Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 2, 2005
BASEBALL: Zack Shellacked
From Baseball Prospectus 2005 (p. 385-86):
His profile is so unique that trying to project his future is a fool's errand, although the fact that PECOTA projects a collapse rate of 0% is astonishing for a young pitcher. All we can say is that in the past 30 years, the pitcher Greinke best compares to as a rookie, both statistically and stylistically, is [Bret] Saberhagen. As a sophmore, Saberhagen won the Cy Young Award.
(More on that "just about zero chance of collapsing" bit here).
Observant fans will note, at this point, that Greinke is a bit of a long shot for the 2005 AL Cy Young Award, seeing as how he is 3-13 with a 6.14 ERA. I think it's safe to say that the Greinke hype from this year's edition of BP will not be listed on the cover of next year's book.
Now, we all make mistakes and bad predictions. But in this case, there was a major and obvious red flag that BP should have warned its readers about. As I noted back in March, in previewing the Royals:
Then there's nearly the team's sole cause for optimism, Zack Greinke, who Jay Jaffe and Studes have identified as a guy who could take a step back this year because he was lucky on balls in play in 2004. I wouldn't go shining that Cy Young Award the Baseball Prospectus guys are hinting at just yet.
Specifically, Greinke's FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) stats for 2004 had him at 4.94, about a run higher than his 3.97 ERA. In other words, Greinke was likely to regress this season unless he improved enough in other areas to offset the likelihood that he would not be so lucky on balls in play, a factor over which pitchers have far less control than other aspects of the game. In fact, he actually has improved in the one major area he needed to work on (home runs) but has seen his K/BB numbers fall off a bit:
Greinke's problem is that he has done far worse on balls in play than just revert to the mean; in fact, his defensive support has been so bad (unsurprisingly, considering the team that plays behind him) that his ERA exceeds his FIP by a greater margin than any pitcher in baseball this season except for Mark Hendrickson of the Devil Rays; the Hardball Times gives him a FIP of 4.63, which is actually better than last season, but opponents' batting average on balls in play has risen from .267 to .333, resulting in the unsightly ERA. And it's been getting worse: overall, the league hit .383 against Greinke in June and .343 in July.
At the end of the day, if you look just at the HR/9, K/9, BB/9 and FIP figures, Greinke is just a very young pitcher, well thought of by scouts, who has yet to become more than a slightly below-average major league pitcher. There's no shame in that; you could have said the same of Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine at the same points in their careers, and Greinke could yet develop into a star if he can keep cutting down on the home run balls (his Groundball/flyball ratio increased this year, a positive sign in that direction), get a few more strikeouts, avoid losing his confidence over the debacle of 2005 (in fact, Greinke may be a poster boy for the need to have a stat guy on hand who can help explain to a young pitcher that he's not as far from success as it looks), and get himself onto a team where good pitching is at least occasionally rewarded with offensive and defensive support.
But that said, BP missed a big one here, when the reason to be cautious was staring them in the face.