Zack Greinke. March 2009.
A Zack Greinke story: This happened in Chicago one warm August evening after he gave up three home runs to the Chicago White Sox. A handful of reporters surrounded him as he stared at the ceiling and gave reluctant and halting answers to their questions.
“Well,” one reporter said, in an apparent effort to make Greinke feel better. “The White Sox do lead the major leagues in home runs.”
Greinke looked at the reporter with the strangest look in his eyes. He seemed entirely unsure what to do with this new piece of information.
And then, without a touch of sarcasm in his voice, he said: “Well, good for them.”
* * *
My baseball love affair with Kansas City Royals pitcher Zack Greinke began in Chicago in 2003, about a year before the above story. He was only 19. It was the first time I saw him pitch in a game, though by then his legend was already spreading. Scouts talked about this pitching Mozart who invented new pitches and tried crazy pitching patterns and toyed with minor-league hitters. He pitched with other-worldly control — Greinke had walked just 13 batters in his first 15 games that year.
That day, he was pitching in the Futures Game — a game that featured the best prospects in all of baseball. Grady Sizemore was in the lineup that day; so were Joe Mauer and Robinson Cano and Kevin Youkilis. But the pitchers stood out: Rich Harden and Edwin Jackson and Gavin Floyd and Denny Bautista and others all threw so hard, so impossibly hard, the radar gun was like a thermometer that day, it kept going off at 98, 99, 100 mph.
Then Greinke walked out there, and he looked to be all of 12 years old. His cap looked too big for his head; the bill stretched out too far, like he was Charlie Brown. And unlike the others, he did not light up the radar gun. More than that, he purposely did not light up the radar gun. He wanted to get hitters out his own way, with slow curves and cunning little sliders and fastballs that tightroped the outside corner. He pitched one perfect inning with two strikeouts, and his fastball never topped 92 mph.
And when it ended, I asked his catcher, a young Joe Mauer, what he thought.
He said: “Wherever I put the glove, he hit it. He was definitely different.”
Then I went to talk to Zack Greinke. Well, he was different. I asked him if he had felt any nerves out there — the standard Futures Game question — and he gave me the strangest answer. He said he definitely felt something, but he did not think the feeling was nervousness. He did not know what the feeling was, but no, the more he thought about it, the more certain he felt that he wasn’t nervous.
“Um, so, why were you so good?” I asked, or something like that.
“It was just kind of crazy,” Greinke said. “I mean, I don’t know how, but it’s like everything I threw just kept going over the plate, you know? And it didn’t just go over the plate, but it went over the corners. It was crazy.”
As I walked away, I did not know if Zack Greinke was a genius or a flake. Here it is, more than five years later, and I still don’t know.
* * *
A Zack Greinke story: At the end of his first full minor-league season, Greinke and several of the Royals’ best prospects were invited to take a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. At some point, Greinke broke away from the pack, and he seemed especially moved by the story of these players who had been denied the chance to play in the Major Leagues because of their skin color.
A television reporter walked over and asked if she could ask Greinke a few questions.
“Um,” Greinke said as he stared at the ceiling. He paused, as he if he were thinking. “No,” he finally said, “this is not a good time. I don’t really feel like it.”
The reporter was not quite sure what to say to that. She asked when would be a good time.
“I don’t know,” Greinke said slowly. “Maybe, like, 10 minutes.”
She came back 10 minutes later, and Greinke did the interview without further comment.
* * *
Zack Greinke is talking about change-ups. It is amazing how much he has grown up in the five-plus years since I first saw him pitch. He has grown physically — he looks stronger and, more than that, he looks older. The baby face has matured. I imagine he does not get carded at bars nearly as often.
More than that, he talks about his change-up, and he looks more comfortable in the middle of it all. He plainly is more comfortable in the middle of it all, a combination of maturity and experience and medication that helps him overcome his issues with social anxiety and clinical depression that once threatened his baseball career.
Also, he’s had some success. Greinke had a breakthrough 2008 season. He won 13 games, which may not sound like much, but as a Royals fan you might know that it’s the third-most victories for any Royals pitcher in the last decade. Anyway, he pitched better than his record. His 3.47 ERA was the best for any Royals pitcher since 1997, and it ranked him 10th in the American League. His 183 strikeouts was fifth in the American League.
