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Boo The Astros All You Want, But Cheer For Zack Greinke

To say the Houston Astros are disliked would be an understatement. “Loathed” seems closer to the mark. Nearly two years after Houston’s cheating scandal shook the sport, most baseball fans still aren’t over it — particularly since their ability to yell at the team in person was put on hold by COVID-19 last year. While the Astros’ success this season has complicated the narrative around the whole affair, the franchise carries a stigma that isn’t going away anytime soon.

But even the most ardent Astro-critics still ought to appreciate at least one player on the club: Its No. 1 starter, Zack Greinke. Now in his 18th MLB season, Greinke continues to be one of the best — and most idiosyncratic — pitchers in baseball. Here are three reasons why we should all watch this true master apply his craft while we still can:

He’s having a (nomadic) Hall of Fame career.

Greinke’s contemporaries at starting pitcher (Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, fellow Astro Justin Verlander, etc.) have been so impressive that Greinke sometimes gets overshadowed in the conversation of all-time greats. But his 219-129 career record is one of the best ever by winning percentage, and he’s been an All-Star six times, to go with six Gold Gloves, two ERA crowns and a Cy Young Award in 2009, when he had one of the best seasons by any pitcher since the 1994 strike.

According to total wins above replacement,1 Greinke ranks 26th among pitchers who started their MLB careers since 1901; he also ranks 29th in JAWS, which blends a player’s career WAR with his production from his seven best seasons. Both numbers are better than the averages for pitchers already in the Hall of Fame:

Greinke has built a Cooperstown-worthy resume

Hall of Fame indicators for Zack Greinke and the average Hall of Fame pitcher whose career started since 1901

WAR Cy Young
Pitcher Career Best 7 Yrs. JAWS Wins Top 5 All-Star Gms
Zack Greinke 73.5 46.0 59.7 1.0 3.0 6.0
Avg. HOF Pitcher 70.0 44.9 57.5 0.7 2.1 5.0

JAWS (the Jaffe WAR Score system) judges a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness by averaging his career wins above replacement with the total from his best seven seasons.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Contributing to that value over the years has been Greinke’s talent as a hitter — he has a career .598 OPS at the plate, about double what the typical pitcher carries — and as a fielder. (Word to the wise: don’t try to bunt on Greinke.) Perhaps it’s not surprising that the natural athlete who was a stellar youth tennis player growing up, and later a promising shortstop prospect in high school, would be a great all-around player. But it still adds to the charm of Greinke being Greinke.

Greinke, age 37, is enjoying another good performance so far in 2021, setting himself on pace for 3.2 WAR per 162 team games. If he keeps that up, it would be the eighth time in the last nine seasons he reached a minimum 3.0 total WAR, a run that has established Greinke as one of baseball’s most reliable top-end starters. And he’s doing it with his sixth career team, quite a few more than the typical Hall of Fame pitcher since 1901 (who played for 3.2 different teams on average).


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Over the past 15 years, Greinke ranks third in total value among pitchers (including both pitching and hitting), trailing Kershaw and Verlander but outpacing Scherzer and Cole Hamels. Out of that top five, however, he’s the only member who hasn’t yet won a World Series:

Most of Greinke’s pitching peers have a ring by now

MLB leaders in wins above replacement among pitchers from 2007 to 2021, along with how many championships they’ve won over that span

WAR
Player Team(s) Bat Pitch Total 🏆
Clayton Kershaw LAD 2.5 71.6 74.1 1
Justin Verlander HOU, DET -0.5 70.0 69.5 1
Zack Greinke HOU, ARI, LAD, LAA, MIL, KCR 5.3 63.9 69.2 0
Max Scherzer LAD, WSN, DET, ARI 1.3 64.0 65.2 1
Cole Hamels ATL, CHC, TEX, PHI 1.2 54.5 55.7 1
Felix Hernandez SEA 0.1 48.9 48.9 0
Jon Lester STL, WSN, CHC, BOS, OAK -0.1 46.6 46.5 3
Adam Wainwright* STL 4.2 42.1 46.3 1
CC Sabathia NYY, CLE, MIL 0.3 45.1 45.4 1
Chris Sale BOS, CHW 0.0 45.1 45.1 1

*Wainwright won a ring with the 2011 Cardinals despite missing the entire season due to injury.

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Again, there aren’t too many fans outside Houston who’d like to see him pick up that long-overdue championship, but it’s maybe the only thing missing from Greinke’s career portfolio.

Greinke breaks the mold for modern pitchers.

When we talk about all-time great pitchers who were also excellent fielders and all-around athletes, another name comes to mind: former Braves and Cubs Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, to whom Greinke has often been compared over the years. But they also pitch with a similar style. And in a sense, that makes Greinke a throwback: Despite the current era being dominated by velocity, Greinke gets by on his Maddux-like control, know-how and finesse in a way few others in today’s game can.

