The Zack Greinke Alternative

There’s not a whole lot of question right now regarding just who is the top free-agent starting pitcher available. When in doubt, follow the Dodgers. It was thought that re-signing Zack Greinke would be the Angels’ main offseason priority. They’re still interested, but they might be priced out. The Dodgers are in there and flashing their wallets. The Rangers might be just as interested. The Nationals are involved to some kind of extent. Greinke is the available free-agent ace, and everybody else is, at best, second-tier.

For the teams looking for quality starting pitching that miss out on Greinke, there are alternatives, who could be signed or traded for. Ryan Dempster is a free agent, and a good deal older than Greinke. Kyle Lohse is a free agent and he’s going to cash in to some degree. Among trade candidates, R.A. Dickey could be tremendously valuable, James Shields could be similarly valuable, and Jeremy Hellickson might or might not be extremely valuable, depending on your interpretation of his statistics. But there’s another quality free agent, the same age as Greinke, who could be of nearly as much value for a considerably lesser cost.

The way people are talking about Greinke, he could surpass the CC Sabathia contract. The way people are talking about Greinke, the Dodgers might end up paying whatever it’ll take. Contrast that with this, from Jon Heyman:

#tigers a few weeks ago offered anibal sanchez $48M, 4 yrs. Agent told them that offer would insult anibal. Seeks 90M/6

Without question, Anibal Sanchez is in demand, and his reported asking price is way up there. But he’s not going to get the Zack Greinke contract, meaning this could be an opportunity for a team looking for a quality starter to land a relative value.

As young as Greinke is, Sanchez is four months younger. Sanchez has the more extensive injury history, and that involves a labrum operation, but that was all years ago, and over the past three seasons, Greinke and Sanchez have faced the same number of batters. When it comes to durability, it’s true that Sanchez has more question marks, but he’s used the last three years to prove himself. One does not take for granted that Sanchez will end up on the disabled list.

A raw 2010-2012 comparison:

Pitcher ERA- FIP- xFIP-
Greinke 96 79 78
Sanchez 93 85 92

Greinke’s wound up with better peripherals, but it’s also no secret that Greinke hasn’t always pitched up to his peripherals. The last three seasons, just by simple run prevention, Greinke and Sanchez have basically been equals. That’s not a concluding point on its own, but it’s information to consider.

Here’s some more information to consider, also 2010-2012:

Pitcher K% BB% Strike% Contact% Zone%
Greinke 23% 6% 63% 79% 47%
Sanchez 21% 7% 65% 78% 52%

Continuing, Greinke is showing signs of gradual velocity loss. His fastball is down a tick from a few years ago, which is not unexpected, given how pitchers tend to age. Sanchez, though, has gained a little velocity, perhaps picking up strength as he gets further from his shoulder operation. Sanchez throws his fastball nearly as hard as Greinke does, now, and that isn’t the only evidence that Sanchez has been picking up steam and/or simply improving.

Anibal Sanchez strike rate:

2006-2009: 61 percent
2010: 64 percent
2011: 65 percent
2012: 66 percent

As Sanchez’s strikes have climbed, his walks, accordingly, have dropped, as they do. We don’t know if this is a sign of improved command or just improved control, but it’s a promising trend. So often, by the time they reach free agency, players have already peaked. With Sanchez, we don’t know that for sure. One at least shouldn’t be worried about immediate decline.

And there’s another factor, one I can’t help but discuss since I’m hopelessly in love with the research. I never pass up an opportunity to talk about catcher pitch-framing, and one guy the research highlights is Jonathan Lucroy. He hasn’t achieved the Internet fame of Jose Molina, but he’s achieved similar results. Lucroy’s spent a lot of time catching Zack Greinke of late. Since 2010, as a Brewer, Greinke walked six percent of batters, and struck out 26 percent of batters. Since 2010, as a Royal and Angel, Greinke walked six percent of batters, and struck out 20 percent of batters. There’s the American League/National League difference, of course, and there’s the possibility this is meaningless noise, but if Lucroy is an exceptional pitch-framer, it makes sense that Greinke might have benefited. And Greinke would have to be evaluated independent of his catchers, to whatever extent that would be possible.

Sanchez hasn’t spent much time throwing to allegedly awesome pitch-framers. Both Greinke and Sanchez threw a few months in the AL last season, and Sanchez was just as good. That oversimplifies things and throws out too much other worthwhile information, but again, it’s information to consider.

Zack Greinke is considered the cream of the free-agent crop, and he deserves to be. All things being equal, you’d rather have him than Sanchez, and everyone else. But all things aren’t equal, and Greinke will cost a good deal more than Sanchez will. Perhaps by too much. I won’t go so far as to say that Anibal Sanchez looks like a potential bargain, but the difference between him and Greinke might not be as large as the difference between the contracts they’re going to sign.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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