Against the Grein

Zack Greinke is putting up a legendary career, and he's doing it on his terms

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The first question I ever asked Zack Greinke was this: “Were you nervous?” This was in Chicago, just after he pitched in the Futures Game before the 2003 All-Star Game. He was 19 years old and a minor-league phenom. I did not yet know he would become one of the more captivating characters I would ever write about.

“I don’t know if I was nervous,” he said. “I mean I felt something.”

“Nerves?” I asked.

“I’m not sure if it was nerves,” he said. “I mean, there were a lot of people and stuff. And it was on TV.”

“So,” I began tentatively, “You were, um, nervous?” I had opened up this whole nervousness topic as an ice breaker; I had not intended for the line of questioning to be quite so rigorous. Greinke looked at me quizzically, a look I have grown used to over the last dozen years.

“Um,” he said, “I don’t know if I was nervous. It was like a different feeling.”

* * *

Zack Greinke is lucky. That seems to be theme about him these days as he quiets the National League. His 1.30 ERA puts him in rarefied air; he has a fighting chance of putting up the lowest ERA since Bob Gibson’s legendary 1.12 back in 1968, the year of the pitcher. And he is only the third pitcher in modern times to hold teams scoreless for six consecutive starts. The other two scoreless streaks — belonging to Orel Hershiser and Don Drysdale — were quantifiably different because baseball was quantifiably different in their time. But we’ll get to all that.

No the point now is the luck, specifically the hit-luck, that seems to be at the heart of Greinke’s almost mystical success this year. Here is FiveThirtyEight on his luck. The Washington Post takes on the same topic. And so on.

As you probably know, there has been a great debate within baseball about what exactly is within a pitcher’s control. For most of the last 125 or so years, there was no argument: A pitcher controlled, more or less, EVERYTHING on the defensive side of the diamond. It was the pitcher who threw a shutout. It was the pitcher who won or lost the game.

Oh, sure, the other guys were out there too and their excellent defense was appreciated, often applauded — put a star next to that one if you’re scoring at home. But for the most part, defenders were baseball’s chorus line: Just stay in sync and do your job. Think about what the ERA statistic really means: It is saying that any runs that result from a defensive error are not to be pinned to the pitcher’s record. Those are not HIS fault (even if the defensive error was his). ERA was invented and adopted on a global scale because people have long believed that pitchers control every part of run prevention except for the blunders made behind them.

READ MORE: The numbers inside Greinke’s historic run

In recent years, though — largely sparked by statistical work done by a man named Voros McCracken — it has been argued that, in fact, the pitcher does not have all that control. In fact, the theory goes, pitchers only control what you would expect them to control: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. When a ball is put into play, McCracken and others posited, the pitcher has very little control about whether it becomes a hit. The corresponding statistic is called BABIP — Batting Average on Balls In Play — and for even the best starting pitchers it seems to fluctuate like the wind, its annually direction seemingly determined by quality of defense, the shape and dimensions of the ballpark and, perhaps most maddeningly, the vagaries of luck itself.

Zack Greinke currently has the lowest BABIP in the Major Leagues, a seemingly fluky .232. The league BABIP tends to be about .300 year after year, and so Greinke’s seems unsustainable. It is not only the lowest in the league, it’s the third lowest for any pitcher with more than 100 innings since 2000. Thus, people are saying he’s lucky.

Of course, Greinke HAS been lucky. But this leads to a line about 9-ball pool at the beginning of “The Color of Money:” “Which it to say that luck plays a part in 9-ball. But for some players … luck itself … is an art.”

* * *

The first game I ever saw Zack Greinke pitch was also his first Major League game. It was in Oakland in 2004. By then, people in Kansas City knew he was something special … and something different. He had been absurdly good in the minor leagues, almost too good as it turned out. And, bluntly, people found him to be weird. At the end of his minor-league season, he came to Kansas City with other prospects for a tour of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. A reporter from one of the TV stations approached him.

“Zack can we get a quick interview on camera?” she asked.

He looked at her and then looked up at the ceiling, as if the answer might be in the tiles. He did not answer her for 30 seconds or so. And then he slowly said, “No. I don’t really feel in the mood. Can you come back later?”

She asked what “later” meant. He said 10 minutes.

For the next 10 minutes, he just kind of walked around, occasionally looking at the exhibits, occasionally wandering off to be alone. After the 10 minutes, she came back to talk to him. And he did the interview.

