Zack Is Back: Greinke Returns to Royals

Zack Greinke
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Greinke will likely wind up in the Hall of Fame sooner rather than later, but it won’t be via the 2028 ballot. No sooner had I speculated about the (admittedly slim) possibility that he would join Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina on a top-heavy BBWAA slate five years from now than Kansas City radio station host Bob Fescoe reported that the 39-year-old righty would in fact return to the Royals for one more year, capitalizing on mutual interest that had been apparent since the start of free agency.

The exact terms of the contract have yet to be disclosed, but via’s Mark Feinsand, the deal includes a base salary in the $8–10 million range, plus performance bonuses. Greinke’s 2022 pact with the Royals guaranteed him $13 million, with another $2 million available via performance bonuses, though the exact innings thresholds and payouts were never publicly disclosed. The Royals had been active this month in freeing up space within their expected $85–90 million payroll, trading both Michael A. Taylor (to the Twins) and Adalberto Mondesi (to the Red Sox), freeing up about $7.5 million in guaranteed money and turning the page on two players from last year’s 65-win juggernaut.

It was just over 10 months ago that the Royals’ prodigal son returned to the team that drafted him in 2002 and stuck with him through thick and thin over the next eight years, the high point of which was in ’09, when he made the AL All-Star team and won the AL Cy Young Award. Traded to the Brewers in December 2010 for a four-player package that included Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, Greinke spent the 2011–21 stretch passing through the hands of five teams. He signed two huge contracts, made five more All-Star teams, pitched in a couple of World Series, nearly won another Cy Young, and compiled a resumé fit for Cooperstown.

Back in Kansas City, the Greinke of 2022 was far removed from that heyday, but he pitched credibly. In 26 starts totaling 137 innings, he posted a 3.68 ERA and 4.03 FIP en route to 1.9 WAR; those last three figures all represented improvements upon his work in 2021 with the Astros. He did land on the injured list twice in 2022, first for a flexor strain in late May, costing him most of June, and then for forearm tightness in late August. Even so, he returned in September and posted a 1.91 ERA and 3.11 FIP, his best marks of any calendar month.

Greinke did that despite striking out just 12.5% of all hitters, the lowest mark of anybody who totaled at least 40 innings in the majors last year and 9.1 percentage points lower than the average major league starter. Similarly, his 7.3% swinging-strike rate was the AL’s lowest among pitchers with at least 100 innings. It’s as though he’s completed his evolution into a right-handed Crafty Lefty, not unlike Greg Maddux at the tail end of his Hall of Fame career.

Updating a table first presented in July 2021, when contributor Carmen Ciardiello 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 17.5 20.9 .309
2022 7.3 17.7 21.2 .321
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Greinke missed fewer bats and got more contact than ever. His 17.3% whiff rate placed in the majors’ second percentile according to Statcast, which also had his average four-seam fastball velocity (89.1 mph) in the fourth percentile; for what it’s worth, the heater was up 0.2 mph from the year before, with slightly more horizontal break. He survived and succeeded thanks to his command. His 4.6% walk rate was tied for the AL’s ninth lowest at the 100-inning cutoff, and his 0.92 homers per nine ranked 19th. He did a decent job of avoiding the barrel (6.8%, 60th percentile), but his pitches still got hit harder than you’d like (88.9% average exit velo, 31st percentile).

What Greinke did do better in 2022 than in ’21 was to keep right-handers in check. He’s had a reverse platoon split in each of the past five seasons, which didn’t matter so much in 2018–19, when he was keeping batters of either handedness in check; he held lefties to a .267 wOBA in those two seasons, compared to .282 for righties. In 2020–21, he held lefties to a .241 wOBA (.202/.243/.310), but righties seared him for a .352 mark (.290/.322/.510) — a 200-point gap in slugging percentage! In 2022, however, lefties hit for a .315 wOBA off Greinke, righties .325; by slugging percentage, the split was .393 to .434.

When Greinke signed last March, I postulated that since righties had absolutely tattooed his fastball, he’d either have to recover some velocity or back off his usage of it. But that’s not what he did. Instead, he dusted off his cut fastball, which he’d largely mothballed since 2013; according to Statcast, he’d thrown it only three times since, all in 2019.

Zack Greinke vs. Right-Handed Hitters, 2019-22
Yr Pitch % PA HR AVG SLG wOBA xwOBA EV Whiff
2019 4-Seam Fastball 38.1 123 4 .208 .367 .248 .301 91.3 18.6
2020 4-Seam Fastball 39.2 46 2 .364 .614 .408 .381 89.1 17.6
2021 4-Seam Fastball 37.4 156 10 .299 .558 .379 .363 92.9 11.4
2022 4-Seam Fastball 37.3 109 5 .290 .480 .361 .426 92.2 18.1
2019 Curveball 15.7 78 2 .118 .211 .150 .174 80.9 38.8
2020 Curveball 15.5 27 0 .192 .269 .216 .226 80.2 15.0
2021 Curveball 15.5 70 5 .309 .588 .375 .361 83.5 25.6
2022 Curveball 18.0 79 1 .244 .359 .256 .293 84.7 17.3
2019 Slider 25.9 122 2 .330 .470 .342 .316 86.9 29.3
2020 Slider 28.0 44 0 .279 .395 .296 .303 83.1 19.7
2021 Slider 23.5 113 5 .248 .457 .320 .327 85.8 31.9
2022 Slider 14.2 56 2 .339 .571 .390 .289 87.2 22.8
2019 Changeup 10.2 45 1 .171 .317 .244 .260 89.3 41.7
2020 Changeup 13.8 16 2 .375 .875 .512 .485 100.3 42.5
2021 Changeup 14.5 56 1 .216 .294 .249 .271 89.7 32.8
2022 Changeup 7.1 18 0 .200 .200 .226 .299 97.4 24.2
2022 Cutter 19.1 70 1 .266 .328 .286 .336 86.7 21.1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

