Zack Greinke and the Importance of 2016

Zack Greinke looks to be worth what the Diamondbacks will be paying him. We still don’t have a complete idea of the structure of his contract, so it’s not like everything can be nailed down precisely, but he’s one of the most valuable pitchers in baseball, and he’s going to get paid like it. When you factor in everything he does — pitch, hit, defend — Greinke’s projected contract comes out looking a lot like his actual contract. So, based on our usual estimates, this is a totally acceptable free-agent deal. Good for Greinke, good for Arizona.

Here’s where it gets more complicated: those usual estimates don’t do much to account for team context. Let’s say the going rate for a win in free agency is $8 million. The specific number doesn’t matter. That’s what any team should expect to pay. But you can’t pay everyone free-agent money — that would mean, to expect 40 team WAR, you’d need a payroll of $320 million. $8 million might be the cost of a win in free agency, for every team, but not every team has the same total $/WAR target. As always, the biggest-spending teams have an advantage. Teams like the Diamondbacks need to be more careful.

The Diamondbacks expect their payroll to be around $100 million. That’s right in between their last two years. Two years ago, they ranked 11th in payroll; last year, they ranked 24th. They haven’t been in the top 10 since 2003. Over the past decade, they’ve averaged a rank of 22nd. On the plus side, they have some new TV money, but plenty of teams are getting TV money now, and the Diamondbacks have struggled to draw at the ballpark — they haven’t had a top-10 National League attendance since 2004, even though they made the playoffs twice in that span. Historically, Arizona has been something of a middle-market. Their biggest attendance numbers came right after winning the World Series — of course — but the fans didn’t stick.

Now let’s think about some numbers. I’ll try to keep everything simple. Let’s set a target team WAR of 40 — just shy of 90 expected wins. This is for example only. We’ve got two teams: Team A, and Team B. Team A runs a $150-million payroll. Team B runs a $100-million payroll. So, to hit the target, Team A needs to average $3.75 million per WAR. Team B needs to average $2.5 million per WAR.

Now let’s introduce a six-win pitcher who costs $30 million. It’s not exactly Greinke, but it’s close enough. Now the target WAR drops to 34, with the ace brought into the fold. From the remaining money, Team A needs to average $3.5 million per WAR. Team B, meanwhile, needs to average $2.1 million per WAR. Team A has 70% more money to play with. And let’s say something horrible happens, and the ace gets hurt — Team A needs to average $3 million per WAR to get to that 40 mark. Team B needs to average $1.75 million. The point by now should be clear. Team B has a lot less wiggle room. It’s always awesome to have an ace, even an expensive one, but the less money you have to spend around that ace, the more efficient you need to be.

That addresses one part of the Diamondbacks’ situation. As a non-elite payroll team, they can’t afford a big screw-up. Fortunately for them, there’s another part of their situation. They have some real good cost-controlled talent. Greinke himself, I’m sure, has considered this.

Think just about Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta, and Patrick Corbin. They’re not the only good players, but bear with me. Last year, they were worth a combined 19 WAR. Steamer projects them at about 14 WAR next season, and that could easily be low. These are four good or very good players, and the expectation is they’ll cost about $13 million, combined. Less than one million dollars per WAR. That’s how you improve the efficiency picture in a hurry. The Diamondbacks can afford 2016 Greinke because they’ll be getting so much for so little elsewhere.

It’s why they’re said to still be in the market. They have some spending money left over, it seems, because of the cheap talent. Yet cheap talent isn’t cheap forever. Goldschmidt will get more expensive, though he’ll remain a relative bargain. A year from now, Corbin and Pollock will be in their second arbitration go-rounds. Peralta, granted, has two more years of costing nothing. But the four will get a lot more in 2017 than 2016, and on and on from there. Individual bargains aren’t sustainable, so to speak. Eventually, players get what they deserve.

So the season ahead becomes an important one for Arizona. Every season is important, but the Diamondbacks could really stand to have some high-level success. If they get to the playoffs, and even stage a competitive run, that means more attention, and more fans, and more revenue, revenue that goes back into the team in the future. Yet if the Diamondbacks disappoint, finishing in third place around .500 again, the attention won’t be there so much, and Greinke won’t feel new and shiny forever. It’ll be more difficult to meaningfully raise payroll, and so the team will need to be that much more efficient around Greinke.

Even with the ace, this is tricky. The Dodgers were dealt a blow, but it’s not like it’s Greinke or nothing for them — they’ll spend that money on wins somewhere else. The Dodgers didn’t lose a war. They fell short in this particular battle. They remain in an enviable position. And the Giants are also in a fairly enviable position, and they already scooped up Jeff Samardzija. Though the Padres are re-tooling and the Rockies are I literally don’t even know what, the Diamondbacks are in a rough division, and success is far from guaranteed. Greinke’s one player. If anything goes wrong, Arizona could have a mess on its hands.