And the last two months of the year, Greinke was 6-3 with a 2.34 ERA. He was dazzling — he no longer wanted to fool hitters with soft pitches. He announced his presence with authority. He mixed a 96- and 97-mph fastball with a heart-stopping slider and an occasional curveball, and there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Boston Red Sox senior adviser Bill James caught one of those late-season starts and said that Greinke was the best pitcher he saw all year. Another baseball executive said: “I’ve always loved Greinke anyway, but he’s on a different level now. I think he will win Cy Young Awards. And I mean plural.”
Greinke has never been bashful about his ambition; the Web site zackgreinke.com was up before he was even in the big leagues. His father ran the site, and it featured a VIP Fan Club and sold Greinke memorabilia including “signed jerseys, hats, mini-helmets, signed baseballs, paintings, posters, cards and magazines.” But, as mentioned, Greinke has grown up. The Web site is gone. And while you could not call Zack humble — he knows that he’s good — it would not be exactly right to call him arrogant, either.
He is something else. He is Zack Greinke.
“It’s not like I expect to go out and win the Cy Young Award,” he says. He is talking about change-ups. He is talking about how if he can harness his change-up, he can add a new element to his game and take some of the strain off his arm and give hitters something to think about. He thinks a change-up to go along with his pounding fastball and hard slider could make him a more complete pitcher.
He says: “I’d say today I threw three or four perfect ones, a couple of pretty good ones, four or five that were terrible, and a couple that were not even good enough to be terrible. So that’s not a very good percentage.”
“Well,” I say, “you say you threw three or four good ones …”
He stops me cold. “No, that’s not what I said,” Greinke says. “I said I threw three or four perfect ones, as good as I can throw them.”
And with that cleared up, he says, “If I could throw them all like that — it would be pretty good.”
* * *
A Zack Greinke story: So, there was this game when Royals relief pitcher Jeremy Affeldt gave up a home run. He was upset in the dugout, of course, and he stormed around, muttering at himself, “Man, that wasn’t even that bad of a pitch.” Of course, all his teammates kept their distance.
All except Zack Greinke.
“That wasn’t even that bad of a pitch,” Affeldt barked at himself again.
“Actually,” Zack said, “it was a pretty bad pitch.”
Affeldt looked up at Greinke. “Thanks, Zack,” Affeldt said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“No,” Zack said, “really, I went back to the clubhouse and looked at the pitch on video. It was a really bad pitch. Right over the middle of the plate, and you got it up. I mean it was a bad pitch.”
“Thanks, Zack,” Affeldt said again.
“Right down the middle. I could have hit it out,” Greinke said.
Affeldt looked into Greinke’s eager face and just shook his head.
“Thanks, Zack,” he said.
“Yeah,” Greinke said, and he walked back to his seat in the dugout.
* * *
He never wanted to be a pitcher. That is as big a part of the Zack Greinke story as anything else. Greinke was born lucky — “He hit the genetic lottery,” ex-Royals general manager Allard Baird would say all the time — and when he was growing up in Central Florida, it seemed as though he could do anything athletically. He was too good to play golf with kids his own age, too good to play tennis with kids his own age, and the story has been told again and again about the time that a friend named Ricky Santo obliterated him five straight games in table tennis — none of them close.
“Nobody beats me,” Santo told the Orlando Sentinel years ago. A week later, Greinke asked for a rematch and beat Santo three out of four games. He had been practicing.
Greinke loved hitting a baseball more than anything else. Of course he was good at it. There was a high school tournament in Atlanta once, and they had a home run derby before it began, and Greinke had the thing won, so for the heck of it, he turned around and took his last pitch left-handed. He crushed a long home run to the wonder of all. And then he dropped the bat and walked off to the cheers.
No, he never wanted to become a pitcher. He hit .444 or better every year of his high school career. The pitching thing was forced on him … by his own talents. He was too good not to pitch. He had such freakishly good control that he simply did not understand what the big deal was about throwing strikes. He was put into the rotation his senior year at Apopka High, and he went 9-2 with a 0.55 ERA and a ridiculous 118-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was named the Gatorade national high school player of the year. He had three dozen scouts watching every game he pitched. Greinke realized that pitching was too lucrative to pass up.
“Favorite subject?” the USA Today reporters asked each of their All-USA high school baseball team members. B.J. Upton chose gym, Jeff Francoeur picked calculus and Scott Kazmir, in an interesting twist, chose marine biology. Greinke selected economics.
“Because,” he said, “you can learn about how to save money. It makes you feel like you know what you’re doing with your financial future.”
