Zack Greinke says that every year during spring training he worries that he won’t be ready when the season opens.
The Arizona Diamondbacks fan base shared those concerns the past two springs as the aging — and expensive — pitcher struggled through March to touch 90 mph on the radar gun.
Concern turned to outright panic this year when the Los Angeles Dodgers shelled Greinke in the season opener. He went 3.2 innings and gave up four homers and seven earned runs.
But Greinke quickly righted the ship. Up until Tuesday night he was brilliant; he was merely good on Tuesday. Heck, he has almost been worth the money he’s being paid.
Greinke went 6-1 (with three no decisions) with a 1.91 ERA from April 2 through May 15. He struck out 59, walked six, and held opposing batters to a .194 batting average and .215 on-base percentage.
He left the game in the eighth inning in a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 15 with an abdominal strain. There was fear he would miss time. But Greinke threw a bullpen session on Saturday, and the team decided to have him take his usual turn in the rotation.
Greinke took his second loss of the season Tuesday. His final line was 7.0 innings pitched, three runs (all earned), four hits, five strikeouts, and one walk. He was throwing a one-hit shutout until the sixth inning when he ran into trouble giving up three runs on three hits. Eric Hosmer delivered the decisive blow, an opposite field two-run homer to left.
Greinke’s prowess has extended beyond the mound. He entered his Tuesday outing with a 1.054 OPS. When he tripled on April 25, he hit for the season cycle (yes – apparently that’s a thing) and became the first full-time pitcher since 1930 to collect five extra-base hits in his team’s first 26 games.
A Bad Contract for the Team
It’s no secret the Diamondbacks have wanted to trade Greinke — even though he has been effective with the club — for a while.
The club’s previous baseball regime, with Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart in charge, signed Greinke to a six-year, $206.5 million contract with an $18 million signing bonus after the 2015 season. Greinke was coming off the best year of his career with the Dodgers. He went 19-3 with a 1.66 ERA, league-leading 0.844 WHIP, and 9.1 pitcher’s WAR (with 0.6 hitter’s WAR).
The Diamondbacks had a promising group of position players and a major need for starting pitching.
Greinke had an opt-out in his six-year, $147 million deal with the Dodgers and was willing to switch teams for a substantial raise.
The move was widely panned at the time. It looks worse now.
Greinke was heading into his age 32 season. Given the way the free-agent market has been the past two seasons, there is no way any team today would pay any pitcher in his early 30s that kind of money over that length of time.
Greinke will make $31.5 million in salary this season, his age 35 season, and $32 million in each of the final two years of the deal.
Greinke strained an oblique in 2016, missed time, and was so-so, going 13-7 with a close-to-league-average 4.12 ERA. The Diamondbacks struggled, finishing 69-93. Stewart was shown the door whole La Russa stayed on for another season in a much-diminished role.
Greinke bounced back in 2017, posting a 17-7 record with a 3.20 ERA, and the Diamondbacks reversed their record, going 93-69 and earning an NL Wild Card berth.
He went 15-11 with a 3.21 ERA last season. The Diamondbacks went 82-80, but were in first place for 125 days of the season and led the National League West on Sept 1. The team collapsed, going 8-18 in the final month as the bullpen faltered.
Greinke entered Tuesday with a 51-26 record, 3.45 ERA, and 129 ERA+ in his time with the Diamondbacks. But his contract — and La Russa and Stewart’s boneheaded decision to sign Yasmany Tomas, who is currently starring with the Triple-A Reno Aces and due $32 million on his $68.5 million deal — has limited the team’s payroll flexibility.
The team traded first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the face of the franchise, when it couldn’t sign him to an extension. The club didn’t make a strong bid to keep slugger J.D. Martinez and let left-hander Patrick Corbin and center fielder A.J. Pollock walk in free agency.
So far the Diamondbacks have not been able to find a team that is willing to part with enough prospects and pay enough of the contract to make dealing Greinke palatable.
For now, the Diamondbacks and their fans will have to appreciate the man who manager Torey Lovullo called “a special, special pitcher” after Tuesday’s loss.
Greinke passed the 2,500-mark in career strikeouts Tuesday. “That’s hard to do,’’ Lovullo said on the postgame TV show. “I think we all need to sit back appreciate exactly what that means and whose throwing for us every fifth day.”
It’s harder to do when you no longer have a plus, or even an average fastball. Greinke’s four-seam fastball this season has averaged just under 90 mph. His changeup is only about two mph slower, which is hardly a recipe for success. But somehow he makes it work.
He commands his pitches well, moves the ball around, and is not afraid to pitch to contact.
Greinke detests interviews. He answers questions in a monotone voice while staring straight ahead. So it is unlikely you will hear, or read, in any great detail about how he does it.
In most of Greinke’s starts he conducts a master class in the art of pitching, one young hurlers would be wise to follow.
It’s marvelous to see an accomplished craftsman at work. It may not be worth $31.5 million — but it’s worth a lot.
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