The good news is, you know, Greinke is Greinke, and he can do everything, and while we can never predict how any pitcher will age, Greinke feels like a guy who should have a wonderful next half-decade. He’s as intelligent as they come on the mound, and he’s aware of when to dial it up and when to dial it back, for purposes of preservation. Greinke has a history of making adjustments, and he’s only gotten better as his fastball has lost power from the top. People continue to throw out Greg Maddux comps. You’ve gotta be careful throwing around Greg Maddux comps. But in this case, it’s really not inappropriate. There are a lot of parallels, and that’s about the highest compliment imaginable.

It probably just comes down to the UCL, and sometimes it snaps, and sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t test how strong those things are until a pitcher is dead, and the Diamondbacks presumably aren’t that curious. They’ll wait and watch like the rest of us, and Greinke’s health record is outstanding and encouraging. He hasn’t gotten in trouble yet. He seems like someone who can take care of himself. But it’s never under a player’s complete control. The injury risk is real and undeniable, and it captures a lot of the potential downside.

But Greinke should remain excellent as he’s healthy. Just about no one has comparable command, and just about no one has three pitches so good. The changeup has turned into something that would be unfathomable if it weren’t for Felix Hernandez, and I was told the other day an elite NL hitter thinks it’s the most difficult pitch to square up in the game. It’s so easy to see Greinke aging well. Other pitches have done it. Greinke doesn’t survive through force.

And while I’m here, Greinke has somewhat quietly gone through a career transition of late. There was a stretch where we talked about him as a guy whose numbers didn’t match his peripherals. The last few years, he’s flipped. Below, two tables, showing numbers from 2010-2012, and numbers from 2013-2015. In the first table, the five pitchers with the greatest positive differences between ERA- and FIP-. (Positive meaning a bad direction.) In the second table, the five pitchers with the greatest negative differences between ERA- and FIP-. (Negative meaning a good direction.) I used minimums of 400 innings for each.

ERA-/FIP- Gap, 2010 – 2012
Pitcher ERA- FIP- Difference
Derek Lowe 122 101 21
Joe Blanton 120 101 19
Zack Greinke 95 78 17
Francisco Liriano 108 91 17
Ricky Nolasco 115 98 17

ERA-/FIP- Gap, 2013 – 2015
Pitcher ERA- FIP- Difference
Hector Santiago 98 119 -21
Miguel Gonzalez 97 117 -20
Johnny Cueto 72 89 -17
Marco Estrada 100 116 -16
Zack Greinke 64 79 -15

Greinke’s in third in the first, bad table. He’s in fifth in the second, good table. In that second table, he’s alongside Cueto and then three pretty extreme fly-ball pitchers, and those guys tend to beat their FIPs. Greinke isn’t a fly-ball pitcher, but still he shows up. It’s kind of funny — seen here, he goes from a 78 FIP- to a 79 FIP-. Same pitcher. But his ERA- drops 31 points. Still, after the first table, the Dodgers saw fit to give Greinke six years and $147 million, with an opt-out. They saw past the ERA then. I’d say it worked out well enough.

Zack Greinke is obviously fascinating. Always has been, even before he turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. He’s even fascinating in how many different ways he’s fascinating, and I recall going to a college game in Arizona a few years back in March, and Greinke was there by himself in line, because he just wanted to watch some baseball and evaluate some talent. His mind for the game, and his commitment to the game, is beyond what you’d expect from any other player, and because of his mind and because of his pitching, Greinke seems like he should age gracefully provided important things don’t break down. Over those things, Greinke can exercise only so much control.

But the money seems fine, by free-agent standards. It all makes sense — this is the contract Greinke was going to sign, because this is the sort of control Greinke deserved. What’s left to see is how well the Diamondbacks can continue to build around him. They’re set up particularly well for just this season ahead. After that — there are countless possibilities, after that.

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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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Wee-Bay
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Wee-Bay

Why didn’t the Red Sox hire Dave Stewart when they had the chance?!?!?!

Hollywood Hills
Guest

J=ohn M=iddleton has not spent one dollar on any talent in this loaded free agent market.

J=ohn M=iddleton is stealing $6 BILLION in Comcast TV money that is supposed to be used to buy players for the Phillies.

The Atlanta Braves have an illegal, unenforceable “handshake” agreement with a switch hitting SS named Kevin Maitan who appears to be the best SS talent since Alex Rodriguez and J=ohn M=iddleton refuses to pay Maitan.

Where is the FBI with the perp walks for J=ohn M=iddleton and his criminal crew?

Google: Kevin Maitan FREE_AEC

J=ohn C=oppolella
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J=ohn C=oppolella

Why would J=ohn M=iddleton pay Kevin Maitan to play for the Braves? I would refuse to pay a guy to play for another team too.