Zack Greinke’s Climb Towards Cooperstown

Zack Greinke’s final start of the 2018 season was a tour de force, one that knocked his former team, the Dodgers, out of first place in the NL West heading into the season’s final weekend. The going-on-35-year-old righty survived a rocky beginning and pitched well, drove in the go-ahead run, tormented longtime nemesis Yasiel Puig as baserunner and a pitcher, and even made a nifty fielding play, albeit one that ultimately didn’t count. It was a fitting capper to a very good season in which Greinke made his fifth All-Star team and delivered solid — but not exceptional — value given his massive contract. He couldn’t singlehandedly pitch the Diamondbacks into the playoffs, and he isn’t likely to receive any Cy Young votes, but by staying healthy and pitching at a high level, he gave his chances at Cooperstown a considerable boost.

It’s that last topic that brings me to this post, because multiple readers have asked for it in some context. I’ve touched upon the cases of several of Greinke’s peers this season, such as Felix Hernandez (here), CC Sabathia (here) and Justin Verlander (here). As we’re about to spend the next five weeks absorbed in postseason baseball, it seems like a good time to check in.

But first, let’s appreciate the resiliency and athleticism Greinke displayed on Wednesday night. Peppered for seven hits from among the first 12 batters he faced, he managed to limit the damage to two runs thanks in part to a double play off the bat of Joc Pederson that ended the second inning and a diving stab by shortstop Nick Ahmed that snared Puig’s bases-loaded, 99.9 mph line drive to end the third. That out was part of a stretch in which Greinke retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced, with a Chase Utley walk and a Cody Bellinger infield single the only blemishes. Ballinger’s single followed a grounder up the first base line that Greinke — a four-time Gold Glove winner who has seven Defensive Runs Saved to his credit this year — gloved and then flipped to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in time for what would have been an out had the ball not been ruled foul:

On the other side of the ball, in the bottom of the second inning, as starter Ross Stripling coughed up the Dodgers’ early 2-0 lead, Greinke stroked an RBI single up the middle to plate Nick Ahmed with Arizona’s third run. He took second on a Ketel Marte single, and then tagged and went to third on an Eduardo Escobar liner to Puig:

For as impressive as the right fielder’s heave was, it also allowed Marte to advance to second. Neither runner wound up scoring; after walking David Peralta, Stripling gave way to Pedro Baez, who struck out Goldschmidt. Nonetheless, Greinke’s baserunning was a nice flourish that added yet another dimension to the night’s performance.

It was a tight game at the time, but A.J. Pollock’s three-run homer in the fifth inning broke it open and Arizona won going away, 7-2 — a game that bumped the Dodgers half a game behind the Rockies, who then won their seventh straight on Thursday to extend their lead to a full game. The Diamondbacks, who spent 125 days with a share of the division lead, were eliminated on Sunday after a stretch in which they lost 17 out of 22 games. Their back-to-back wins against the Dodgers on Tuesday and Wednesday marked their first two-game winning streak since August 29-30 against the Giants and Dodgers; their slide began the following night, when Greinke surrendered a 2-1 lead by yielding solo homers to Enrique Hernandez and Justin Turner.

Greinke finishes his season tied for the major league lead in games started (33) and fifth in innings (207.2). He’s one of just eight pitchers to top 200 innings, and while that number may rise over the season’s final four days, it will stand as the fewest of any non-strike season. Such a workman performance is hardly new; Greinke has made at least 32 starts and tossed at least 200 innings eight times apiece in the last 11 seasons, throwing more innings (2,207) than all but four other pitchers (Verlander, James Shields, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester) in that span. Among NL starters this year’s 207.2 innings rank fourth, his 199 strikeouts sixth, his 3.21 ERA ninth, his 3.70 FIP and 3.5 WAR both 10th. He has shown his usual pinpoint control, backing up a 23.7% strikeout rate with a 5.1 % walk rate; the latter ranks third in the league, while his 18.6-point differential is seventh.

