Is Zack Greinke bound for Cooperstown?

Twelve years into an All-Star player’s career, it becomes time to begin asking whether or not he is Hall of Fame material, or merely Hall of Very Good material. Zack Greinke just wrapped up his twelfth season in the big leagues, and it was a doozy. The 32-year-old led the league with a 1.66 ERA, a 225 ERA+, and a 0.844 WHIP. The 1.66 ERA was the lowest allowed by a pitcher since Greg Maddux recorded a 1.63 in 1995. But for an equally historic season from Jake Arrieta, Greinke would have claimed his second career Cy Young award.

After 12 years in the big leagues with the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels, and Los Angeles Dodgers, Greinke has 142 wins, a 3.35 ERA, a Cy Young, three All-Star appearances, two Gold Gloves, two ERA titles, a Silver Slugger (yes, they do give those out to pitchers), two WHIP titles, and two seasons with an ERA+ greater than 200. Add it all up, and Greinke has had an outstanding first 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, worth 48.6 wins above replacement. The Florida native has an impressive resume, but will he wind up giving what I am sure will be an extremely entertaining Hall of Fame induction speech sometime around the year 2030?

Greinke’s career got off to a very rocky start, so bad, in fact, that he seriously considered giving up baseball to try professional golf. The Royals called Greinke up at the age of 20, and he had a decent rookie season, winning eight games and recording an ERA under 4.00 for a very bad team that lost 104 games. The next year, Greinke hit the skids, and lost 17 games with an ERA of 5.80. He made only three appearances out of the bullpen in 2006, before his anxiety disorder forced him out the rest of the year. Greinke got back on the mound in 2007, but was mostly used as a relief pitcher, but did make 14 starts, won seven games, and got his ERA down to 3.69. His career was back on track, but over that three year stretch, Greinke went 13-24 with a 4.94 ERA in 88 games. Of his career WAR, only 1.1 came from 2005 to 2007. If Greinke does not end up in the Hall of Fame, those three seasons could be the cause.

Since seeking treatment and learning to cope with his anxiety in a Major League setting, Greinke has gone 121-58 with a 2.99 ERA and an ERA+ of 133 in 252 starts. Over the eight years from 2008 to 2015, Greinke has racked up all his hardware and recorded a WAR of 41.7, an average of over 5.0 WAR per year. His Cy Young season in 2009 was a 10.4 WAR year, and his great 2015 campaign was a 9.3 WAR year. Greg Maddux never recorded a season worth more than 10.0 WAR, and only his 1995 season was better than Greinke’s 9.3 this year.

It’s far too early to close the book on Greinke as a Hall of Famer. Winning 121 games over eight years is a Hall of Fame pace, but he did not really ascend to greatness until his sixth year in the league. Over the past three years with the Dodgers, Greinke is 51-15 with 2.30 ERA. Dodger Stadium has been a huge blessing for Greinke, as he has a career ERA of 2.00 taking the mound in the pitcher’s heaven. When Greinke signs his next contract, he will have to think long and hard about how his future home stadium will impact his numbers. Were it not for the past three seasons, Greinke’s name would not even be on the fringe of a Hall of Fame discussion. Thanks to his performance with the Dodgers, Greinke is definitely in the conversation.

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at how Greinke stacks up through the first 12 seasons of his career when compared to some of the most recent starting pitchers inducted to the Hall of Fame — Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez. These are the contemporaries he will be compared to for the Hall.

Career WAR Through 12 MLB Seasons
Zack Greinke 48.6
Greg Maddux 65.3
Pedro Martinez 71.6
Randy Johnson 52.7
Tom Glavine 43.6

Greinke lags behind Maddux and Martinez, two of the game’s most dominant pitchers in their prime, but his early numbers are very similar to Johnson and Glavine. His career arc is also very similar to those of the Hall of Fame left-handers. Johnson was more known for being tall and wild early in his career, and Glavine also led the league with 17 losses in his second season.

The three seasons with the Dodgers are by far the best consecutive seasons for Greinke in his career. How do his age-29 through age-31 seasons compare to the recent Hall of Famers?

WAR from Age 29 to Age 31
Zack Greinke 17.5
Greg Maddux 24.6
Pedro Martinez 19.6
Randy Johnson 20.9
Tom Glavine 16.1

Again, Greinke is right in the ballpark, and his career arc is still ascending at a rapid rate. As it stands currently, Greinke is still Hall of Very Good, not Hall of Fame, but that can certainly change. Based on the Hall of Fame prediction scores developed by Jay Jaffe, Greinke’s WAR7 and JAWS put him outside the Hall, but he still has at least three more years of peak pitching to add to his totals. The average WAR7, a measure of a player’s value during the peak of his career, for a Hall of Fame starting pitcher is 50.3. Greinke has a good chance at reaching that total. The average career WAR of a Hall of Famer is 73.9. Again, Greinke has an excellent chance to reach that mark.

While Greinke will likely fall short of the 300-win club (averaging 16 wins for 10 more years is a lot to ask), his Hall chances are more than healthy at this point in his career. The early season bumps in the road may have cost him a few wins and WAR, but also saved his arm from wear and tear. Greinke is now at home in the National League, and will likely play out his career in the most pitcher-friendly divisions in baseball. I previously mentioned the 2.00 career ERA at Dodger Stadium. Greinke also has a career 1.78 ERA at AT&T Park and a 1.57 ERA at PetCo Park. It’s clear he’s in the right spot in the NL West.

Zack Greinke should finish his career with at least 250 wins and an ERA close to 3.30. His ERA could even dip closer to 3.00 with eight more seasons in the right setting. Greinke is fiercely competitive and a student of the game of baseball. There’s not much he misses when watching a game, and his style of pitching would support the belief that he should not lose much in performance as he approaches the age of 40.

There are a lot of things that still need to fall into place, but if Zack Greinke can continue pitching at a very high level until the age of 36, and at an above average level until the age of 40, he should be a Hall of Famer. The Hall of Fame cases of Mike Mussina and Roy Halladay could help paint a clearer picture for Greinke. If those two get in, Greinke will likely reach the Hall if he stays healthy. Regardless, Greinke is on the right track when it comes to etching his name alongside the greats in Cooperstown.

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