Zack Greinke’s Return to Kansas City Headlines Royals Pitching Moves

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Greinke is coming full circle. On Wednesday, the 38-year-old righthander agreed to a one-year contract with the Royals, the team that drafted him in 2002 and stayed with him through low points and high over the course of seven big-league seasons (2004–10), the pinnacle of which was his AL Cy Young award win in ’09. The Greinke deal headlined a busy day for the Royals, who additionally swapped lefties with the Reds, sending 34-year-old starter Mike Minor and cash to Cincinnati in exchange for 29-year-old reliever Amir Garrett.

Via the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, Greinke’s deal guarantees him $13 million, with an additional $2 million in potential bonuses based on innings pitched. Despite the Royals coming off a 74-win season and not looking much stronger for 2022 (though our Playoff Odds give them a 10.7% chance of joining the expanded party), Greinke had this destination in mind. Via’s Anne Rogers:

Though he helped the Astros reach the World Series for the second time in less than three full seasons in Houston, Greinke had an uneven 2021 campaign. Prior to landing on the COVID-19 injured list in early September, he led the AL in innings pitched, though he struggled upon returning; his ERA went up more than half a run, and he wound up finishing 11th with 179 innings. His overall 4.16 ERA was his highest mark since 2016, his first year with the Diamondbacks after signing a six-year, $206.5 million deal, but more jarring was his 4.71 FIP, the worst mark of his career.

While Greinke was typically stingy with walks, posting the AL’s second-lowest rate among qualifiers (5.2%), his 1.58 homers per nine allowed was the AL’s second-highest mark and the highest of his career since his 2004 rookie season. Meanwhile, his 17.2% strikeout rate and 12.1% strikeout-walk differential were his worst marks since 2005 (I’m throwing out his three-appearance 2006 for all of these comparisons).

A bout of shoulder soreness may have had something to do with Greinke’s woes, starting with the fact that his average four-seam fastball velocity of 88.9 mph was down a full click from his 2019 rate (though up 0.8 mph from the pandemic-shortened 2020 season). His swinging- and called-strike rates were both his lowest marks in years; batters put the ball in play more frequently, and when they did, they did more damage. Updating a table created by by Carmen Ciardiello in July, when he wondered, “What Happened to Zack Greinke’s Strikeouts?”:

Zack Greinke’s Results in the Statcast Era
Season SwStr% CS% BBE% wOBA
2015 12.9 16.1 18.5 .232
2016 11.1 16.0 19.7 .322
2017 13.4 18.3 17.1 .291
2018 11.7 19.5 18.4 .290
2019 11.2 18.5 18.9 .271
2020 11.3 21.4 18.5 .298
2021 9.2 17.7 20.9 .309
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Pitch-wise, batters teed off on Greinke’s diminishing fastball (92.1 mph average exit velocity, .355 xwOBA), and slugged .500 against his curveball as well. A closer look shows that lately it’s been righties doing most of the damage against Greinke’s most common offerings of late, which, gulp:

Zack Greinke vs. Right-Handed Hitters, 2018-21
2018 4-Seam Fastball 39.8 152 10 .288 .562 .368 .406 92.0
2019 4-Seam Fastball 38.1 123 4 .208 .367 .248 .301 91.3
2020 4-Seam Fastball 39.2 46 2 .364 .614 .408 .381 89.1
2021 4-Seam Fastball 37.5 156 10 .299 .558 .379 .363 92.9
2018 Curveball 10.3 54 1 .125 .229 .209 .236 82.5
2019 Curveball 15.7 78 2 .118 .211 .150 .174 80.9
2020 Curveball 15.5 27 0 .192 .269 .216 .226 80.2
2021 Curveball 15.2 69 5 .299 .582 .368 .354 83.1
2018 Slider 28.6 159 5 .233 .393 .287 .272 86.6
2019 Slider 25.9 122 2 .330 .470 .342 .316 86.9
2020 Slider 28.0 44 0 .279 .395 .296 .303 83.1
2021 Slider 23.6 113 5 .248 .457 .320 .328 85.8
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The fastball, curveball, and slider have accounted for about 76–83% of Greinke’s offerings to righties over the past four seasons. Those hitters combined to slug .442 against those pitches in 2018, then .367, .451, and .530 in successive seasons — that while his strikeout rate against righties fell from 25.9% in ’18 to 17.8% last year, meaning more of those pitches are getting mashed. All told, while he’s held lefties to a .241 wOBA (.202/.243/.310) over the past two seasons, righties have a .352 mark (.290/.322/.510).

It appears that Greinke will either have to recover some velocity on his fastball or learn to rely upon it less, or, most likely, both. Our Depth Charts projection forecasts something of a bounceback via a 4.30 ERA and 4.34 FIP in 173 innings, good for 2.1 WAR. A $13 million guarantee isn’t really a bargain for that kind of production, but Greinke’s presence will likely sell some tickets, and his influence and mentoring of a comparatively young rotation — Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Carlos Hernández are all 26 or younger — could pay additional dividends. Plus, if he pitches well and wants to be dealt to a contender at the end of July, he might fetch something in return.

