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Prospect Retrospective: Zack Greinke

The Diamondbacks turn to veteran right-hander Zack Greinke in the NL Wild Card. Here’s his career in context.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the Arizona Diamondbacks will send veteran Zack Greinke to the mound in the National League Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. Greinke is a 33-year-old veteran with 2456 major league innings on his resume, but I still tend to think of him the way he was when he was drafted 15 years ago.

Here’s a look at what Greinke was like as a prospect and where his career fits in context.

Zack Greinke was taken in the first round, sixth overall, by the Kansas City Royals in 2002 from high school in Apopka, Florida. He threw just 11.2 pro innings after being drafted but reports were glowing, as reflected in the scouting report I wrote entering 2003:

Zack Greinke is a very polished high school pitcher, with both velocity and precision on his resume. He throws 91-95 MPH, has a curve and a slider that should both become above average pitches, has excellent mound presence and emotional maturity. He got in just twelve innings after signing, but the Royals took the unusual step of sending him to winter ball in Puerto Rico, where he held his own against much older and more experienced competition. Kansas City front office folks compare him favorably to Bret Saberhagen at the same stage; Saberhagen, of course, shot to the big leagues like a bolt. The Royals haven't had much luck drafting high school pitchers lately, with '01 pick Colt Griffin and '00 choice Mike Stodolka both struggling as pros, but Greinke could break this trend. Grade B+

Greinke, indeed, proved highly advanced, dominating the High-A Carolina League and the Double-A Texas League at age 19 in 2003, going 15-4, 1.93 in 140 innings over 23 starts with a ridiculous 112/18 K/BB. Watching him pitch was a joy and I rated him as the top pitching prospect in baseball with this report:

The story goes like this. Approaching the ’02 draft, Royals GM Allard Baird told his staff he wanted to draft a college pitcher. After looking over the candidates, his staff told him that the best “college pitcher” available was Zack Greinke. The weird thing was that Greinke was actually a high school pitcher from Florida, but the scouts rated his combination of command, composure, and stuff to be better than any college pitcher in the draft class. He also had a fresh arm, since he was mostly a position player before his senior year. Baird assented to their judgment, and the Royals now have the best right-handed prospect in baseball at their disposal. Greinke throws a fastball timed in the 90-92 range, though he can bump it higher when needed. His curveball, changeup, and slider are all above-average, and he will use any pitch at any point in the count. He works quickly, hits spots, and has a Maddux-like feel for pitching. Combine this package in a fresh arm that wasn’t abused in high school, and you have quite a talent indeed. The only hole in his numbers last year was his K/IP mark in the Texas League, which was –15 percent. But that is certainly forgivable considering his youth, as well as his incredible K/BB mark. Ideally, Greinke should get 20 starts in Triple-A to work out the final kinks in his game. If he continues to pitch like this, that timetable will be accelerated. The only thing that could get in his way is injury. Grade A.

He needed just six starts in Triple-A before entering the Royals rotation. His debut was solid (3.97, 100/26 K/BB in 145 innings) but his 2005 follow-up was disastrous (5.80, giving up 233 hits in 180 innings) and Greinke was impacted emotionally, losing his confidence. He almost quit the game entirely.

Kansas City Royals v Chicago White Sox
Zack Greinke, 2005
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After treatment for anxiety and depression Greinke rebuilt his career, returning with a successful swingman season in 2007 then emerging as one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2008, following up with a Cy Young Award in 2009. Although he’s had a few ups-and-downs he’s been a big winner overall, notably leading the National League with a 1.66 ERA in 2015 with the Dodgers.

Greinke is 172-107 in his career with a 3.40 ERA in 2456 innings, ERA+123, with a 2246/549 K/BB ratio. He has 53.2 fWAR, with peak seasons of 8.6 in 2009, 5.8 in 2015, and 5.1 in 2017.

By Sim Score, comparable pitchers to Greinke include Roy Oswalt, Jered Weaver, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee, Chris Carpenter, Cole Hamels, and Bret Saberhagen. Looking at fWAR, pitchers with a similar WAR value in a similar number of innings pitched to this point in his career include Saberhagen (55.3), Sandy Koufax (54.5), Javier Vazquez (53.9), and Oswalt (52.4).

The Saberhagen comparisons made by Royals scouts back in 2002 proved prescient, although so far Greinke has been more durable.