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Free Agent Profile: Zack Greinke

Should the Cardinals sign Greinke, or is Greinke toast?

Division Series - Houston Astros v Chicago White Sox - Game Three Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Last year, the Cardinals had one starting pitcher with an above average season. Their second best starter, Kwang-Hyun Kim, is now a free agent. They are relying on two pitchers who barely pitched last year, Dakota Hudson and Miles Mikolas, plus a third pitcher in Jack Flaherty who missed half the season. Their most reliable pitcher of the last few years will be 40-years-old. You could make the case that their safest pitcher then is Steven Matz. To me, they unquestionably need another starter.

The Cardinals seem to disagree or at least they seem to publicly disagree and privately hope to improve. In either case, they seem unlikely to add another starting pitcher. So there’s a good chance writing about free agent starters is a pointless exercise. But I want that to be false and writing about it is a way to delude myself into thinking it’s a possibility. And maybe Bill Dewitt is reading this. Hi Bill!

Today’s starter should be had at a reasonable cost. There are two reasons why he could be had at a reasonable cost and neither of them are good. He’s fairly old for one thing. He’s about to play in his age 38 season. He just arguably had his worst season of his MLB career as well, no small feat for a player who has been in the league since 2004. No matter how good a pitcher is throughout their career, a sharp downtick in performance at old age is, more likely than not, a sign they are truly done being a good pitcher.

On the other hand, there’s a reason he might be worth taking a chance on. And it’s because he’s Zack Greinke. Besides last year, he’s had at least 2 fWAR in every season of his career except 2006 when he pitched 6.1 IP. While his ERA was nothing to write home about in the shortened 2020, his advanced stats suggested he was no worse than he had been in the seasons since he turned 32.

And perhaps most importantly, there’s not a ton of risk. His 2021 wasn’t even that bad. He allowed an inflated amount of HRs due to a career high 17.4% HR/FB. At the very least, he should be expected to be better than that purely by playing half his games at Busch Stadium. Unfortunately, there’s a pretty good chance a 1.3 WAR season would be the 6th best pitcher we have. I mean on a rate basis too. The risk, from my point of view, is essentially that he’s the same quality of pitcher as the alternative options. Which doesn’t strike me as much of a risk. I realize a budget-conscious team might think differently.

So the question with Greinke is a very simple one: will he bounce back or is he just hanging on in the same way that Jon Lester or J.A. Happ was hanging on? Because if the choice is between the minors options and Happ, I choose minors. If the option is between a league average or better Greinke or minors, I choose Greinke. Because there is not a single starter in the minors where expecting league average performance in 2022 would be a smart move. Are they capable of it? Sure. But as a contending team, it’s simply too foolish an assumption. And that league average minor leaguer, if he exists, will end up starting games anyway.

Looking at Greinke’s individual pitches, nothing really stands out. He actually threw the ball faster last year (88.9 mph fastball) than he did in 2020 (87.1), though less than every other season of his career (next lowest fastball velocity: 89.6 in 2018). Similarly, his pitch movement doesn’t seem to ring any alarm bells. His fastball, defined as a sinker on Statcast, moved -0.8 inches below average, compared to -3.1 inches below average in 2020. His changeup dropped a little from +3.4 to +2.8.

As far as runs above average on the effectiveness of his pitches, his fastball improved by 4 runs, his slider declined by 3 runs, his curveball by 4, and his changeup improved by 2 runs. But look throughout his career and these kind of changes are extremely common. It’s difficult to read into these numbers as they could just be random variance (and if it wasn’t for his age, I would definitely say they are)

How about how hitters behaved against these pitches? Hitters had a .309 wOBA against him and an xwOBA of .320. Those numbers were .293 and .299 in 2020. It is concerning that his xwOBA was even worse than the actual wOBA because his career wOBA and xwOBA numbers are identical. That suggests he was in some way lucky to have the stats he did. On the other hand, in 2016, Greinke did have a .319 wOBA against, so it’s not like he hasn’t been successful with that kind of contact.

The average exit velocity against last year was 88.3 mph, which is not really meaningfully different than his career 87.7 mph. He allowed a barrel on 6.3% of his pitches, which is actually better than his career average of 6.5%. Hitters found their “sweet spot” percentage - essentially the ideal launch angle to produce the best results - on 35.3% of pitches, worse than his 32.9% average. He had a virtually identical percentage in 2018.

Perhaps most concerningly, he’s not striking hitters out anymore. His K% is his lowest since his 2005 season, which was when he was 21. Hitters don’t swing and miss as much. Obviously that correlates with his K%. His swinging strike% is 9.2%, which is his lowest since 2012. His swinging strike% of the last few years has been consistently in the 10.5% range. I don’t know that the difference would explain having a 23 or 24% K rate, as he did the last few seasons, and having a 17.2% K rate. I haven’t studied swinging strike% or K% or anything, but just gut feeling, it feels like that’s a bigger difference than expected. Hence, maybe why there’s some optimism for K% next year.

To summarize, no individual stat is specifically a cause for concern, but the fact that nearly every one of them is at or close to his worst season combines to make it a concern. Collectively everything is just a little off from the last few years, and when you combine everything, it makes sense how he had his worst season in years. And yet still, because everything is just a little off, I’m not really sure that’s a reason to write him off for 2022 either. It feels like if a pitcher is truly done, there’d be a bigger drop-off. It would show up in the stats more.

Well, what’s the contract he’s expected to get? That’s what it all comes down to. I suspect just about everybody would be all over a 1 year, $500K deal for Greinke, but as the price rises, the people okay with getting him drop. Visiting old VEB friend Ben Clemens in his Top 50 free agents piece on Fangraphs, both he and the crowdsourced guess think he’s looking at 1 year, which is a great start. Clemens sees $8 million, the fans see $11.5 million.

For what it’s worth, his ZiPS is optimistic. ZiPS has all the information I just presented, spits it in an algorithm and comes up with his expected 2022 performance based on historical comps. And I would absolutely sign Greinke to that deal if he performed like ZiPS expects. They foresee a 2.2 WAR season in 162 innings of work. Sign me the hell up. I would probably take the under on that figure honestly, but not by a whole lot.

But it’s not necessarily projections that make you decide whether to sign Greinke. It’s a useful tool for sure. But ZiPS didn’t think Matt Carpenter was done. You kind of have to go with gut instinct on older players and think “are they done?” And honestly, Greinke sort of feels like a Wainwright to me. Constantly adjusting, being able to figure out a way to get outs as his stuff declines. Someone who “knows how to pitch.”

So maybe one of you wished for the Cardinals to sign a future Hall of Fame pitcher, and declined to be more specific than that, and Greinke is the monkey’s paw. Well, I’d still thank you. I think the Cards should sign Greinke and he’d be perfect with the Cards’ defense and ballpark and for the current needs of the rotation, which could sure use someone with the reliability of Greinke. So come on Bill, give us Greinke when the lockout ends.