It’s a season that’s just outside the realm of Cy Young consideration. Statistically, there’s little he’s done where one could make a case for him ahead of Jacob deGrom or Max Scherzer, or even secondary candidates such as Aaron Nola and teammate Patrick Corbin. Wednesday night aside, the first and last months of the season (more or less) contained some of his less noteworthy work, at least as far as his ERA is concerned, but in 23 starts from April 30 through August 31, he posted a 2.59 ERA and 3.61 FIP, a run that helped place him on the NL All-Star team for the fourth time in five years.

As for the Hall of Fame stuff, first of all, it’s worth noting that Greinke notched 15 wins, taking his career total to 187 and increasing the odds that he’ll reach the 200-win milestone next year, as he’s won at least 13 games in each of the past eight seasons. Now, let’s insert the standard disclaimer here: I don’t care much about pitcher wins, as there are better ways to measure pitcher performance, but in the context of the Hall of Fame, the topic is unavoidable, particularly when focusing upon this current generation of players for whom round-numbered milestones beyond 200 wins seem increasingly remote.

When I profiled Verlander’s case in late August on the occasion of his 200th win, colleague Dan Szymborski provided ZiPS-based projections showing the chances that several other pitchers would reach round-numbered milestones. The odds may have shifted by a point or two since then, but I think this still suffices as a ballpark estimate, with the caveat that ZiPS, which draws up on decades of historical precedent for its projections, can’t yet account for the trends in starter workload reduction that threaten to lower these odds somewhat:

Active Pitchers’ Chances at 200, 250, and 300 Wins
Pitcher Age Total 200 Wins 250 Wins 300 Wins
Bartolo Colon 45 247 100% 98% 0%
CC Sabathia 37 246 100% 98% 29%
Justin Verlander 35 204 100% 51% 29%
Zack Greinke 34 187 97% 48% 21%
Jon Lester 34 177 91% 43% 12%
Felix Hernandez 32 168 31% 12% 5%
Max Scherzer 33 159 87% 40% 16%
Cole Hamels 34 156 51% 12% 1%
Clayton Kershaw 30 153 83% 67% 31%
Ervin Santana 35 149 30% 19% 0%
Adam Wainwright 36 148 5% 0% 0%
David Price 32 143 50% 14% 2%
Rick Porcello 29 135 73% 39% 7%
Gio Gonzalez 32 126 45% 12% 0%
Johnny Cueto 32 125 41% 12% 1%
Madison Bumgarner 28 110 47% 20% 9%
Chris Sale 29 103 80% 45% 26%
Jake Arrieta 32 98 25% 2% 0%
Corey Kluber 32 96 30% 7% 0%
Stephen Strasburg 29 93 47% 13% 2%
SOURCE: ZiPS
Includes only starting pitchers with at least 90 wins and a 50% chance of reaching 150 wins.

While it will take years before we see how accurate these estimates are, the win milestones remain important as far as Hall voting is concerned, given that, since 1992, the BBWAA has elected only three starters who finished with fewer than 300 wins (2011 honoree Bert Blyleven plus 2015 honorees Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz). Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, both of whom have received at least 50% of the vote from the writers — a strong indicator of future election — should join their company some day, and the late Roy Halladay is up for election this December, but it’s a slow-growing list. As I’ve said countless times both here and at Sports Illustrated previously, the voters are going to have to come to grips with how to evaluate candidates from what I call the “workload constraint era,” with its five-man rotations, pitch counts, times-through-the-order concerns, and de facto innings caps. The milestones and resumés by which voters have been guided previously will look quite different from starters of recent decades, and recognizing the best pitchers form an era that’s likely to lack of 300-game winners pitchers will require some mental recalibration.

Of course, I say that while armed with an alternative to using wins as a yardstick, namely my JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) system, which uses the Baseball-Reference version of WAR on both a career and peak (best seven seasons at large) basis to compare current or future candidates to those players already in the Hall at their positions. JAWS shouldn’t be the only consideration for a Hall of Fame case — it’s certainly reasonable to factor postseason work, awards, historical importance, and even milestones into the discussion — but to my mind, a solid estimate a player’s worth on the offensive, defensive, and pitching sides, while accounting for park and league scoring variations, is the foundation of that case.

