The Legend of Zack Greinke

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die

Baseball’s tall tales are dead today. Ultra-high-definition cameras eradicated them by capturing every moment and every angle of every pitch – and the game is 97% better for it. If Babe called his shot today, we’d know the angle of his index finger to the hundredth degree. We’d know if Bob Feller really threw 107.9 mph. We’d know if Yogi got Jackie. We’d know if Cool Papa Bell was really so fast he could turn out the lights across the room and be back in bed before it got dark. We simply know more truth today and that’s a great thing.

There’s just a little magic lost in that 3%. The embellishments that grow with tales of the game like your grandfather’s story adding a little more detail with every telling.

That’s where a player like Zack Greinke steps in. The embodiment of baseball’s embellishments where one story about the man begets five more. Did Greinke really call the exact speed of his curveball before pitching it? Did he really live with George Brett, and does he really play par golf with sandals? Did he really say that? He’s one-part Greg Maddux, one-part Satchel Paige with a healthy dash of good old Yogi. His Cy Young-winning statistics are why we know the pitcher, but his stories are why we’ll remember the man.

• Greinke called the day he hit his first home run. And his eyes were closed (check the video, seriously).
• In his first major league start, he threw a 62 mph curveball to Eric Chavez with the bases loaded. Chavez grounded out.
• He once said before an inning he was going to throw exactly 100 mph. The first fastball? 100mph. He was averaging the mid-90’s.
When he was first called up to the Big Leagues, he asked his AAA manager if he could be sent down instead to become a shortstop. His manager said no, this is the big leagues, it’s your dream! Zack replied, “Oh, ok.”
• With back-up catcher A.J. Ellis coming in to replace Yasmani Grandal in the middle of a game, Zack simply told him, “Put down whatever you want. Everything right now is nasty.”
On his awards: “I’ve only kept one award in my whole life, and it’s the coolest thing ever. Mizuno gave me a samurai sword for winning the Cy Young. It’s awesome.” He gave his Cy Young and other awards to his parents.

The Origin

 

After 222.2 innings in 2015, Zack’s ERA was 1.66. That’s lower than Koufax at the height of his powers. 1.66 is Rube Waddell calling his fielders off the diamond because he knows he’s about to strike out the side. 1.66 is legendary. 1.66 almost didn’t happen at all.

You’ll remember (painfully for a select few) that the Royals in the 2000s weren’t exactly the murderer’s row scoring 1,000 runs a season. In fact, they were 2 or 3 blowouts away from giving up 1,000 runs in 2006 when Greinke nearly quit the game of baseball. After a difficult 2005 where Greinke lost 17 games (though his 76 ERA+ was still third-best in the rotation – it was not a banner year), he left the team the following spring training when the miserable fog refused to lift. The game was fun, but the thousands of people and unnatural expectations wore on him.

He took time off. He took a lot of time off.

Not many general managers would have the soft touch that Dayton Moore practiced and allow Greinke nearly the entire 2007 season off. Could you imagine Sparky Anderson allowing a star young pitcher to sit out 1970? The pitcher later said he gave just a 10% chance of returning to baseball, but sessions with sports psychologists revealed social anxiety disorder and provided a path to improved health. Greinke only made three relief appearances that could be described on paper as “forgettable” at the end of the season. What those 6.1 innings don’t show is that joy was back in baseball. Zack spent time in the minors around kids his own age and began to flourish. He started smiling in the clubhouse. With this positive change in health, the legend of Zack Greinke crossed the threshold into greatness.

• Ranks 88th All-Time in WAR. Higher than Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, and Juan Marichal.
• Once started three Major League games in a row, something not done since 1917 at a time when tall stories were first being stretched. Game 1: tossed after 4 pitches. Game 2: knocked out in 3 innings. Game 3: Five days later after the All-Star break.
• When a rookie Alex Gordon was struggling at the plate, Greinke brought him down to the video room and showed the third baseman Greinke’s first home run. They watched the clip together and with Gordon ready for a lesson, Greinke said, “Do more of that.”
• In 2013, 2015, 2018, and 2019 Zack Greinke finished with a higher batting average than batters had off him.
On hitting against himself: “I could hit me if someone were on base. It wouldn’t be easy, but I could do it. If no one were on base, I wouldn’t care as much, so I could get me out.”
He said of potentially throwing a no-no, “It’d probably be more of a hassle than anything. A bunch of nonsense comes with it.”

