Tagged: Zack Greinke

Royals Hope Old Arms Learn New Tricks

There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  If that’s true, then Dayton Moore, Trey Hillman, and the rest of the crew running the Kansas City Royals should be carted off to the nut house.  Last year, the bullpen was the bane of the team’s (and the fans’) existence.  Aside from All-Star caliber closer Joakim Soria, who was hobbled by injuries, the group was a ragtag collection of cast-offs and no-names who combined to cause more heartburn and indigestion than Kansas City’s famed barbecue.

The group included Roman Colon (4.83 ERA in 50.1 IP), Juan Cruz (5.72 ERA in 50.1 IP), Robinson Tejeda (3.54 ERA in 73.2), and Kyle Farnsworth (4.58 ERA in 37.1 IP).  That’s a combined 4.55 ERA over 211.2 innings of relief, a performance that led the Royals to bring all four back to form the core of their bullpen again this year. 

That means the four most frequent offenders from last season’s disaster are back in their usual roles.  Various factors led to them being retained (including Farnsworth’s unforgivable contract given before the 2009 season), but the fact remains that Dayton Moore and his organization addressed their biggest flaw by doing precisely nothing.  They’re still counting on four proven failures to somehow bridge the gap to Soria.

Those four and Soria are joined this year by John Parrish (who missed all of 2009 recovering from arm surgery), Dusty Hughes (a promising youngster who debuted in 2009 with a 5.14 ERA in 14 IP), and  Luis Mendoza (who logged all of 1 IP in 2009 with the Rangers, allowing 4 ER and posted a robust 8.67 ERA in 63.1 IP in 2008). 

This motley crew is tasked with preserving the narrow leads provided by Kansas City’s typically anemic offense and allowing Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to accumulate his deserved share of wins, rather than the all too frequent quality start no decisions of 2009.

After only two games, though, it must be too early to tell how they’ll fair this year, right?  Perhaps several had strong springs to prove they’ve turned a corner.  Well, so far, through two games they’ve blown a two-run lead and cost Greinke a win, and managed to somehow turn a 7+ inning shutout performance by Luke Hochevar into a no decision, 11th inning, come-from-behind win credited to Farnsworth. Old reliable Kyle earned the W by allowing three straight hits to start the top of the 11th before weaseling his way out and letting the offense provide a dramatic walk-off victory in the bottom half of the inning.

In the season opener, Greinke battled his way through six innings against the tough Detroit offense and allowed only 1 ER.  He left with a 4-2 lead, thanks to a surprising offensive outburst against Detroit ace Justin Verlander.  Before he could even find a seat in the dugout, however, Colon, Tejeda, and Cruz teamed up to post a 6-hit, 1 BB, 6 ER performance in the sixth inning to put the game out of reach and leave Zack with nothing to show for his hard work on Opening Day.

Luke Hochevar followed suit the next day throwing an oustanding 7.2 IP, 5 hits, 1 BB, 0 R and leaving with the lead only to see Soria cough it up and Farnsworth allow a run before a miraculous comeback in the bottom of the 11th brought the Royals a win.

As I began this post, that’s all the damage the bullpen had done this year, but during the course of my writing they managed to do it again.  Today Royals starter Brian Bannister tossed a fine outing, going 6 innings and allowing only 1 run, leaving with the lead.  Hughes went 1 inning, allowing the tying run before giving way to Mendoza who posted a 1.2 IP, 5 ER performance. 

It seems there’s a different guy each day, but no matter who Trey Hillman beckons from the pen, it always ends in disaster, and the fact that all of the main pieces were brought back and no attempt at change was made is a fault of those running the organization.  This bullpen should have been completely dismantled and rebuilt, but Dayton Moore did nothing and Hillman allowed it to happen.

Hillman may soon be on his way out, but it won’t matter who’s filling out the lineup card as long as this embarrassment of a bullpen remains intact.  For that reason, perhaps Dayton Moore should be feeling the heat more than Hillman for failing to address the biggest gaping hole on his team.

Staring out the window, waiting for spring

Despite the new Ice Age that has settled over most of the country, apparently we really are going to have a spring this year, at least in Arizona and Florida.  Today begins the grand spectacle of Spring Training and many greater writers than I have pontificated upon this marvel of American sporting life.  It’s a time when Alfonso Soriano can still run and hit, when Zack Greinke can single-handedly drag the Royals to the playoffs, and when Stephen Strasburg is all potential and promise.