Anyway, here’s the latest edition of the table that I introduced back in February while writing about Hernandez, showing each player’s career WAR, peak WAR, and JAWS (all in terms of bWAR), along with a measure of how their JAWS changed since that time. Note that this not only includes each pitcher’s performance (including his offense) for 2018 but also an update to bWAR involving park and defensive factors; Sabathia was one of the players most affected, losing 1.0 WAR from his peak.

Active and Recently Retired Pitchers
Name Yrs W ERA+ Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS Old JAWS Dif
AVG HOF SP 73.4 50.1 61.8 61.7 0.1
Roy Halladay 1998-2013 203 131 64.3 50.6 57.5 57.6 -0.1
Clayton Kershaw 2008-2018* 153 160 65.0 49.6 57.3 54.1 3.2
Zack Greinke 2004-2018* 187 123 65.8 47.3 56.6 53.4 3.2
Justin Verlander 2005-2018* 204 125 63.0 45.8 54.4 50.0 4.4
Max Scherzer 2008-2018* 159 131 54.7 47.4 51.1 43.7 7.4
CC Sabathia 2001-2018* 246 117 62.7 39.4 51.0 51.0 0.0
Tim Hudson 1999-2015 222 120 58.2 38.3 48.3 48.5 -0.2
Johan Santana 2000-2012 139 136 51.6 45.0 48.3 48.1 0.2
Mark Buehrle 2000-2015 214 117 59.3 35.9 47.6 47.1 0.5
Andy Pettitte 1995-2013 256 117 60.3 34.1 47.2 47.5 -0.3
Cole Hamels 2006-2018* 156 124 55.9 37.6 46.8 46.2 0.6
Roy Oswalt 2001-2013 163 127 50.1 40.3 45.2 45.1 0.1
Felix Hernandez 2005-2018* 168 120 50.9 38.6 44.7 45.4 -0.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* = active. Statistics through September 27.

As in February, Greinke ranks second among active pitchers in JAWS behind his former teammate, Kershaw, and he’s surpassed all of the recently retired ones except Halladay, whom he should catch next season. He’s now about three wins short of the peak standard, and five points short of the JAWS standard, with the latter score already ahead of 28 of the 63 enshrined pitchers including BBWAA selections such as Ted Lyons (71.5 career/41.2 peak/56.3 JAWS), Don Drysdale (67.2/44.8/56.0), Dazzy Vance (60.1/49.5/54.8), Smoltz (69.1/38.8/53.9), 300-game winners Don Sutton (67.0/34.0/50.5) and Early Wynn (61.1/38.6/49.8), and sainted Sandy Koufax (49.0/46.1/47.5).

One reason why Greinke ranks so high is that he’s turned in two monster season with at least 9.0 bWAR. His 2009 AL Cy Young campaign, with its AL-best 2.16 ERA and 2.33 FIP, was worth a honking 10.4 bWAR, the highest mark by a pitcher since Randy Johnson’s 10.7 in 2002. Greinke’s 2015 season, with its NL-best 1.66 ERA, was worth 9.1 bWAR on the pitching side and another 0.6 bWAR on the hitting side. Even without factoring that latter figure in, he’s one of just eight pitchers with multiple 9.0-bWAR seasons since 1969:

Multiple 9.0 bWAR Seasons Since 1969
Pitcher 9 WAR Seasons Years
Randy Johnson 3 1999, 2001, 2002
Pedro Martinez 3 1997, 1999, 2000
Roger Clemens 3 1987, 1990, 1997
Zack Greinke 2 2009, 2015
Greg Maddux 2 1992, 1995
Steve Carlton 2 1972, 1980
Wilbur Wood 2 1971, 1972
Tom Seaver 2 1971, 1973
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Five of the other seven are in Cooperstown, the exceptions being Clemens, whose PED misadventures have kept him out, and Wood, a knuckleballer who made 91 starts totaling 710.2 innings in 1971-72, his two seasons topping that mark.