Later, we would find that Zack suffers from social anxiety disorder, a serious matter. At the time, he just seemed to be another baseball flake. His personality did not fit into easy categories. He looked uneasy around people, which suggested shyness. But, he was not exactly shy, and he did not lack for confidence as a pitcher. On the first day of spring training, he went out for his pitching session. General manager Allard Baird showed up. “I hear there’s supposed to be some big-time prospect out here!” Baird shouted.

“Yeah,” Greinke said. “And boy are you going to be impressed.”

READ MORE: Greinke outduels Scherzer as Dodgers beat Nats

The Royals called Greinke up in desperation in 2004 but, realistically, just about everything the Royals did in those days was in desperation. The team had surprised everyone including themselves by contending for five months in 2003; that was just one of those illogical things that happen in baseball every now and again. Unfortunately, it led the Royals to believe they were actually a good team, and they made some moves as if they were contenders. They were not, as they found out by going 18-32 in their first 50 games.

Kansas City was a dreadful team, and Zack Greinke was the best young pitching prospect in baseball. This was a bad combination. The Royals called him up because they could not think of a good enough reason not to, and when he showed up in Oakland there was still this unrealistic hope was that he might jumpstart the team. His name was spelled “Greinki” on the the Oakland scoreboard.

Now that the Royals have become one of the best teams in baseball, it is quaint to think back to just what the team used to represent. They did everything wrong. And it was all on display in that first game. Greinke threw five innings and gave up two runs. He had a moment of brilliance: He faced Eric Chavez with the bases loaded and threw him a 62-mph curveball. What could inspire a 20-year-old in his first big league start to throw a 62-mph curveball to one of the game’s best hitters with the bases loaded? Whatever it was, Chavez grounded out. Lucky from the start.

The Royals led the game, 4-2, going into the ninth inning and Greinke seemed in line to win his first big league start. Instead, shortstop Angel Berroa booted a two-hopper because he took his eye off the ball. Instead closer Jeremy Affeldt attempted to sneak a fastball past the aforementioned Eric Chavez, who promptly crushed into the Oakland bleachers. The Royals lost the game in extra innings.

Yes, Zack Greinke: Lucky from the start.

* * *

What Zack Greinke is doing now — his scoreless streak is up to 43 2/3 innings — is very different from what Don Drysdale (58 inning scoreless innings in 1968) and Orel Hershiser (59 inning scoreless innings in 1988) did in their time. Pitching is different. Baseball is best loved as a timeless game where a ground ball to shortstop was an out in 1903 and is an out today. But baseball changes rapidly even for the romantics.

Don Drysdale completed all six of his scoreless starts; he also pitched on three days rest. Hershiser completed all six of his scoreless starts too (including a 10-inning game) and he pitched on three-days rest at times also. Pitchers don’t do such things anymore.

And Greinke has not. His streak has lasted for more than a month — much longer than either Drysdale’s or Hershiser’s — because of his rest between starts. Greinke also has not completed even one of his starts — he does not have one official shutout in his shutout streak. He has gone eight innings twice, seven-plus three times, and six innings in the other start. Nobody in baseball completes games anymore, but even in that environment Greinke is notable for his lack of complete games. He has only two complete games in the last four years (141 starts).

Then again, Greinke faces challenges those older pitchers didn’t. Hitters now have video and they have detailed intelligence about the pitcher’s tendencies and they are more dangerous as a group — meaning they hit more home runs. Lineups are more complete. There are few breezy innings of facing light hitting middle infielders who are just hoping to chop a single.

READ MORE: Harper unimpressed with Greinke after loss

This is why Greinke does not complete many games; he has to work so hard and expend so many pitches just to get through innings. It has always been that way with him; Greinke does not have one dominant pitch. He gets hitters out with a four-pitch barrage of speed-changes and competitive spirit. When Bryce Harper recently grumped that Greinke gets strike calls on pitches six-inches off the plate (“He was OK,” was Harper’s final summation), he was simply voicing the frustration of facing Greinke. If the ump gives him six inches, you better believe he will take all six. He will take advantage of anything he can. In his first season, in one of his first starts, Greinke quick-pitched Bernie Williams.

Because of all this, it’s hard to compare Greinke’s streak with Drysdale’s or Hershiser’s. But it is telling that no pitcher in 25 years — not Pedro Martinez, not Greg Maddux, not Roger Clemens, not Randy Johnson — went six straight starts without giving up a run. The game isn’t built for such streaks these days.

* * *

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When Zack Greinke quit the game after his dismal and utterly depressing 2005 season, there was no guarantee at all that he would ever come back. It is easy to look back on those few months as a minor crisis averted, but in the moment there was something very wrong with Zack. He thought about becoming a professional golfer. He also thought about coming back to baseball but as a hitter. He thought hard about giving up baseball. He could not cope with the life.