For the next six weeks we’ll be able to drool over veterans who’ve recommitted and rebuilt their bodies (or decommitted and rebuilt their bodies, a la Jose Guillen) and nameless studs with jersey numbers in the mid-nineties.  Every team has added the pieces that will transform them into a winner or has invited to camp the kid who will blossom into a star.  Even Ben Sheets has a locker with his name on it.  Now we can officially begin scouring the newspapers (er, websites) for box scores and rotation battles and begin chalking up victories in our heads.  Everyone’s magic number is the same and every lineup looks dangerous.

The excitement will build gradually: a successful ‘pen session for the rehabbing starter, a long blast by the newly signed free agent, a scoreless inning by the young flamethrower.  Eventually we’ll get to pink slips and narrowed rosters and our teams will take focus.  Good springs will surely transfer to great regular seasons and bad springs are nothing but slow starts and all will be well when the games really count. 

Hitters will blast the ball out of parks in the desert air of Arizona, and pitchers will blast the ball off the tee of golf courses across Florida.  Players will regain their leathery tans along with their fastball timing.  Everything will begin to unfold slowly and gain steam throughout the summer.  By the time the leaves turn and fall most of what we know now will be proven wrong and we’ll be left again to wonder how we didn’t see it coming.

For now though, we’re confident in what we see and feel.  Everything is going to turn out right this year.  This is going to be the greatest season ever and the summer of our lives.  So let’s get out the bats and balls and get this thing going.  Turn off the hot stove and forget about the transactions page and hypothetical lineups; it’s time for some real baseball and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.

Marquis Living Up to His Name

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Jason Marquis won his first start after the All-Star break
to take sole possession of the Major League lead in wins with twelve.  Marquis continues to have a surprising career
year in his first season with the Colorado Rockies.  Typically pitchers enjoy such success after
they leave the rarified air of Coors
Field, not upon arrival there.  However,
here’s Marquis, 19 starts in and enjoying his best season ever.

 

Marquis has gained the reputation as a reliable workhorse
over his previous nine seasons.  In the
last five he’s averaged over 31 starts and 192 innings per year.  He’s also been mildly successful with five
straight seasons of at least 11 wins.  However,
the high-water mark of his career was a 15-7 year in 2004 with the Cardinals in
which he sported a fine 3.71 ERA.  With probably
more than a dozen more starts to go this year, he’s on pace to obliterate his
career bests and his 3.49 ERA thus far would be his best since his first full
year in 2001.

 

Much like any successful Colorado hitter, home and away splits can be
telling when studying success.  Marquis
has shown that he’s not afraid of his home park.  He has five of his wins there, and has actually
surrendered only three of his nine homeruns there.  Often times pitchers will lose the battle
with Coors Field before they even throw a pitch.  The list of good pitchers to lose their mojo
there is long, but Marquis has had no qualms about it.

 

To me the most impressive stat Marquis has posted this year
is his strikeout total, or lack thereof. 
Far from being a Zack Greinke or Tim Lincecum, Marquis strikes out less
than five men per nine innings.  This
leaves a large majority of the outs each game in the hands of his defense, and
in the fickle air currents of the Rocky Mountains,
yet he has thrived.  It helps that he
gets more than twice as many outs via the groundball as he does the fly ball.  Marquis has the smarts and the moxie to
attack hitters and get them to hit his pitches, pounding one after another into
the ground unsuccessfully.  He’s allowed
fewer hits than innings pitched, and his walk rate is less than three per nine
innings.

 

Marquis has a serious shot at posting a 20 win season this year,
which would be more than just a personal milestone, it would a be a Colorado
franchise record.  Thrice in the team’s
history pitchers have won 17 (Kevin Ritz, 1996, Pedro Astacio, 1999, Jeff
Francis, 2007), but never any more.  The
team ERA record for a season is also in jeopardy (Joe Kennedy, 3.66, 2004).  Add to that the fact that the Rockies just leaped over the San Francisco Giants into
second in the NL West and first in the Wild Card and Marquis may be throwing
pills deep into the fall for his team. 

 

After being a part of the disastrous Cubs postseasons the
last two years, Marquis may be the anchor of his new team looking to repeat their
playoff success of just a few seasons ago. 
Even at thirty, in his tenth season, it’s never too late for a proper
coming out party and Marquis is looking to keep it going right through October
and maybe turn it into a Cy Young celebration as well.