That’s a lot of data, but the yellow cells offer a path through, highlighting three things that stand out to these eyes. First, while Greinke threw his four-seamer just as often to righties as in 2021, he got more whiffs, fewer balls, and better results on those that were hit. Second, he got much better results with his curve, even though he didn’t get as many whiffs. Third, he rejiggered his arsenal somewhat, backing off the usage of his slider and changeup — his two pitches with the highest whiff rates — and reintroducing the cutter, which was pretty effective. The slider and changeup accounted for 38% of his pitches in 2021, off of which batters hit six homers and slugged .403 in 156 PA. The slider, changeup, and cutter together accounted for 40.4% of his pitches in 2022, off of which batters hit three homers and slugged .400 in 144 PA. In other words, the tradeoff didn’t yield dramatically different results, but within the context of his current repertoire, it did offer a different look.

Zack Greinke Pitch Movement, 2022
Pitch % Velo V Drop Vs. Avg H Break Vs. Avg
4-Seamer 38.1% 89.1 18.4 -1.0 2.0 -3.8
Curveball 20.3% 72.0 64.4 -1.9 12.5 0.4
Changeup 16.5% 86.5 32.6 2.9 12.8 -1.0
Cutter 13.9% 85.8 30.9 -0.7 6.7 2.9
Slider 8.4% 82.2 34.4 -5.7 8.1 -0.1
Sinker 2.8% 89.3 23.0 -0.8 10.8 -3.0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

In the bigger picture, Greinke’s pretty clearly walking a tightrope, as is any pitcher with the majors’ lowest strikeout rate at whatever innings cutoff. He doesn’t have a huge margin to lose velocity or command, though the evidence does suggest that he’s still capable of fooling hitters to the point of making a league-average-ish contribution.

Greinke returns to a rotation that needs all the help it can get — Kansas City ranked last in the AL last year with a 4.76 ERA and 13th with a 4.58 FIP — and that has been bolstered by the arrivals of Jordan Lyles and Ryan Yarbrough. The former, signed for two years and $17 million, will join Brady Singer among the starting five. Yarbrough, who signed for $3 million after being non-tendered by the Rays, will battle righties Jonathan Heasley and Brad Keller and lefties Kris Bubic and Daniel Lynch, the last two of whom are former first-round picks, for a rotation spot. Neither Lyles nor Yarbrough are world-beaters, but in 2022 they posted ERAs and FIPs in the mid-to-high 4.00s, whereas the quartet on the bubble each produced ERAs in the low-to-mid 5.00s and FIPs only slightly lower. Sifting through that lot and hoping some of them stake claims on starting spots is a key task as the Royals continue their endless rebuild. If the other starters pick up some tips and tricks from the old master along the way, so much the better.

Given his age and current stuff, there’s no doubt Greinke is nearing the finish line of a career worthy of the Hall of Fame. In a best-case scenario, he notches at least 118 strikeouts to become the 20th pitcher to reach 3,000 for his career, but that’s a tall order; he totaled 120 in 2021 but just 73 last year. With 76.5 career bWAR (including offense), he’s 28th all-time among starting pitchers, and his 62.5 S-JAWS ranks 25th, third among active hurlers behind Justin Verlander (20th overall at 64.0) and Clayton Kershaw (24th at 62.8). Also in that neighborhood are Hall of Famers Mike Mussina, Fergie Jenkins, and Tom Glavine, as well as recent candidate Curt Schilling.

As I’ve noted time and again, I don’t care much for the “first-ballot” distinction, but Greinke checks the boxes as an easy call, particularly if you appreciate the dearth of Hall-caliber starters coming down the pike. Between the quality of his performance, the surmounting of his social anxiety disorder, and the rich trove of stories he’s left behind, I don’t have any doubt he’ll wind up in the Hall. But first, we’ll get to enjoy at least one more trip around the majors with him.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Jeff in Jerseymember
1 year ago

I really wanted him on the Mets before Quintana, as we seem to love collecting older former Cy Young award winners with Hall of Fame-caliber resumes.
But having Greinke would ruin Andy McCullough’s great joke–that the Mets have the best rotation in the AL Central in 2014.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

I hear the Mets are eyeing a long term deal for Rich Hill starting in 2025.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

Scherzer, Verlander and Greinke were all AL Centralers in 2010

Jeff in Jerseymember
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

But Greinke was in LA by the time Carrasco and Quintana were good.

1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff in Jersey

Yes one would have to trade 2010 Greinke for 2014 Carrasco and Quintana.