The Pitcher

 

Pitcher List isn’t immune to the wonders of Greinke, either. The illustriously titled piece “Zack Greinke: The Last Standing Dinosaur” published in 2019 highlights how he mixes pitches like a gambler at a shell game. Where a hitter may expect a simple 89mph fastball, Greinke could pull the string and deliver a startling 80mph splitter, or 83mph slider, or the 56mph eephus. That’s one of the benefits Greinke has. He thinks like the hitter he knows he is. Zack puts himself in the batter’s box and asks, “what pitch would I hate to see in his position?” and executes.

His major league career stretches back to 2004 when he finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting and where his fastball could touch 100 (remember he called that speed). At 37 years old he’s not the same pitcher. Every spring training his fastball velocity plummets and fans talk about potential injuries or age finally catching up to him. It’s like a ritual, a sacrificial lamb to appease the baseball gods because once spring training ends, Greinke becomes an All-Star despite a fastball that would finish in a race second to some high schoolers.

The results are an absolute delight to watch.

• His eephus has only been hit 11 times out of 146 pitches. At less than 60 mph it can’t even get a speeding ticket on the freeway.
• Greinke has amassed nearly five times more WAR than the five players drafted before him.
• On throwing a curve: “It’s not like [a curveball] is a real hard pitch to throw. You just throw it for a strike.”
• In Molly Knight’s book The Best Team Money Can Buy, she tells the story of teammate A.J. Ellis asking Zack how he’d make the team better. After thinking on it Greinke said, “The first thing I’m doing is trading you and signing Brian McCann.”
In a 2017 Spring Training outing where he got rocked, Greinke walked into the dugout, looked right at Shelby Miller said, “If I pitch that bad, I might be as bad as you were last year, Shelby.”
• Him and Randy Wolf once held a competition for who could throw the slowest pitch during a game, Zack won with a 53mph pitch.

The Legend

 

Joe Posnanski was the Royals beat writer early in Greinke’s career and knows the pitcher better than any journalist. He’s been there for seventeen years worth of Greinke-isms and given the opportunity, he always tells his favorite story. Jeremy Affeldt was walking into the dugout after giving up a home run and shouted out, “It wasn’t even that bad a pitch!” Rookie Zack sitting quietly by himself on the bench said “Actually, it was a pretty bad pitch.”

Affeldt said flatly, “Thanks.”

Zack dug in, “No, really. I went back to the clubhouse and looked at the pitch on video. It was really a bad pitch. Right over the middle of the plate. And it was up. I mean, it was a bad pitch.” He continued, “Right down the middle. I could have hit it out.”

The harsh candor of Greinke could easily venture into the realm of callousness leaving behind a path of bitter teammates and peeved managers, instead, players are endeared by his honesty and the feeling that his heart always seems to be in the right place. It only adds to his aura.

• Former teammate Patrick Corbin on the first time he met Greinke, “My first time meeting him, he told me how he got a base hit off of me. That was our very first conversation ever.”
Another former teammate Jake Lamb asked him if he had a favorite strikeout. Greinke thought for a moment, then responded with the time at Chase field when he threw a change-up to a lefty that ended up in the right-handed batter’s box. The batter swung so hard he fell over. Lamb said, “That was me.” Greinke responded, “Yeah.”
On being famous: “I don’t mind people looking at me. That’s never bothered me. I don’t want them looking at me in my house; now that would bother me.”
On Chipotle: “I like the guacamole. Now, I don’t really love the guacamole. So I get it when I feel like it. They changed their guacamole from $1.50 to $1.80. I mean, $1.50 is already pretty darn high. So they changed it to $1.80, and I’ll never again get guacamole. It’s not about the guacamole itself, I just don’t want to let them win.”
More Chipotle: “I’d say the average person wouldn’t eat a Chipotle burrito and still do his running full speed like me. That’s why they call me special.”
On crowds and being recognized: “There are more people to ignore in New York or Boston than there are in Milwaukee, but I would still ignore them, probably.”

And finally:

• “I just wanted to make this clear: I can’t live without baseball…It’s to the point where it caused problems with my girlfriend because she knows baseball is more important than her. I say, Hey, I’m sorry. I love the game that much. You’re not even close to being No. 1 — that’s how much I love baseball. I couldn’t live without it.”

Baseball will never know if Josh Gibson hit 962 home runs or if Johnny Bench could throw out any man alive, but we know Zack Greinke can predict his curveball will be exactly 67 mph. A universally loved teammate and a fan favorite at every stop, this is a guy we’ll be telling stories about years after his plaque’s hanging in Cooperstown.

For anyone really paying attention, I’ve seen Shawshank a dozen times.

Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Brandon Riddle

Brandon is a former Little League All-Star whose child-like mind still believes Steve Finley is the greatest centerfielder of all time. Catch him on twitter talking into the void about outer space, adult beverages, and baseball.

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