People often misunderstood. Some thought that it was the stadium crowds that got to him, but Greinke did not feel stage fright. He told me once that he felt something like the opposite of stage fright: The ONLY time he felt comfortable and at ease was when he was on the mound pitching. It was the other stuff, the daily grind of living, that agitated and distressed him. He would get angry even at small stuff. He would get angry after giving a 10-minute interview because the writer only used one quote (“Feel like I wasted my time,” he said). He would get angry just getting through the mundane tasks of the day. He would get angriest during games when he wasn’t playing (“Like, why am I even here?” he said). That was why he thought about becoming a hitter … at least then, he could get on the field every day.

The Royals, as mentioned, did not do many things right in the mid-2000s. Even with Greinke, they rushed him in 2004. And in ’05, when he couldn’t get anybody out, they just kept throwing him out there and asking him to figure things out for himself. In one game, he was left out there to suffer through 15 hits and 11 runs against Arizona. At least he hit his first big league homer.

But in 2006, the Royals helped Zack Greinke save his baseball career. They gave him the space and time to figure some things out. He started to take some medication to help him deal with his social anxiety. And when he did return to baseball, they sent him to Class AA Wichita for the rest of the year. It was in Wichita that Zack Greinke found some of the lost joy for the game. He liked his teammates. He liked the smaller market. He liked the lack of things that made him angry. The Royals put him in the bullpen so he could get on the field more often and he liked that too. The Royals considered calling him up at the end of the season, but Greinke made it clear that he would prefer to stay. The Royals let him stay. He came up for just three games at the end of the season, after Wichita was done playing.

When Greinke came back to the big leagues the following year, the Royals kept him in the bullpen until late August when he felt ready. It was exactly the right thing. Greinke slowly worked his way into being a starting pitcher again. On Sept. 20, 2007, in classic Greinke style, he decided to give himself a morning haircut before the game and ended up shaving his head almost to the skin. That afternoon, buzzcut and all, he went out and threw eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 10. It was the beginning.

After the game, he worried more about the haircut than his game. “She hasn’t called yet,” he said of his girlfriend at the time. He shuddered. “She will.”

* * *

Since the haircut start at the end of 2007, Zack Greinke’s teams have gone 142-97 in games he has started. He has 3.04 ERA over that time, if you still like that statistic. He has a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Only Clayton Kershaw (42.6) and Felix Hernandez (41.1) have more wins above replacement than Greinke’s 38.5.

There have been big moments throughout. He won the Cy Young in 2009. He said that was fine and all but the really cool thing was that Mizuno gave him a Samurai sword.

He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated that same year. I wrote the story and I recall he refused to pose for it. The SI photographer, Robert Beck, took a photo of Greinke from above and behind so you could see the name on the back of his jersey but not his face. It was perfect, though Greinke didn’t think it would do much. “They’ll probably sell their least amount of magazines in a long time,” he said, and then he showed his mischievous Greinke grin. “Except when NASCAR was on the cover,” he added.

He started the All-Star Game this year.

“Zack you want to say a few words?” Matt Vasgergian asked at the press conference.

“No,” Greinke said.

In other words, he is putting up a fantastic career, one that at age 31 is trending toward a Hall of Fame career. And he’s doing it the Zack Greinke way. There are a million Greinke stories. And he’s creating new ones all the time.

There’s no telling how long this scoreless streak will go on but those who write it off because Greinke has been quote-unquote lucky might be missing something. Zack Greinke has no use at all for luck. His favorite pitching statistic is something called FIP, a stat that attempts to calculate a pitcher’s contribution to the team based entirely on his strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. In other words, it takes hits in play entirely out of the equation. It attempts to remove luck from the pitcher’s record.

Since 2008, only three pitchers have a lower FIP than Greinke. That’s the thing about Greinke. He doesn’t really want to be lucky. Maybe that’s the best way to become lucky.

“I don’t think about that all,” he says when asked about catching Hershiser and Drysdale. And I’m sure he doesn’t.

“I could be in the lawn business, mowing grass,” he told Molly Knight in her upcoming book “The Best Team Money Can Buy.” And I have no doubt he could.

“What do you do when you run out of questions?” he asked me once. This was in the middle of an interview, of course, and, like Zack often has, he threw me off balance.

“Well,” I said, “I guess you just think one up.” He considered that for a moment, then gave me that look he had given me the very first time I interviewed him.

“Yeah,” he said. “I can see that.”