Yes, right from the start, Greinke pitched less for love and more for money. He did not sound arrogant, exactly, but again, he was Zack Greinke: “I’m not going to come out and say ‘Bring me up,’ ” he said during his brief six-game apprenticeship in Class AAA Omaha in 2004. “But I don’t have any questions that I’d do just fine.”
He was called up days later, and he was so good, so fast, that his emotions hardly seemed to matter. Newspaper story after newspaper story mentioned that Greinke was bored by pitching, but in those early years that was spun as a good thing: “Look at this guy, he’s so good he’s bored by his success. Isn’t that amazing?”
When he made it to the big leagues at 20, he was unlike any young pitcher I had ever seen. He threw Bugs Bunny slow pitches, he threw ever-varying fastballs (it sometimes seemed he never threw two fastballs at the same speed), he tried all sorts of different windups, he was like a kid who is so bored in a classroom that he finds 101 different uses for a pencil. He was half pitcher, half scientist, and that’s just not something you see in 20-year-old pitchers.
He was also good. His 3.97 ERA would have been in the top 10 in the league if he had enough innings to qualify. Everything he tried seemed to work. He fooled Jim Thome with a preposterously slow curveball. He fooled Bernie Williams with a quick-pitch (and on the same pitch fooled the umpire, who disallowed the strike). He was named Royals pitcher of the year, an honor that did not exactly excite him.
“They wanted me to come for that luncheon to get the award,” Greinke says now. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ I came, but it didn’t mean anything.”
Looking back, that seems an odd way for a pretty successful rookie to feel. But, in those heady days, everyone just kind of saw it as Zack being Zack. The future was impossibly bright. Baseball Prospectus called Greinke the future of pitching. And the Baseball Prospectus projection system — called PECOTA — calculated that the chance of a Zack Greinke collapse was exactly zero percent. PECOTA might have been off a percentage point or two.
* * *
A Zack Greinke story: Sometime during Greinke’s horrendous 2005 season, the Royals played Detroit. Lefty Brian Anderson found himself sitting next to Greinke. They were not talking — Greinke hardly ever seemed to say anything in those days. But then, suddenly, Greinke turned to Anderson and said: “I’m going to throw a 50-mph curve next inning,” Greinke said.
He did not say it to brag. He did not say it with any joy in his voice. He just said it.
The next inning, Greinke faced Dmitri Young. He threw a slow curveball … Anderson stuck his head out of the dugout to see the radar reading. It was precisely 50 mph. Anderson shook his head. The kid could do anything. The shame of it was that he did not seem to be enjoying any part of it.
* * *
Zack Greinke never quite got over his switch to pitcher. He told Emily Badger, a hometown reporter, “I think I’ll be way more excited when I get my first home run in the majors than getting my first win. I’ll remember that forever.”
Well, it is true: He won’t ever forget that first home run. It happened in June 2005, in Arizona, on the worst day of the worst season of his life. The Royals were 19-40 — on their way to a 56-106 season — and Greinke had been lit up his previous four starts. He was unhappy with his new pitching coach. He was unhappy with the smell of losing that was all over the locker room. He was feeling unsteady. And for the first time in his life, his pitches were getting rocketed off walls.
And that day in Arizona was the worst. First inning, he gave up a single, followed by a triple, followed by a double. Two batters later, another double. Two batters after that, another double. The Diamondbacks scored four runs that first inning. And the pain was only beginning.
In the third inning, he gave up a home run to Shawn Green. In the fourth inning, he gave up another home run to Shawn Green. He was floundering. He already had given up seven runs. He was due up in the fifth inning, and there seemed no way that he would get to hit. But for some reason, manager Buddy Bell sent him up there to face Arizona’s Russ Ortiz. Greinke felt all this pent-up anger, all this rage, and when the pitch came, he would remember only swinging as hard as he could. He would say later that he closed his eyes.
And he crushed the first and so far only home run of his major-league career.
The next inning, he promptly gave up another home run, a double and a single, and Bell finally yanked him out of the game. Greinke ended up giving up 11 runs.
“He’s a young kid who just has to figure it out,” Buddy Bell said after the game. “That’s why we left him in there. … He’s a smart kid. Sometimes that might get in the way.”
It did not get a whole lot better for Greinke the rest of the year. He finished with a 5-17 record and a 5.80 ERA, and he often told friends and family members that he felt down. He had always been blunt — that was part of his charm — but now he found himself being plain rude to teammates. Baseball was no fun at all. He thought about trying the career again as a hitter — thought about it so hard that he actually wondered if he might pitch badly enough to force the Royals into giving up on him as a pitcher. He thought about trying to become a professional golfer. He thought about a lot of things.
