Saturday, September 17, 2005

Royal Enigma
By Ben Valentine

Change up today folks. Instead of writing a baseball post ranting about the Mets or ripping the Yankees, I’m going to do something a little different; a two part look at two promising young pitchers who unfortunately, have had very disappointing seasons. Both of these players interested me because I was high on them before the season and am quite surprised and curious as to why they’ve struggled. Without further adieu, here is the 2004 for the guy I’ll be looking at today.

2004: 8-11, 3.97 ERA, 145 IP, 143 H, 26 BB, 100 Ks, 26 Hrs, 1.16 WHIP, .256 Opp BA, 6.21 K/9, 3.85 K/BB, .81 G/F, 1.61 Hrs/9, 1.61 BB/9

Pretty good numbers. The K/9 is unspectacular but solid. It’s more than enough to get by when you see the kid’s control. He doesn’t walk anyone. 1.61 walks for nine innings? Doesn’t get much better than that. There are some warning signs there though. He gives up a lot of fly balls and way too many homers. Still not a bad start.

But it gets worse. Much worse. If there are kids reading this column, parents may want to shield their eyes. These 2005 numbers are ugly.

2005: 4-16, 5.95 ERA, 165 IP, 213 H, 50 BB, 101 Ks, 22 Hrs, 1.59 WHIP, .313 Opp BA, 5.51 K/9, 2.02 K/BB, 1.06 G/F, 1.2 Hrs/9, 2.73 BB/9

Pretty bad huh? Where to begin with these numbers… well for starters, batters are putting the ball in play against him more and lots of those balls falling in. That’s big. But more importantly, the trademark control which really helped the kid get by in 2004, is gone. He’s walking a full batter per game more. That combined with his decreased strikeout numbers, high opponent’s batting average and tendency to surrender the gopher ball leads to… well… that abomination.

If you haven’t figured it out now by my title, or the numbers themselves, the player in question here is the Royals’ Zack Greinke. Coming into the season, the 21 year old righty was expected to build off his stellar 2004 campaign and possibly become his team’s ace. That clearly hasn’t happened. So the question is why. Why has Greinke’s strikeout totals gone down and more importantly, why is he exhibiting for him control problems, this season?

Is it possible he’s having side effects from throwing more innings last year than he ever had in his career? Last season he threw 173.2 combined innings, while the year before that, just 144.2. That might account for the decline in strikeout totals and possibly the increase in walks. On the other hand he’s been awful since June.

However, he was respectable in April, posting a 3.65 ERA while striking out 5.11 per nine and walking 1.82. In May, things got worse; a 4.62 ERA with a 5.59 K/9 and 2.68 BB/9. Then in June it all went down the tubes; 10.08 ERA. He posted a nice 6.48 K/9, but had a BB/9 of 2.52. Opponents hit .383 against him. That’s right, they almost batted .400 off him.

That my friends, reeks of bad luck. Greinke’s K numbers would indicate his stuff could not have gotten much worse, yet he was getting smacked around the park. After that, the young righty’s peripherals fell off completely. In July, he pitched to a 6.75 ERA but had his strikeouts fall to 4.78/9 and his walks shoot through the roof at 3.38/9. (a K/BB ratio of 1.42!) In August his K numbers improved again, to 6.51, but his walks were just as bad at 3.41/9. In those two months opponents batted .343 and .336 off him respectively. This month Greinke has rebounded some, working to a 3.12 ERA and 2.08 BB/9. But with a poor 4.16 K/9 and opponents hitting .297 off him, one has to wonder how much of a resurgence it is.

So which is closer to the real Greinke, the 2004 or 2005 version? Obviously it’s impossible to say now. But I hoped his minor league numbers would tell us something.