 

Greinke Dazzles on Monday Night

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You’ll probably be able to find almost a dozen different
articles Tuesday about Zack Greinke’s latest exceptional performance.  He absolutely owned the White Sox in a
complete game, ten strikeout, zero walk, masterpiece.  At no time during the night did he appear
troubled or particularly challenged.  He
scattered a few broken bat singles, but little else.  The three run lead may as well have been
eight.  However, I don’t want to discuss
all that or his season in total today. 

 

I want to provide a different perspective in two ways:  First, I was there in person and got to
experience the magic with my own eyes. 
Secondly, I want to focus only on two specific sequences that I feel sum
up everything that defines a dominant pitcher in three at-bats.

 

The first sequence that I cannot stop thinking about is
Greinke’s strikeout of Alexei Ramirez to begin the third inning.  Greinke fell behind 1-0.  The next pitch was a 93 mph fastball inches
below Ramirez’s chin that sent him sprawling to the ground and his bat rolling
in the dirt.  After picking himself up
and dusting himself off Ramirez decided he’d rather be anywhere in the world
than at Kaufmann Stadium in the batter’s box. 
Greinke had pinpoint control all night (0 BB) and several times brushed
hitters back with high heat, but none were as effective as that pitch to
Ramirez.  The next pitch was a 72 mph
curveball on the outside corner for a strike, followed by a 75 mph curveball on
the inside corner that had Ramirez buckling like a little leaguer.  The final pitch was a slider away at about 86
mph that Ramirez waved at weakly.  It was
the most overmatched I’ve ever seen a Major League hitter.  Greinke dominated the inner half of the plate
all night, clearly sending a message that he was not to be challenged and prodigious
hitters Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and A.J. Pierzynski offered no more of a challenge
than young Alexei, striking out four times between them.

 

The second occasion of sheer brilliance came in the eighth
inning, the only time the White Sox appeared to challenge Greinke at all.  The inning began with back-to-back singles,
bringing the tying run to the plate with no outs.  I’d been watching Greinke’s velocity all
night, noting that he hit 96 mph on the first hitter of the game and then
pitched at 92-94 all night, seemingly on cruise control through the
ballgame.  Now, however, he reached back
and found that extra gear that only the elite pitchers seem to have available
for special occasions.  The next four
pitches were 95, 96, 96, and 95.  These
yielded a double play and put Greinke at 1-1 on pinch hitter Wilson
Betemit.  He followed with two straight curveballs
that broke onto the shoetops of the left-handed hitter.  Betemit swung and missed on both, missing the
ball by a combined total of about five feet.

 

These two isolated instances are all that’s necessary to
understand just what kind of confidence and command Greinke has through his
first six starts.  By looking at these
three at-bats alone one would know exactly how the White Sox fared on this
night.  All the best pitchers throughout
the history of the game have had three traits that allowed them to pitch out of
any jam, against any hitter, at any time. 

 

The first is the ability to control the inner part of the
plate.  Greinke shows a willingness to do
this more than any other young pitcher today. 
He has pinpoint control allowing him to come inches from a hitter’s chin
without hitting him and then he can use his ridiculously varied breaking
pitches to turn great hitters into floundering buffoons. 

 

Secondly, Greinke can throw any pitch in any count in order
to get an out.  His curveball, ranging
from 62-82 mph is almost a repertoire in itself.  Add to that a hard slider and mid-90s
fastball and his mix of pitches is equal to anyone throwing in the bigs right
now.  Hitters, even when ahead in the
count, cannot sit on anything.  Greinke
loves to throw first pitch breaking balls, putting the hitter on the defensive
and allowing him to do whatever he wants the rest of the at-bat.

 

Finally, Greinke has the ability to reach back and find a
vital 2-3 extra mph for game-changing at-bats. 
He looked completely at ease, like a man in a rocking chair throwing 92-94
through seven innings Monday.  Then, just
when it seemed he might be tiring and the Sox may be catching up the third time
through the lineup, he pumps four straight four-seam fastballs and earns a
tailor-made double play and sets up another hitter for his wicked slider to
punctuate the eighth inning and essentially put the game on ice.  The ninth was the cherry on top.  More for the crowd to stand, applaud, and take
in the atmosphere of a truly phenomenal pitching performance.

