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Zach Greinke - it's a shame that he'll be pitching for someone other than KC by the time he's 26.
Zach Greinke: Ahead of the Game
by Joe Posnanski
June 24, 2003
KANSAS CITY—Well, you should have seen the fuss. There were meetings. There were frantic phone calls. There were heart-to-heart discussions. It was a little bit like the White House during the Cuban missile crisis, only it lasted longer than 13 days. For three full weeks, Royals staff tossed and turned and argued and sweated and worried. Nobody slept.
And then, finally, they decided.
Yes, they would send Zack Greinke to pitch in Puerto Rico. “The risk,” Royals general manager Allard Baird says now, with that Evel Knievel I-made-the-jump relief in his voice, “was extremely high.”
This is the story of developing a pitching phenomenon, and pal, it ain’t easy. You heard of Brien Taylor? Todd Van Poppel? Rick Ankiel? These were $100 million arms, worth more collectively than the Hope Diamond.
You think security guards who watch the Mona Lisa feel pressure? How about being told to develop a 19-year-old kid with four above-average pitches and the pitching mind of Greg Maddux? What could go wrong? You don’t even want to know all the things that could go wrong: injuries, accidents, breakdowns, loneliness, overconfidence, loss of confidence, control problems, weight problems, woman problems, stage fright, bar fights, late nights and about 10 million other things.
Zack Greinke is that 19-year-old kid. How good is he? Well, he was 9-1, 1.32 at high Class A Wilmington, averaging a strikeout an inning and a walk an outing. Some in the Royals organization whisper (not too loud, the GM would have a fit) that Greinke is good enough to pitch in Kansas City right now.
“What I tell people is Zack is like one of those 16-year-old geniuses who is in his first year of medical school,” assistant general manager Muzzy Jackson says. “From a competency standpoint, he is ready right now. But the social part of it, that’s what we have to work on. He’s still only 19.”
That’s why the Royals sent Greinke to Puerto Rico. They wanted to challenge him emotionally. They wanted to put him in unique situations, like the time he pitched at 1:30 in the morning.
The Royals also knew there had never been a kid right out of high school sent to pitch in Puerto Rico. “It turned out great for him,” Baird says. Baird doesn’t even want to think about what might have happened in Puerto Rico. What happened was: Greinke pitched great, he gained priceless experience, he learned lessons from pitching mastermind Guy Hansen, and he’s now the best pitching prospect the Royals have had in two decades.
“We went around the room,” Baird says, “and I said, ‘If there is one guy in this room who is against sending Zack to Puerto Rico, we won’t do it.’ Everybody was for it. It was the right thing to do.”
Baird smiles. “Still,” he says, “that doesn’t mean we weren’t scared to death.”
Greinke was throwing on the side during spring training, and everybody was watching. Everybody watches the phenom. He throws easy, like a dad tossing to his child, but the ball pops the glove. Greinke puts it wherever he wants it. “He’s a freak,” Wilmington pitching coach Bill Slack said to Baird.
“OK,” Baird yelled as he walked up. Everybody looked up. Baird wanted to bust the kid’s chops a little bit. You can’t let a 19-year-old—even one with four pitches—get too full of himself.
“So,” Baird said mockingly, “you must be the kid trying out for the team.”
Greinke looked over, stepped off the mound and smiled a little bit. “Yep,” he said with a straight face. “And you’re going to be impressed.”
You raise different pitchers in different ways. Take another Royals prospect, Colt Griffin. Here’s a 20-year-old with one of the hottest fastballs in the game. He’s the only high school pitcher ever to be clocked at 100 mph, and even though the Royals have him now throwing in the 94 mph range, the ball still hops and swoops like it has its own heartbeat.
But he’s wild. Really wild. This is a guy who has thrown 43 wild pitches and hit 21 batters in 34 minor league games. So the Royals work with him. And they work with him. And they work with him.
This is fairly typical. You usually spend time teaching young pitchers how to pitch, how to throw strikes, how to develop their breaking pitches, all that stuff.
The thing with Greinke is, he already gets all that. He throws four pitches, all of them for strikes. He moves his fastball up and down, in and out. He repeats his delivery perfectly. He watches video of the great pitchers.
He badgers his pitching coach for advice. He keeps a book of hitters in the Carolina League. He charts all his pitches.
And he’s just wise about pitching. Once, he struck out a hitter with a slider way outside the strike zone. Teammates patted him on the back. “No,” he muttered. “That won’t work on the next level.”
While other players with his talent are dying to get to the big leagues, right now, this minute, Greinke says he wouldn’t mind staying in Class A for a while.
“I’m in no hurry,” he says. “I’ll move up whenever they want.”
Who is this guy?
“He loves baseball,” Jackson says. “He loves pitching. He studies it, day and night. You just don’t see that in kids his age. I mean he has good stuff, four above-average pitches. But it’s his mind that separates him. He knows exactly what he wants to do, and it’s not even fair.”
Word was circulating that Greinke was unhappy with his velocity. He was throwing 91 mph or so, but young pitchers usually want to light up the radar gun. Jason Gilfillan, the Royals reliever, was utterly dominant in Triple-A throwing in the high 80s and occasionally around 90. Well, he came up to the big leagues, and his first pitch was 93 mph.
“Jason,” Baird says, “had never thrown 93 mph in his entire life.”
Unfortunately, when you overthrow, the ball moves straighter than the Rockettes dance line. And Gilfillan got lit up like the Vegas strip.
Anyway, Baird quickly called Greinke and started to give him the speech he gives every young pitcher: “I understand you’re worried about your velocity . . . ”
Greinke interrupted, “No sir, Mr. Baird. I’m not worried. I’m worried that you might be worried.” And then Greinke said this: “I can throw 94 and have a 2.50 ERA. Or I can throw 91 and have a 1.20 ERA. That’s up to you.”
Looking at a few of these quotes, it might seem that Greinke is cocky. But he’s not. He’s actually quite modest. Cockiness usually means a person is compensating for something.
“When you see a cocky pitcher,” Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney says, “what you usually find is a scared little boy inside.”
No, he’s not cocky. He’s just sure. Utterly and completely sure. “Hey, if I could throw four above-average pitches for strikes, I’d be confident too,” Jackson says.
It’s Greinke’s unshakeable confidence that, more than anything else, has the Royals believing he could be The One.
“There are a lot of throwers in the minor leagues,” Jackson says, “and very few pitchers. That’s what we try to teach, but it’s not easy. That’s another reason why Zack is so special. He’s like an artist. He studies his craft. He’s so good at such a young age, that it scares you.”
In fact, there’s only one thing the Royals don’t know about Greinke. But it’s a big one. They don’t know how he will respond to failure. How will he react when, inevitably, his best pitch gets hit 430 feet, when he can’t get out of a bad inning, when he finds himself all alone facing Manny Ramirez or Jason Giambi with the bases loaded and nobody out.
The Royals think he will react well. But they don’t know. He’s not being challenged much in Wilmington, so soon he will move to Double-A Wichita. Maybe he will get challenged there. And, frankly, maybe not.
“Greinke will face failure before he pitches in Kansas City, I promise you that,” Baird says. “I’ll take pitches away from him if I have to. I’ll say ‘Go ahead and see what you can do without your slider and changeup.’ “
Jackson laughs about that. “I don’t know,” he says. “The way this kid pitches, he could probably win throwing nothing but fastballs.”
Steve, Forum Administrator
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