The Houston Astros needed starting pitcher help and they got it in dramatic fashion, picking up Zack Greinke from the Arizona Diamondbacks in return for pitchers J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin, first baseman Seth Beer, and jack-of-all-trades Josh Rojas.
A couple of years ago, I became increasingly concerned about the continued decline in Zack Greinke’s velocity. It used to be that every spring training, Greinke would throw 86 mph and everyone would panic, and then the velocity would eventually come back. In 2018 that didn’t happen, yet Greinke’s shown every sign the last two seasons that he can navigate what could very well have been a late-career crisis, with the barest of speed bumps.
The major reason for Greinke’s survival is his multi-flavor curveball, a pitch he can throw anywhere from 66 to 74 mph and anywhere in the strike zone. The speed differences result in the pitch ranging from a traditional, looping curve to an almost full-on, Rip Sewell eephus pitch.
Just how good is his curveball? In 2017, by our pitch data, Greinke had his best-ever season with the curve, at 7.2 runs better than league average. Last year, that improved to +10.6 runs. This year, with a third of the season to go, Greinke stands at +16.4, second in baseball to Charlie Morton. At the pace he’s on, +24.6 by season’s end would put him fifth in the 18 years for which we have this data, behind only 2017 Corey Kluber, Morton, 2007 Erik Bedard, and 2003 Roy Halladay. Here is Greinke throwing his curve to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on June 8:
From a rate standpoint, Greinke’s been even better, as he’s resisted the temptation to throw a lot more curves, instead integrating it into his normal repertoire. All of those starting pitchers threw a lot more curves than Greinke has, generally between 25-35%. For Greinke, it’s just another tool in his repertoire. Indeed, using pitchers with 50 innings and at least 10% curveballs, 2019 Greinke has had the most valuable curveball from a rate standpoint of any starting pitcher (again, since 2002):
|Season||Name||Runs per 100 Curveballs|
As with the Tigers and Justin Verlander, the Astros don’t have to pick up all of Greinke’s salary. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, the Diamondbacks are sending $24 million along to Houston, leaving the Astros to pay the remaining $53 million. That leaves Houston getting Greinke for 2 1/3 years and $53 million, a contract that any contending team should be willing to take — yes, even the Tampa Bay Rays (which is why I tried to give Greinke to them in my piece last week).
In addition, as is customary when the Astros make a big, aggressive move, Greinke fills a short-term need just as much as a long-term one. Houston can ride Verlander-Greinke-Cole with Wade Miley and possibly Aaron Sanchez sprinkled in through the playoffs; after the season, Greinke provides some additional insurance in case Cole does not return to Houston for 2020:
Naturally there’s a price for this ample supply of goodness.
Let’s start with the two pitchers given up by the Astros, Corbin Martin and J.B. Bukauskas. They both remain serious pitching prospects, just missing the top 100 on THE BOARD. Bukauskas’s taken a hit from a lot of scouts due to his lack of size and (far more seriously) lapses in command, but my colleague Eric Longenhagen still believes that even if Bukauskas can’t be a full-time starter, he has the potential to dominate in an 80-100 inning role. Corbin Martin made his major league debut this year, but struggled with his control, something that also dogged him in an otherwise solid showing in the Pacific Coast League. Problem is, Martin’s unavailable due to Tommy John surgery last month and while players coming back from that without missing a beat is a phenomena seen more and more often, it’s an additional source of risk.
The larger theme is that while Martin and Bukauskas may very well be solid contributors in the rotation for the Diamondbacks, their time isn’t now. Greinke is an immediate upgrade now, in 2020, and in 2021, and it’s not a sure thing that Martin and Bukauskas combined will ever contribute as much as a pitcher who ought to be in the All-Star conversation the next two years. And certainly neither will contribute right now, or help hold off the Oakland A’s, or take the No. 2 or 3 spot in the playoff rotation this fall. These are the salad days for the Astros franchise and they have a very real interest in getting another World Series championship (or two!) in before that window shuts.
Christian Walker has performed admirably in Arizona, far better than many ever predicted (myself included), but Seth Beer has a great shot at being Paul Goldschmidt’s true successor. Beer’s not a well-rounded player, but his one trick is a good one: game-changing power. His 37 home runs in 728 professional plate appearances might not sound like a crazy number for people watching the grocery store vending machine bouncy balls appearing at the major league and Triple-A levels this season, but that’s a lot of power for the environs of the low minors (Beer did not play in the California League). The narrow scope of his skillset will keep Beer from having phenom upside like that of the Tatises and Acuñas, but he’ll hit a lot of homers. Pete Alonso seems to be doing quite well as a big leaguer with that skill in hand. The Astros have their own crazy-power young guy in Yordan Alvarez and aren’t even at the point where they’re starting their best position player prospect remaining, Kyle Tucker, so the team’s dealing from a position of strength:
That leaves Josh Rojas, who’s not really a prospect in the traditional sense being an older college draftee a few years ago out of Hawaii. He’s played every position but pitcher, catcher, and center field professionally and has broken out offensively this season. It may seem kind of odd, but Rojas, who would be able to contribute sooner than the pitchers, and is more flexible than Beer, may be the player who the Astros actually miss most when all is said and done. It would be a mistake to attribute Rojas’ offensive breakout solely to the change in the Triple-A ball; he was crushing the Texas League, which has a normal offensive environment (ERA of 4.11, less than a home run per team per game):
Houston doesn’t get Greinke cheaply, but this is exactly the sort of trade the Astros needed to make, and the kind of take-no-prisoners aggressiveness the organization has shown when they really want a player. The cost isn’t prohibitive; the Astros brought in a star pitcher without giving up a single player who was obviously a top 100 prospect. At Greinke’s contract and price, there should have been other serious bidders: the Braves, Twins, Phillies, and yes, even the Tampa Bay Rays. In a league in which money and prospects are meekly handed out when a team has an opportunity to strike a critical blow, Houston keeps demonstrating why they’re one of the best, most focused organizations in baseball today.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.