Zack Greinke is in Total Control
In 2004, Greinke was the Royals' pitcher of the year as a rookie at age 20
Greinke took two months off in '06; he was found to have social anxiety disorder
Nobody has scored off Greinke since Sept. 13 of last year, seven starts ago
This story appears in the May 4th, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
First pitch: Fastball up and away. Ball one
There's a riddle that has followed Zack Greinke ever since he made it to the big leagues five years ago. He was a 20-year-old Kansas City Royals pitcher who was being called, among other things, a genius, a prodigy, the future of pitching. The riddle was posed by Greinke himself: What do you follow, your mind or your arm?
"Sometimes my arm wants to throw a hard fastball," he says, "but my brain doesn't want to throw it that hard."
This was typical Zack Greinke. He was unlike any 20-year-old major leaguer anyone had ever seen. From the start he could do magical things with a baseball. He was the Royals' pitcher of the year as a rookie, the youngest in franchise history, and that's rare enough -- a quick glance through history shows how few 20-year-olds there are who have been ready to retire big league hitters.
But it was the way that he got hitters out that distinguished Greinke: He worked out of his first big league jam by throwing a 58-mph curveball that Oakland's Eric Chavez dribbled to second base. That season he fooled Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams and home plate umpire Doug Eddings with a quick pitch that Eddings later allowed he might have missed. Most of all, he refused to throw hard.
"Let it go," everyone told him. Greinke readily admitted that at his unleashed best, he could throw his fastball 95 mph, maybe 96. But in games, facing the best hitters in the world, he would instead throw the ball 89 or 86 or 84, depending on his mood.
Let it go. That's what the coaches said, what his teammates thought, what they barked on talk radio and scribbled in the paper. But they didn't understand that Greinke had control at those lesser speeds. He could make the baseball do what he wanted at those speeds. If he really unleashed himself, well, there was no telling what would happen.
"Who wins the clash between your brain and the arm?" reporters once asked him.
"I dunno," he said.
Five years later, so much has changed. Zack Greinke has been a phenom, and he has been a bust. He has walked away from baseball, and he has come back. He has been a starter and a reliever, a genius and a flake, and even now he's still only 25 years old.
And, for the moment, Greinke is the best pitcher in baseball. On the last Friday in April, he stares down Detroit's Miguel Cabrera, who leads the league in hitting. Nobody is on base. Nobody has scored a run off Greinke all year. Nobody has scored off Greinke since Sept. 13 of last year, seven starts ago. Greinke begins his windup and turns his back to Cabrera, and then his right arm comes forward and fires his fastball, which pops the glove. It's all out, 94 mph, fully unleashed.
Second pitch: 80-mph slider, belt high, a called strike
Zack Greinke always had a talent for looking bored. Everyone noticed it. Scouts, in fact, wrote those words, "He looks bored," on their reports again and again. During interviews Greinke would stare at the ceiling, as if the answers could be divined from the tiles. Before games Greinke would sit in front of his locker and look off into the distance.
"Zack," a teammate once said to him, "I'm having this charity golf tournament. Was hoping you might play in it."
Greinke paused, as if considering the request. Then he said, "No. Why would I do that?"
The teammate shrugged, laughed, walked off. Just Zack being Zack.
Before he made his debut in Oakland in May 2004, Greinke put on his warmup jacket and walked out of the clubhouse. Where was he going? Nobody knew. "He's probably sleeping somewhere," his teammate Brian Anderson said.
"I don't mean this as a knock on the kid," says former Royals general manager Allard Baird, "but it truly is just a game to him. You talk about poise and those type of things, but with Zack from the very start, he was just going out there and playing the game. And whether he won the game or lost the game, he really wasn't any different."
Maybe it was because Greinke never wanted to pitch. He got a kick out of hitting home runs -- one of his favorite stories involves a home run derby he won in high school. Greinke only became a fulltime pitcher during his senior year at Apopka (Fla.) High because he was too good not to become one. That season he had an 0.55 ERA, struck out 118 and walked eight, and he was named the Gatorade national high school player of the year.
"Yeah, I could dominate right away," he says, not to brag but to explain. His first full year in the minor leagues, he went 15-4 with a 1.93 ERA and a 112-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He was the best pitching prospect in baseball. A year later he was the Royals' pitcher of the year.
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