July 31st, 2019, a little after 3:00 PM, CDT. It was the tale of two cities, New York and Houston. There was a major announcement that moment. For one city, it was the best of times. For the other, it was the worst of times.
Here was the reaction in New York, home of the Yankees. (warning, explicit language).
I will leave for you, dear reader, to decide which of the two, the best of times or the worst of times, it was for the proud citizens of the Bronx.
It was the best of times in Houston. That very same announcement led to jubilation, exhilaration, dancing in the streets, ecstasy throughout our great city. In nine months, many babies will be born in Houston named Zack.
Of course, you know what announcement I am talking about. Every sentient baseball fan knows what announcement I am talking about. The beginning of another new era in Houston Astros history, the Zack Greinke era.
Upon the announcement of Zack Greinke going to Houston, no less that John Smoltz, hall of fame pitcher of the fabled Atlanta Braves, called Astros Jim Crane with this to say:
Astros owner Jim Crane said John Smoltz called him today to gush about his rotation: "Smoltz said 'Man, you really did a great job of putting that together.' I said, 'Yeah, it looks like Smoltz, Glavine and Maddux.' He said, 'No, no, you guys are way better than we ever were.'"— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) August 2, 2019
Is that really true? Is the new, killer Astros rotation of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke really better than the storied trio of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz from the 1990’s Braves?
It’s worth a look.
Using Baseball Reference’s ERA+ statistic, which compares pitchers’ ERAs to league average and neutralizes for other factors like ballpark differences, this is what the braves Big Three looked like. 100 is league average. Every number above that is a percentage point better than average.
Maddux: 187 ERA+, Glavine: 168 ERA+, Smoltz: 144 ERA+
Verlander: 166 ERA +, Cole: 156 ERA+, Greinke 154 ERA+
Well, maybe the Braves have the edge, but then, the Astros’ #4, Wade Miley, is better than John Smoltz at 146!
And yes, in case you are wondering, this trio, and this quartet, rates better than the best three or four man combination from last year’s Astros staff.
So if Zack Greinke doesn’t automatically transform this Astros rotation into the most playoff ready trio in History, it’s damn close, and he may well have just made the rotation THE most devastating pitching quartet ever.
Zack Greinke, Career
Zach Greinke started his career in the Big Leagues at age 20 in 2004 with the Kansas City Royals, who drafted him with the 6th overall pick in 2002. A naturally reclusive person, who has struggled with depression and anxiety, the Royals allowed Greinke a hiatus from baseball for a year of counseling in order to regain his mental balance after struggling in 2005. In 2009 Greinke finally found a comfort level, and his natural talent exploded. He made the All-Star team for the first time, lead the league in ERA at 2.16, ERA+ of 205, WHIP of 1.073, and was awarded the AL Cy Young Award.
Since then he has spent brief stints in Milwaukee and with the Angels of Anaheim, but his career didn’t peak until he joined the Dodgers in 2013. He made the NL All-Stars in 2014 and 2015, which was the best year of his career. He compiled a 1.66 ERA while winning nineteen games and losing only three. As he did in 2009, he lead the league in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP, his only sub 1.00 WHIP until this year. He was second in the Cy Young balloting and seventh in MVP consideration.
In 2016 Greinke went to Arizona, and in his first year he posted his highest ERA since his disastrous 2005 campaign. But in the three years since, despite having a loss of velocity on his fastball, Greinke has gone to the All Star game each year, the only stint of his career in which he has done so three consecutive times. Aging, but like fine wine.
At 35, Greinke is having one of the finest seasons of his career, with a 2.90 ERA and a 0.945 WHIP. His ERA is 11th in MLB (Verlander is 5th, Cole is 10th), and his WHIP is 3rd (Verlander 1st, Cole 5th).
Greinke has a career 3.36 ERA, an ERA+ of 125, and a career WHIP of 1.161. He is a superb overall athlete, and has won five golden gloves. He is one of baseball’s best hitting pitchers, with a career .224 batting average, and he got the Silver Slugger award in 2013, when he hit .328. Coming from the NL, Greinke has an .883 OPS this year with a career high three home runs in 48 ABs.
How does Greinke compare to the greatest pitchers of the last decade? Since 2009, (1000 innings min.) he is third in wins with 163, (Verlander is first) and sixth in ERA+ at 133. (Verlander 5th, Cole 13th) If you prefer advanced stats, he is 9th in SIERA, ahead of Verlander, 10th, and Cole 11th.
Greinke as an Astro
This is a possible concern, due to mental health issues that were evident in Greinke’s past. But I believe that the Astros are possibly THE ideal team with whom Greinke can flourish. First of all, although Greinke remains a reclusive person, the kind of extreme anxiety that once afflicted him is a thing of the distant past by all accounts.
So why are the Astros a good fit for Greinke? First, it is a warm, welcoming clubhouse full of misfits, Cinderellas, underdogs of all types. Look at the core. Altuve is supposedly too small to play. Springer stutters. Correa had to work his way up from abject poverty. There are others. Many of the Astros have overcome unique hardships to get where they are now, and they can accept one more. There is a lot of love and humility on this bench, and they will welcome Greinke warmly, accept him as he is, and at the same time respect his space.
During an interview, Alex Bregman was asked what he thought of the AAA pitchers that were inhabiting the roster at the time. He immediately corrected the interviewer. “They are Astros.” No cliques and no outcasts on the Stros.
Secondly, pitchers in the Astros organization must be willing and able to engage their intellect in the pursuit of excellence. Pitching is a science for the Astros, and the pitchers must be willing to study that science and be able to grasp it.
Greinke is already considered one of the most cerebral pitchers in baseball. As his former teammate, Zack Godley says, “The amount of information that he takes in, in my mind, it’s impossible for me to try to do...His thought process on everything is just on a different level than anyone else.” Many pitchers still reject the data revolution in baseball. They don’t last on the Astros. Greinke has shown that his attitude about data is like Verlander’s; give me all you got. He’ll fit in quite nicely.
If past patterns hold true, Under Astros tutelage, Greinke’s best days may still be in front of him.