 

The results are obvious to any casual fan.  He went all nine, gave up nothing, struck out
ten and walked none.  However, it’s his
sequencing, his mental acuity, and his feel for the game that separate his
performances from others; the subtleties of this performance that can be truly
appreciated by students of the game.  The
ability to know when to knock a man down, when to find that extra gear, and
when to drop in a sub-70 mph floater are the signs of a developing artist who’s
refining his craft and just beginning to realize the potential of his wealth of
talent.  Greinke’s outings are not be
missed by anyone with a love of baseball and an appreciation for the
indescribable skill of the game’s greatest players.

Pitch Perfect: Greinke Dominates, Pirates Surprise

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With the season approaching the one month mark we’re
starting to get a better idea of how things look to shake out over the coming
summer.  Apparently the Marlins aren’t
going to set the MLB record for wins in a season and the Red Sox are much
better than their sluggish start indicated. 
In particular, though, I want to look at some of the great pitching
performances we’ve seen so far.

           

No discussion this season can begin without Zack Greinke,
this week’s Sports Illustrated cover boy. 
He’s been outstanding, showing incredible control and command, and the
ability to blow it by people when he needs to. 
His mix of pitches and speeds is what makes him so good.  In his first of two straight complete games
he faced Texas and his curveball
alone varied from 62-82 mph.  That’s 20
mph with the same pitch!  Add in a
fastball that can approach 94 and you have a variance that destroys hitters’
timing.  It looks like Greinke is finally
bringing all of his talent together and becoming a complete pitcher.  The SI cover is great, because maybe he’ll
begin to get a little more of the national recognition that he deserves.  Even though his scoreless streak was snapped
by a fluke bounce that led to an unearned run, he’s still got a 0.00 ERA, a
WHIP under 1.00, and a 6/1 K/BB ratio. 
He’s looking like a true front-end starter in his sixth Major League
campaign.

 

Tim Wakefield is also off to a strong start, and somewhat surprisingly.  He has two CG, including one near no-hitter
and last night he went seven while giving up just one hit, which came in the
first inning.  His ERA is 1.86 and even
though he walks more guys because of the knuckler, he’s been able to limit hits
and keep guys from scoring.  Wakefield
hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2002, but he’s off to a tremendous start and
is a big reason the Red Sox have ripped off 11 straight.  His gem against Oakland
in which he carried a no-no into the eighth was the first win in that streak.

 

Wakefield’s
opposition last night was Cliff Lee, the reigning Cy Young who’s gotten off to
a less than auspicious start to the year. 
Last night he looked more like the dominant guy he was last year.  He went eight innings, giving up just five
hits and no walks before giving way to Kerry Wood, who lost the game on a Jason
Bay HR.  Lee’s record stays at 1-3 with
the no decision, but he’s showing signs of snapping out of it.  He’s keeping his walk numbers down and has
limited the number of hits since his first couple of starts.

 

Johan Santana appears to have his old form back.  He looks as good as he has since getting to New
York.  He’s
giving the Mets much-needed consistency, and if he can continue to go deeper
into games it will put less strain on their currently suspect bullpen.  If Santana remains a real ace the whole
season, the Mets will once again have a chance to break into October.

 

A real surprise this April comes courtesy of my Dad.  He pointed out that currently the three best
teams in Major League Baseball in ERA are the Royals, Pirates, and Mariners.  Hard to imagine that anyone predicted even
one of those teams to be at the top, let alone all three.  The Royals are getting great performances out
of Gil Meche and Greinke, along with better than expected stuff from Sidney
Ponson and recent call-up Brian Bannister, who’s looking like the promising
prospect of a few years ago.  The
Mariners have Felix Hernandez and a rejuvenated Erik Bedard to anchor their
staff, but the true surprise has to be the Pittsburgh Pirates.  They have no big name guys or anyone that
would be considered a stopper, but their entire staff is doing great work and
has posted 4 shutouts and is five for five in save opportunities.

 

The Pirates rotation consists of 

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Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Ian
Snell, and Jeff Karstens, none of whom are exactly household names.  Duke and Maholm have ERAs under 3.00 but none
of the staff has a high strikeout total. 
In fact, the whole staff ranks 29th in MLB in strikeouts,
ahead of only the Angels.  Their middle
and late relief has been superb, allowing the team to remain in games and to
hold leads.  Their closer, Matt Capps, is
only 25 and is off to a great start and has been nailing down games at the
end.  None of the Pirates will blow you
away with velocity or stuff, but they all have shown the ability to throw
strikes and get outs somehow.  The team
will still have a lot of trouble keeping up with the NL Central, but the
development, finally, of some young players and a pitching staff with depth is
a very promising sign in a once proud baseball city.

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