Though he’s probably two seasons away from reaching the 3,000 strikeout plateau (he’s at 2,809), Greinke may be nearing the finish line on a Hall of Fame career. By old-school JAWS, his mark of 60.8 (via 73.1 career bWAR and 48.1 peak WAR) is 35th all time, 0.2 below both Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw, and 0.8 below the Hall standard. By S-JAWS, he’s 27th with the same scores (he’s never had a 250-inning season) but 3.8 points above the standard. With 219 wins, six All-Star appearances, six Gold Gloves, two ERA titles, two league leads in WAR, the Cy Young plus two other top-five finishes in the voting (including a near-miss in 2015), a compelling arc that includes overcoming a social anxiety disorder to become a fan and media favorite worthy of multiple oral histories… in this age, that’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer already. We’ll see if he’s got more in the tank.

As for the trade, the Royals are sending $1.5 million to the Reds to cover $500,000 of Minor’s $10 million salary for 2022 plus the $1 million buyout of his $13 million option for ’23. Garrett is projected to make $2.2 million in his second-year of arbitration eligibility via an estimate from MLB Trade Rumors contributor Matt Swartz.

Minor is coming off his second straight season with an ERA above 5.00 and well above his FIP, that after earning All-Star honors and receiving down-ballot Cy Young consideration — both for the first time — while with the Rangers in 2019. His stock plummeted during the pandemic-shortened campaign, as he pitched to a 5.56 ERA and 4.64 FIP, even while being traded to the A’s on August 31. After signing a two-year, $18 million deal with the Royals in December 2020, he posted a 5.05 ERA and 4.29 FIP in 158.2 innings and did not pitch after September 8 due to a left shoulder impingement.

Minor hasn’t pitched as badly as those ERAs suggest. He’s been vulnerable to homers (1.47 per nine last year, 1.74 per nine in 2020) but stingy with the walks (6.1% last year) and about league average with the strikeouts. His 16.1% strikeout-walk differential was actually better than his 2019 mark of 15.3%; that year, he finished with a 3.59 ERA and 4.25 FIP, albeit in a much more hitter-friendly environment.

One problem is that Minor’s been hit increasingly hard, that while losing a bit of velocity; his four-seamer averaged 90.9 mph in 2021, up a hair from ’20 but 1.6 mph below ’19. His average exit velocity increased by the same margin across those two years, from 86.9 mph to 88.5, with his barrel rate climbing from 6.6% to 9.3%, and his xERA from 3.91 to 4.39. That’s still a better pitcher than his ERA indicates. His issue appears to have less to do with defensive support (his .292 BABIP was fine) than sequencing, as batters scorched him at a .375/.389/.617 clip with runners in scoring position, compared to .220/.276/.399 with the bases empty. Spitballing here, I wonder if he’s tipping anything while pitching from the stretch.

Minor will join a rotation that’s undergone some upheaval this week, starting with the trade of Sonny Gray to the Twins and then the arrival of Justin Dunn from the Mariners. For what it’s worth, general manager Nick Krall said on Wednesday that he’s not planning to trade Luis Castillo or Tyler Mahle.

As for Garrett, though he made 63 appearances totaling 47.2 innings in 2021, he did not pitch well, finishing with a 6.04 ERA and 4.89 FIP. Homers and walks were both problems, as he was tagged for 1.7 dingers per nine and issued free passes to 13.5% of hitters (11.8% if we’re not counting unintentional walks). His 28.4% strikeout rate was good but down from 37.7% in the shortened season and 31.7% in 2019. He was hit hard, with a 90.5 mph average exit velocity (up 2.9 mph from 2019) and a 9.6% barrel rate (more than triple that year’s 3.1%); his xERA rose from 3.51 to 4.45 in that span. Righties, whom he faced 54% of the time, hit him for a .363 wOBA (.267/.357/.525), lefties for a .315 wOBA (.226/.343/.357). Over the previous three seasons, when he was generally pretty reliable, the split was .319/.289.

Garrett, who’s under control through next season, could benefit from the move to the more pitcher-friendly park, but even if he doesn’t, the move will probably be forgotten amid the return of Greinke, the Royals’ prodigal son. Even in the twilight of his career, he remains one of the game’s most compelling players.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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5 months ago

I don’t really understand why you would pay $15M (including the money sent to the Reds) to make what is probably a lateral move. Keep in mind, it’s not like Minor’s xERA was much higher than his FIP. Do they see something in Amir Garrett?

I do like this move for the Reds, though. It doesn’t really make sense given that they literally gave away Wade Miley, but this does undo some of the damage of that move.

5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Royals fan perspective here: with getting Minor’s contract off the books, they’re essentially paying $5 million. Minor and Greinke are probably roughly equal in terms of production, but Greinke is a fan favorite here and definitely makes the team more interesting. And they were looking for another lefty to stick in the bullpen and the Royals seem to have a fascination with hard-throwers with walk issues. They seem to think they can straighten Garrett out.

Last edited 5 months ago by cregwalker
4 months ago
Reply to  cregwalker

It’s probably just about the salary. Amir Garrett is a 30 year old reliever who’s been mostly awful in his career. He’s about as generic of a replacement level reliever as you’ll find

Six Ten
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Garrett’s HR rate has fluctuated a lot in his career and last year was high. Add to that a career low strand rate, and I could see a reasonable expectation for recovery, especially if you’ve noticed something, even something small, in his approach that you think you can work out.

It’s probably all a wash in pure baseball terms, but as cregwalker says Royals fans still love Greinke, and the front office has always seen value in fan sentiment toward players. It’s part of why they hung onto the 2015 core a year too long instead of rebuilding with trades, why they paid what they did to resign Gordon, and why they’ve never traded Merrifield.

5 months ago
Reply to  Six Ten

Pitching in Kauffman will certainly help HR rate