The next spring — on a Saturday in February — Greinke did not show up to throw batting practice, though he was on the schedule. He had to be talked into participating in the team’s photo day. He was strange and distant. And then he was gone. He met with Bell and Baird and told them he had to get away. He admitted that he had been miserable for more than two years, and then he found himself pitching to John Buck in a regular session, only he was throwing every pitch as hard as he could, like a madman, he could not stop himself, he could not control his anger. He had to leave.
“That was one of the most emotional conversations I’ve ever had with anyone,” Baird says. “It had nothing at all to do with baseball. I just saw a young man in a lot of pain.”
Greinke left the Royals, and when he got back home he told his girlfriend and his family that he was done with baseball. He could not do it anymore. Then he talked to a doctor, who suggested his problem was chemical. He was diagnosed with social anxiety, a disorder that creates discomfort and apprehension when the person is placed in social settings or when being judged by others. He also was diagnosed with clinical depression. He wondered if he could play baseball with that kind of pain. But as soon as he began taking medication — antidepressants — he found himself feeling a little better.
Still, he was not sure that he wanted to pitch in the big leagues. It wasn’t until he had returned and was pitching with the Class AA Wichita Wranglers that he found a little love for the game. He liked the players on that team. He liked being successful again. I remember going down to Wichita once to do a column on a different player. Zack saw me and waved happily. We talked for a few minutes, and it struck me that, before that moment, I had never really seen him look happy.
He was called back up to the big leagues, and he was put in the bullpen, and he liked the rhythm of relief pitching. It was a lot more like hitting — he could pitch every other day, and he was called on in big moments. The next year, he was pitching out of the Royals bullpen, and it all felt like a better experience. His fastball had jumped up from 92 mph to 98 mph. His slider had bite.
On Aug. 24, 2007, the Royals put Greinke back in the starting rotation. He threw three shutout innings. The next time out, he threw four shutout innings. And the time after that, he threw five shutout innings. Zack was a starter again. And this time around, he felt OK about it.
* * *
A Zack Greinke story: When Greinke was 19 years old, he showed up at spring training and everyone wanted to get a look. One of the people who wanted to see Zack was Baird, and so he walked across the field to see the kid throw in the bullpen.
“What are you doing here, Allard?” someone asked him.
“I heard that there was supposed to be some hotshot young pitcher out here,” Baird said loud enough for Greinke to hear.
Greinke did not look up at all. But very clearly he said this:
“And you’re gonna be impressed.”
* * *
A friend who has been a baseball scout for a while called me in September. He had just seen Zack Greinke pitch against Seattle. Greinke threw seven innings and allowed two hits. He walked one. He struck out the first three batters he faced. He did not let anyone reach third base.
The friend said: “The guy I saw out there has a chance to be the best pitcher in baseball.”
And then he said: “If he can handle it.”
Can he handle it? Of course, there are no easy answers to a question like that. But there are good signs. Greinke definitely seems more at ease, on the field and off. He has a great relationship and rivalry with veteran pitcher Gil Meche — the two of them mock each other and push each other on a daily basis. He has a pitching style that he knows works.
“I can spot my fastball and I can throw my slider where I want,” he says. “Realistically, I can get batters out with just those two pitches. But I’d like to add that change-up. That would really make me tough.”
He has success to build on. His first nine games last year, he was 5-1 with a 2.18 ERA. As mentioned, he was dominant his last 11 games, too. It was those 12 starts in between that were a struggle.
“I think I just lost a little focus,” he says. “I didn’t think I had lost that focus at the time, but looking back, I think I lost that focus.”
If he can keep that focus … if he can handle success … if he can refine that change-up … if is the big word.
I remember once having Zack Greinke explain to me that when he was pitching — and this was really weird — his arm and his head sometimes disagreed. His brain would want to throw a slider. And his arm would want to throw a curveball. His arm would want to throw a fastball. And his brain would say, no, he needed to throw the change-up. And so on.
I loved that kid. Still do. He’s still only 25 years old, but he’s been through just about everything. He has come close to quitting. And he has thrown perfect pitches. He has been the future of pitching. And he has been so bad that he wished he could disappear. He has been cocky, and he has been uncertain.
“Who wins?” I asked him after he talked about the clash between his brain and his arm.
He stared up at the ceiling and thought about that for a long time.
And finally, he said: “I dunno.”