Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 22, 2010
BASEBALL: Lack of Zack
I'm still getting my head around the Royals dealing Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt to Milwaukee for Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and two pitching prospects, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi.
From Greinke's perspective, the deal is great news; he escapes the Sisyphean despair of the Royals (losing out, in the process, on the joys of playing with Jeff Francouer), joins a team that at least for now (pending the end of Prince Fielder's contract after the 2011 season) has some offense and another quality starter in Yovanni Gallardo, but Greinke also avoids testing his mental and emotional health - an issue in the past - against the pressures of a big market. It's obvious that the losing and hopelessness got to Greinke.
For the Royals, Escobar and Cain are both likely to improve the everyday lineup/defense, but Cain's .291/.366/.415 career line in the minors, combined with just adequate base stealing ability, and Escobar's disastrous .235/.288/.326 sophmore season in Milwaukee following a .293/.333/.377 career in the minors, suggests that neither should be regarded as a coming star; Cain will have an uphill battle to fill the shoes of David DeJesus, and it remains questionable if Escobar will ever be a league-average hitter. More here, here and here on how the pieces fit together.
From a business perspective, the deal is great news for Milwaukee, where ticket sales have spiked since the trade, but make you wonder how on earth the Royals are supposed to convince any fans to show up after dumping the team's lone major star a year removed from his Cy Young season. Honestly, this may be the last straw in convincing anybody who still doubted it that this franchise needs a completely fresh start, including - much as it pains me to imagine it - leaving KC.
But what's interesting to me most of all is what Greinke is really going to do now that he's in a new league and away from the train wreck of the Royals. Is he really the superstar we saw in 2009, or the simply good pitcher (more suited to be a #2 starter) of 2007, 2008 and 2010? Greinke's 2009 was spectacular, and it was the product of great pitching, not great defense. His BABIP the past four years has been steady - .317, .309, .307, .309 (unlike his 2004 rookie campaign, when a .269 BABIP made him look closer to ready than he was, fooling the Baseball Prospectus into projecting him as an immediate Cy Young candidate). If you use the crudest fielding-independent pitching measure (((BB+(4*HR))/K)*9), Greinke's 3.53 mark for 2009 is the 13th best among ERA qualifiers since 1977. That's even more impressive when you look at the other guys in the top 15 - Pedro Martinez (four times), Greg Maddux (3), Randy Johnson (3), Roger Clemens (2), Kevin Brown (1) and Dwight Gooden (1, in 1984, not 1985).
But was it nonetheless something of a fluke for it all to come together like that? Greinke in 2009 averaged 0.4 HR, 2.0 BB and 9.5 K per 9 innings, compared to a steady average for 2007-08 and 2010 of 0.8 HR, 2.4 BB and 7.8 K, very good numbers but nothing like his historic 2009. Brown's 1998 may be a good parallel - at age 33 he averaged a career-best 9.0 K/9, matched his career-best 0.3 HR/9, and had his second-best rate of 1.7 BB/9. As with Greinke, those numbers don't totally stick out - Brown had averaged 0.3 HR/9, 1.9 BB/9 and 7.0 K/9 the prior two years (including a slightly fluky 1.89 ERA in 1996), and would average 0.7 HR, 2.2 BB and 8.1 K the following three. He just never again pitched quite as well as he did that one year. That's my guess here - Greinke may have a better ERA than he did in 2010, and the move to the NL may help as well, but I'm skeptical that he can be a guy who consistently strikes out above a batter per inning, let alone with such perfect control and low HR rates.