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What the Hell is Wrong with Zack Greinke?

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Zack Greinke delivers (AP photo)

What is wrong with Zack Greinke?

He's been getting killed lately. His record now stands at 1-7 with a 6.01 ERA and a 42/18 K/BB in 70 innings, with 87 hits allowed. It is true that the 1-7 record is deceptive; he pitched very well in April and early May, but couldn't win due to non-existent run support. Lately they have been scoring runs for him, but he's been giving up runs at a much faster rate. His ERA stood at 3.09 on May 16th, but he's given up 25 hits and 18 runs in his last 8.2 innings pitched. His last really good start was on May 15th, when he allowed 1 run in 6.2 innings against the Devil Rays, fanning 7.

Four explanatory theories come to mind here. The first theory is that this is all bad luck and he'll come around without major changes. The second theory is that there is something physically wrong with him. The third theory is that the pre-season skepticism about Greinke among some statheads was justified, and that he really isn't a very good pitcher. The fourth theory is that there is something wrong with his current approach, but that it is fixable.

I've seen most of Greinke's starts on TV this year, including the last few disasters. I can attest that this is NOT bad luck. He's been getting plastered legitimately . . .this is not just a bunch of squiggly grounders through the infield or bloop hits falling in.

Early in the season, he had nearly perfect location and command, could dial up his fastball to 94 MPH at will, and threw excellent breaking stuff for strikes. Just like last year. Lately, however, all of his pitches have been flat. He can still dial up the velocity, but when he does the fastball goes wild outside the zone. Instead of hitting the corners with his fastball, he's throwing stuff right down the middle of the plate. He keeps hanging his slider. His curveball is still pretty good, but it doesn't have quite the same bite as earlier in the season, and with his other pitches off, the curve by itself isn't enough. He hasn't been using his changeup as often, and when he does the hitters have been hitting it like they know it is coming. We can definitely discard theory one; this is not bad luck.

There doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with him, no hints of shoulder or elbow trouble. Despite his problems, he does not look like a pitcher in pain, and if there was something obviously wrong with his arm, the Royals would certainly have shut him down by now. Of course, it's possible that there is nothing obviously wrong that the Royals can detect, but that there is something bothering him that he won't talk about. Runelvys Hernandez blew out his elbow a couple of years ago because he refused to admit that he'd been pitching in pain. Greinke can be stubborn, but he doesn't seem so stupid as to hide an injury. Assuming that is true, it comes down to theory three (he's not very good) or theory four (it is a temporary rough patch).

According to this article, Greinke has finally asked pitching coach Guy Hansen for some advice. There was talk this spring that Greinke was resisting Hansen's instruction. That seems to have changed.

Greinke now has 37 career Major League starts. He is 9-18 with a 4.64 ERA and a 142/44 K/BB ratio in 215 innings, with 230 hits allowed. Those are still impressive numbers for a 21-year-old. Greg Maddux through age 21 was 8-18 with a 5.59 ERA. If he'd gone to college, Greinke would have been drafted again just last week, no doubt in the first round. It is way too early to conclude that Greinke isn't a very good pitcher.

I'm not saying there is nothing to worry about. Indeed, there is. Greinke has to figure out what has gone wrong. Is he tipping his pitches? Is there a mechanical problem? Is there (deep breath among Royals fans) a hidden health issue? The good news here (assuming the article above is correct) is that he is now actively taking steps to remedy the situation. It's too bad he didn't do this earlier in the year, but sometimes people have to make mistakes before they learn. I wouldn't panic about a series of rough starts from a 21-year-old pitching for a poor team, not when the same 21-year-old has pitched quite well in the recent past.

Nevertheless, it is gut check time for Zack Greinke. Given his past history, there is a good chance he can sort things out, provided that there is no underlying health problem. If he's still sitting with a 6.00 ERA in September, then we can worry that the skeptics are right and that he's really not very good. But at this point, I think patience is advised.