A baseball player walking out onto the field smiling in front of a line of his teammates

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By Baseball Savant’s rankings, Greinke is in the 7th percentile of MLB pitchers in fastball velocity through games of Aug. 16. The hardest pitch he’s thrown all season (92.7 mph) was slower than the average 4-seam fastball of the median pitcher by velocity this season (93.6 mph).2 Quite relatedly, Greinke’s strikeouts per nine innings are currently 26 percent worse than league average. And yet, he has an ERA 16 percent better than average, fueled by 45 percent fewer walks per nine innings than the league and a crafty ability to pitch out of danger when necessary. Greinke and Oakland’s Cole Irvin are tracking to be two of just 11 pitchers since 1990 — and the only pitchers since 2014 — to post an ERA so low (relative to the league) while having a walk rate 45 percent better than average but a strikeout rate 25 percent worse:

Effective finesse pitchers like Greinke are rare

All MLB pitching seasons with a strikeout rate at least 25 percent worse than average, a walk rate at least 45 percent better than average and an ERA at least 15 percent better than average, 1990-2021

Rates indexed to League Avg.*
Player Year Innings K per 9 BB per 9 ERA
Zack Greinke 2021 143.7 74 55 84
Cole Irvin 2021 135.3 71 50 85
Henderson Alvarez III 2014 187.0 69 55 73
Doug Fister 2014 164.0 69 46 66
Bartolo Colon 2013 190.3 72 45 68
Carlos Silva 2005 188.3 55 14 79
Brian Anderson 2000 213.3 65 43 85
Rick Reed 1997 208.3 71 39 72
Bob Tewksbury 1992 233.0 60 25 62
Bill Wegman 1991 193.3 72 55 71
Bill Swift 1990 128.0 52 43 60

*Indices are set so that the league average always equals 100. For stats where less is more — such as walks and runs allowed — a lower index is better.

Includes players with at least 125 innings pitched in a season. 2021 numbers are through games of Aug 16.

Source: Fangraphs

As we wrote back in 2019, shortly after he was first acquired by Houston, Greinke is a rare pitcher. According to FanGraphs’ data, he has thrown seven different pitch types this season: Four-seam fastball (40 percent of the time), changeup (22 percent), curveball (17 percent), slider (15 percent), sinker (7 percent), “slow curve” (1 percent) — more on this later — and splitter (0.2 percent). Only Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres, another pitcher known for his vast array of pitches, has thrown more varied pitch types among MLB hurlers this season. (Darvish throws all of the above plus a cut fastball.) And Darvish is more of a power pitcher than Greinke; he throws his average fastball 6 mph harder and his strikeout rate is 20 percent higher than average.

For Greinke, the broad repertoire of pitches helps compensate for a lack of velocity and keeps opposing hitters off-balance. For instance, there’s the changeup that he famously throws nearly as hard as his fastball (despite the fact that the very name of the pitch implies its usual function as a change of pace … from a fastball).

There’s also that aforementioned “slow curve,” which is better known as the eephus pitch, something Greinke will lob over the plate at as little as 51.5 mph. (After we were idly speculating on last week’s episode of Hot Takedown about the biggest gaps between a pitcher’s fastest and slowest offerings, listener Shaun Shaikh helpfully reminded me about the nearly 40-mph differential between Greinke’s blooper and his average fastball.) Greinke isn’t the only recent pitcher to throw the eephus regularly — Vicente Padilla and Odrisamer Despaigne have each thrown more than 300 since 2008 (when pitch-tracking data begins) and R.A. Dickey had a knuckleball version that served as a changeup of sorts from his usual, harder knuckler. But among current pitchers, Greinke is basically the only eephus-purveyor.

In 2019, he led all pitchers in eephuses (“eephii”?) with 28. Then, over the past two seasons, he was the only “real” pitcher to even attempt an eephus at all — the rest were tossed by non-pitchers, who are increasingly being used to sop up innings on the mound (which is how we get pitches like the record-breaking 30.4-mph eephus that Texas Rangers infielder Brock Holt threw in a recent appearance). Greinke hasn’t clocked a slowball in the 30s on the radar gun yet … but would we be surprised if he did?

He was a pioneer among athletes talking about mental health.

These days, Greinke is known off the field for his eccentric-but-lovable personality, and for a wicked sense of humor that comes out in little moments, mostly when you least expect it.

(Take the story of when Greinke encountered legendary Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax in the L.A. clubhouse in 2013. “Hey Zack, you’re throwing the ball great,” Koufax said. “It’s fun to watch. And hitting it, too.” Greinke’s reply: “Thanks. Especially hitting those left-handers. Matter of fact, I woulda crushed you back when you pitched.” All Koufax could do was laugh and agree. “I’m sure you woulda, too.”)

But early on, mental-health struggles looked like they might derail Greinke’s career before he could achieve his Hall of Fame potential. Starting as a teenager, he began to experience social anxiety. It got worse as he received more and more attention as a prospect, and the total experience of being Zack Greinke became more and more miserable. Despite producing an excellent season at age 20 in 2004, Greinke’s performance slipped in 2005 and things got so bad for him off the field in 2006 that Greinke walked away from the game for a time.

“I was done playing,” he would say in 2011. “I’m surprised I came back, to tell you the truth.”

That’s when Greinke was officially diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. But through therapy and medication, Greinke was able to return to the right headspace and keep playing the game he loves — a game that we’re lucky to have seen him play at the highest possible level. After only playing three games of that 2006 season, he returned to pitch well as a starter and reliever in 2007, got even better in 2008 and then won the Cy Young with that all-timer of a season in 2009.

Most importantly, Greinke’s openness about his struggles was an early example of an athlete chipping away at the stigma faced by those who struggle with anxiety and depression. That conversation has been amplified in recent years, particularly with the high-profile cases of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles stepping back from their sports for self-care in 2021.

All told, Greinke is an easy guy to root for, even if you don’t like his team. He’s one of the best to ever pitch, he does it unlike just about anyone else in the game today (all while nearing the ripe old age of 40), and his backstory is as relatable as ever. With Houston looking like a strong contender to make another World Series, you can boo the rest of the Astros to your heart’s content — but save some cheers for their top starter while you’re at it.

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Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, which you can download data for on GitHub.

  2. That would be Luis Cessa of the Cincinnati Reds.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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