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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.