeremy says:

        My vote is for Kei Igawa.

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      • Zack Greinke says:

        Honestly, the argument that my disorder would affect my pitching holds no water I think most of the readers here couldn’t agree more, and decided to discuss the more compelling story here; my accession to the best starter in the league (in Matt Klaassen’s eyes)!

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  6. Robert S. says:

    Prince Fielder wouldn’t simply have to have a better year than Pujols, he’d have to have a better year than Pujols’s best year, by over a win. That’s what Greinke did last season. If there is a “best pitcher” in baseball, then Greinke’s as good a choice as any.

    As for the column: I agree that Greinke’s hiatus and recovery are actually positives for his outlook. Good stuff, Matt.

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  7. Travis L says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Hmm, WRT the mental issues, it seems that people aren’t too concerned about ZG’s brain anymore. What do people think about Votto, didn’t he suffer similar issues?

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  8. SharksRog says:

    I think Zach Greinke is a fabulous pitcher and strongly hope his depression problems are well behind him. And while I’m not a doctor either, I would think that with the treatments availablef, he likely is.

    A thought went through my mind though when you correctly pointed out that Zach hadn’t just returned from his problem, that he had been back in the majors for three seasons. My thought was, why hadn’t I heard of Zach until last season?

    Part of the reason is that I don’t pay close attention to the American League. But another portion is that while Zach was good or even very good in 2007 and 2008, he wasn’t anywhere near the great pitcher he became last season, likely as you point out the very best of 2009.

    I like a lot that his strikeout rate has increased from 6.21 and 5.61 in 2004 and 2005 to 7.11, 7.83, 8.14 and 9.50 (!). Like that his already low walk rate fell all the way to 2.00 last season.

    But like some others here I would have to ask if he will continue to be as great as last season — or perhaps if he will reside somewhere closer to the average of his last three seasons. That would still make him an exceptional pitcher — but probably not the best in baseball. The previously mentioned Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay can each make strong cases, and Felix Hernandez is coming on strongly.

    You did mention that an argument could indeed be made for other pitchers. And your argument for Greinke certainly has merit. But don’t forget that in 2007 and 2008 he was a high home run pitcher who gave up a hit per inning.

    If this year Greinke repeats his 2009 season, I think you can begin making a strong claim that he is the best. Depending on what the above trio do, it might be a very strong case or merely a very good one.

    But let’s compare Zach’s story with that of the other three.

    Zach has made a strong comeback from adversity and after two nice seasons exploded in 2009 to become arguably the best pitcher of that year.

    Felix is still only 23 for another month, and after pitching roughly as well in 2005 (at age 19) through 2008 (at age 22) as Zach pitched in 2007 and 2008 himself had a breakout 2009 season.

    Roy has had eight stellar seasons in the last decade, with arguably his best four coming in the last four seasons. He is the king of this present era in shutouts, and I don’t believe any pitcher has equalled his 69 wins over the past four seasons.

    Tim had a good rookie season and then exploded in his sophomore and junior campaigns, becoming the first pitcher in history to win Cy Young awards in each of his first two full seasons. Lincecum had lower OBP and SLG numbers than Greinke even in Zach’s fabulous 2009 season.

    For Zach’s sake, let’s hope that a year from now we can make as strong a case for his being the best pitcher in baseball as we can make today. With the younger Lincecum and Hernandez and the far more established Halladay to compete with, it will be far from a slam dunk.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      I tried to read this post, I really, really, honestly did. Based on the formatting alone, I’m sure it was insightful and well written, BUT it’s ZACK, not Zach. You use it so many times too, that’s all I could see! =)

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      • Zack Greinke says:

        Okay… I fought through it, and I’m happy that it was written quite well. Just don’t forget that while Lincecum awesome, he does benefit quite a bit from pitching in an inferior hitting league. How many of his outs came from pitchers and pinch hitters (both provide an offense well below a DH)?

        Meanwhile, Felix benefits from a fantastic defense. My defense? Bottom 3 in almost every stat (including UZR). Plus, it’s not like he’s laid down a history of proven success either; our career paths are eerily similar if you take out my 2-year hiatus.

        I can understand your siding with Halladay, the man is practically a living legend, but he’s probably not getting any better. Meanwhile, I clearly out-pitched him last year and the sky’s still the limit for me. I imagine a move to the NL will help him maintain those elite statistics, but I personally believe I’m a better pitcher than him, CURRENTLY.

        Thanks for the kind words, but please remember it’s ZACK (the K stands for strikeout)!

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  9. Linuxit says:

    IMO, Grienke has great stuff, but his command isn’t that great. He gets into more hitters counts than most of the other top pitchers, like Halladay, Lee, or Santana. Last year, 162 times he got into a 3 ball counts. Flirting with BB’s usually leads to inconsistency.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      Yeah but just look at my BB/9 over the past few years. Halladay might be the only one you mentioned that’s better on average. Hell I’ll say it, I am KNOWN for my command! You can’t honestly believe that control is my weakness, can you?

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  10. MDS says:

    Ill take Zack Morris for the win

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  11. Jim says:

    If you can make a good argument for Kei Igawa…I actually like to hear that.

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  12. SharksRog says:

    I guess in addition to strikeout, the “K” in Zack stands for my needed Korrection. Sorry about that. Why can’t all the Zach’s and Zack’s get it together. At least with Tim and Tom, they’re pronounced differently. :)

    Very good point about the difference in quality of hitters faced by NL pitchers and AL pitchers. One catch, though. Lincecum’s .561 OPS was 163 points below the .724 overall OPS put up by the batters he faced. Greinke’s .612 OPS was 141 points less than the overall .753 OPS of the hitters he faced. Zack’s OPS improvement over the average of the hitters’ overall OPS was 22 points fewer than Tim’s.