A: 11-1, 1.14 ERA, 87 IP, 56 H, 13 BB, 78 Ks, 5 Hrs, .79 WHIP, 8.07 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 52 Hr/9, 1.34 BB/9

AA: 4-3, 3.23 ERA, 53 IP, 58 H, 5 BB, 34 Ks, 5 Hrs, 1.19 WHIP, 5.77 K/9, 6.8 K/BB, .85 Hr/9, .85 BB/9

AAA: 1-1, 2.51 ERA, 28.2 IP, 25 H, 6 BB, 23 Ks, 2 Hrs, 1.08 WHIP, 7.22 K/9, 3.83 K/BB, .63 Hr/9, 1.88 BB/9

Unfortunately they don’t tell us much. The Royals rushed Greinke on through, so after dominating high A, we don’t get much of an indication of how well minor league hitters were handling his stuff. At AA his K totals dipped, but 53 innings isn’t the largest of sample sizes. At AAA they shot back up, but only in 28.2 innings. What those numbers do tell is however, is that Zack Greinke doesn’t walk people. So why is he doing it now?

My explanation; it’s mental.

My belief is Greinke is trying to overcompensate for the fact the Royals are terrible in every way, defensively and offensively. They didn’t score for him early on in the year when he pitched okay (five runs in his first five starts), so he got it in his head if he gives up more than two runs, he’s probably going to lose. He knows if someone puts the ball in play, there’s a pretty decent chance it’s going to fall in somewhere because the Royals can’t field. (They're the third worst fielding team in baseball) So he nibbles and he doesn’t challenge hitters. He falls behind and gets ball smacked around against him when he’s forced to come into the strike zone since he doesn’t have phenomenal stuff.

Now this is pure speculation on my part based off the numbers. I haven’t seen Greinke this year outside of a few highlights here and there. But I just don’t see any other reason for him walking more batters now than he has at anytime in his career. A pitcher with such exceptional control over the first 3 years of his career shouldn’t be doing that.

If you’re a Royals fan, you should be concerned. As these numbers show, walks are the key for Greinke; if he gives up the bases on balls he will get shelled. And if this is truly in his head, then somebody needs to talk to him fast before it spirals out of control, no pun intended. At 21 he’s got time to figure it out. But mental issues can ruin the careers of the most promising young pitchers. Just look at Rick Ankiel.

My gut tells me that eventually Greinke will figure it out. But it could be years from now, and quite possibly on another team. Hopefully, it just takes an off season to look back, see what he did wrong and remember what he did to get himself to bigs at the age of 20.

Up next, I’ll take a look at 22 year old righty from the same AL Central. If that didn’t give it away, then you’ll just have to wait till my next post to find out who it is.


Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

The real question is, is there any reason to expect the Royals to improve their team in the ways necessary to ensure that Greinke would have more success? Will they finally actually have major-league calibur hitters in the lineup? Or failing that, shouldn't they at least put a more defenisvely capable team out there? If Greinke at least knows that when they other team puts the ball in play (which they'll do plenty, because he doesn't have overpowering stuff), his defensive will turn it into an out most of the time, he might trust himself to throw strikes. But currently, there's no reason for him to trust anyone but himself.

6:06 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Sadly it's really a no win situation for Greinke. When your defense allows you to surrender an Opp BA over .300 for three straight months, you probably shouldn't trust them. And since KC probably won't do anything to change their team much, the best thing for him would be a trade. Of course, the luster hasn't worn off him enough for KC to deal it's latest savior. Still if I ran a team with a set of good major league ready hitting prospects, I might see what the Royals want for him. He's most likely untouchable, but hey, you never know.

12:18 AM  
Blogger RotoAuthority said...

The man needs a good defense behind him, for one thing. He ain't gettin' that in KC. I don't think anyone thought he'd be this bad. Maybe the Royals should deal him for Ryan Howard. At any rate, Greinke could probably stand to start 2006 at AAA.

10:13 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

I thought of Howard for Greinke after reading your post on Howard. It actually makes sense for the Royals. They don't have anyone in their lineup who can do what Howard could do. The Phillies would be nuts to do it though. Greinke in Citizen's Bank is a scary thought. He might give up 40 Hrs a season.

However, perhaps a team like Tampa Bay could. They have lots of young hitters and could use some more pitching.

2:40 AM  

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