Back to the hitting for a moment. By the low standards of today, Greinke is rather gifted with the bat, slashing .220/.259/.311 with six homers in 542 PA. That, along with his baserunning (-1 run) and double-play avoidance (+1 run), is worth 4.2 batting bWAR, an unremarkable total in the context of careers from earlier eras. By comparison, Hall of Famers Red Ruffing (13.5) and Walter Johnson (12.7) top the list, and Drysdale, who’s two spots below Greinke in the JAWS rankings, had 5.8. For Greinke, that work is concentrated into the relatively short period of his NL tenure (2011-18 except for a brief 2012 stint with the Angels), and 3.7 of that 4.2 WAR was produced in the seasons that make up his peak score, providing extra bang. Again, this is not unique, and it’s been part of JAWS since the beginning. Good-hitting pitchers give themselves an advantage, and deserve the rewards.

Beyond that, Greinke doesn’t have the postseason resumé that some of those pitchers whom he outranks in JAWS have. He’s 3-4 with a 4.03 ERA in 67 postseason innings, none of them in the World Series. While strong for the Dodgers in their 2013-15 trips, sometimes in a losing cause, he was dreadful for Milwaukee in 2011 and the Diamondbacks last year. His score on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor, a metric that gives credit for awards, league leads, milestones and postseason performance — things that historically have tended to appeal to Hall voters — is 93, where 100 is a likely Hall of Famer and 130 is “a virtual cinch.” With “only” one Cy Young award and no black ink outside of his two ERA titles, he’s well behind Kershaw (173), Verlander (146), Scherzer (138), and Sabathia (113), though he’s got a 10-point bump for 200 wins within his sights. Higher win totals and 3,000 strikeouts are also attainable; he’s 565 away on the latter front, which is about three healthy seasons’ worth.

It will be interesting to see what the near future holds for Greinke. He’s produced 12.2 fWAR and 13.8 bWAR (both including hitting) in his three seasons as a Diamondback but is still owed $104.5 million over the next three seasons, and it’s no secret that the team is itching to shed a salary that’s taking up roughly 25% of its payroll. In a year where the humidor was introduced at Chase Field, turning the park from a very hitter-friendly one to a much more neutral one, he posted the most favorable home/road splits of his Arizona tenure:

Greinke’s Home/Road Splits as a Diamondback
Year Hm IP Hm ERA Hm FIP Hm wOBA Rd IP Rd ERA Rd FIP Rd wOBA
2016 78.2 4.81 4.35 .335 80.0 3.94 3.48 .301
2017 116.0 2.87 3.17 .268 86.1 3.65 3.88 .300
2018 106.0 2.55 3.17 .263 101.2 3.90 4.26 .310

Via Baseball Savant, Greinke’s average exit velocity at Chase Field actually rose 1.3 mph from last year (86.3) to this (87.6), even while exit velos at the ballpark were down a click from years past. Likewise, his xwOBA rose 19 points, from .295 to .314. One has to wonder if this is a one-year anomaly, or if the humidor has begun masking the decline of a pitcher whose average fastball velocity also took a dip from 2017 (91.0) to 2018 (89.6).

In a winter that should be a relatively lively one for free agents, at least in contrast to the past two seasons, Greinke presents an alternative; if nothing else, he’s shown himself to be more durable than Kershaw (who may opt out of his current deal) and won’t require a commitment beyond 2020. I do suspect that any team considering him will have to take a close look at the splits and the Statcast stuff I’ve highlighted, but whoever winds up with him might be getting a pitcher who’s about to put himself over the top as far as a future plaque in Cooperstown is concerned.

We hoped you liked reading Zack Greinke’s Climb Towards Cooperstown by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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He’s also a 5 time all star and a 4 time Gold Glover, pending this year’s vote. I know that stuff is less objectively determined, but it will count with the traditional voter. Also, the 49% career CS rate is insanely good.