    Worse, if we take the #9 spot out of the order, Lincecum’s .581 OPS is still the same 51 points lower than Greinke’s. Lincecumn’s OPS advantage over Greinke came from the first eight spots in the order, not the #9 spot.

    I almost can’t differentiate the two pitchers’ effectiveness last season. Greinke’s 205 ERA+ is well ahead of Lincecum’s 176, but most of the difference is provided by Zack’s better strand percentage. Zack’s strand percentage was 4.9% higher than his career average, while Tim’s was 1.0% lower than his career mark.

    The slim difference between them might be illustrated by Zack’s 2.33 FIP compared to Tim’s 2.34. And on xFIP, Lincecum enjoys a 2.87 to 3.15 advantage.

    Let’s just say that both pitchers were great last season, with Lincecum being slightly the more dominating, and Greinke clearly having the better control.

    Looking forward, Lincecum may still have some room for improvement (as his walk rate continues declining — possibly along with hit and slugging rates). I don’t necessarily see quite as much upside for Greinke.

    As to which one was better last season, not surprisingly it depends on how one looks at things. To the extent that Zack’s better strand rate was due to skill on his part as opposed to luck, I would give him the nod.

    Man, what a tough, tough call.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      Well said! Why do you find it hard to see any upside in me though? Because I out-pitched the world in 2009? I have great command, great stuff, and only 26. Look at my peripherals, I’ve improved in almost every category in every single season. I’ll have to trust you on those OPS splits, but just remember that Kansas City has some abysmal fielders (league worst in team UZR), although for some reason, xFIP has never liked me.

      My strand rate of 79% was a little high, but it was 75.2% in 2008 and 75.6% in 2007. That’s all skill man! IF it regresses next year, it shouldn’t be by a dramatic amount. You also misspoke about Lincecum, by the way, his LOB% of 75.9% was actually 1.0% HIGHER than his career average, not lower. But, really, there’s nothing flukey about either of our strand rates considering we’re both high strikeout pitchers. I’m just a little better =)

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  13. SharksRog says:

    As for making a an argument for Kei Igawa, all I can say is ‘K. Not K, but ‘K.

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  14. Another GROUNDBREAKING study from FanLaughs. “Greinke isn’t all that because he’s YOUNG and A LITTLE CRAZY.”


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  15. Tyler says:

    Just to add a little subjective commentary in here, as out of place as that is on FanGraphs, something to consider with Greinke is that like most pitchers, he’s still tinkering with and improving his pitch repertoire. He’s a command pitcher with velocity, working a 4-seamer, a slider, a curveball and a changeup, and purportedly his changeup has been getting better from year to year, and feeling really good this year earlier than usual (and there is some progression in the weighted value of his changeup over the last 3 seasons). A lot of his pitches come from the same plane, similar release point, similar motion, approach the plate like his fastball and then just… change and break. A little deception in his mechanics, but a nice repeatable delivery. Varying speeds on his fastball (there’s a need add-subtract chart for the 2008 season on THT’s Anatomy of a Player for him).

    The point? While it seems premature to crown him the absolute best pitcher in baseball given the other talent currently in the league (most of the key names have already been mentioned) and because people are always leery of single-season performances, he’s got all the pieces. He’s got a mid-90s fastball and some pitches he commands well to throw to batters from either side. No real injury concerns from his mechanics, some sound pitching strategy, good stuff on those pitches… This is a guy who’s probably going to stick around his current level of pitching for a while. Obviously, the specific numbers will be affected by his teammates and by averages and whatever; most projections have him at a FIP between 3.00 and 3.30 this year, which is still very good but not as thunderously dominant as 2.33 (and something to worry about is that his HR/FB% was REALLY low last year because of that streak).

    But he’s definitely a guy who projects to stay among baseball’s elite as well as any of the other guys do. Lincecum projects to have another season around 2.30 to 2.50 in FIP, which is a lot like Greinke’s, only he’s a national league pitcher, so that’s a little less impressive (only a little, though). Halladay’s projected between 3 and 3.5, though I don’t know if CHONE or Marcels or anything are accounting for the league switch?

    So you can see that Greinke’s range seems to be right in the mix with everyone that is being discussed as the (potential) best in baseball. That’s enough, really. Unless you throw together 3 or 4 years in a row where you’re pitching at an astonishing level, most pitchers only really take the “best in baseball” label for a year or two. Pedro Martinez was pretty clearly the best pitcher in baseball, or at least the American League, for a similar short span. You could say much the same about Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux at different points and in different leagues. For a short time, Johan Santana was IT, and even Roy Halladay has had his day.

    Should be fun to watch; I really wish Greinke was on the Mariners, though, lol. It’d be intense to see what he could do with that defense. Heck, even on the Jays! No run support, but solid defense versus what he gets in Kansas City, that would be interesting enough right there.

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    • Zack Greinke says:

      Well said, sir. I also wish I had the defense that Felix gets. Heck, I just hope we’re not last in UZR again. Or last in bullpen ERA. Damn.

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  16. Tyler says:

    Heh. Ah, the Royals. Every time I wish to lament how terribly mismanaged and assembled my Jays are, I remember Aaron Hill, Adam Lind… and the Royals. Poor Greinke.

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  17. jonnybardo says:

    Stuart Smalley approves of this article. Royals fans have a special place in the heart of Stuart Smalley, right along side Pirates, Nationals, and Mets fans.


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  18. SharksRog says:

    I’ll try to sum it up in three words: Greinke’s pretty good.

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