This story appears in the May 4th, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated. Zack Greinke deserves a lot of credit for overcoming his mental demons to become one of baseball's best pitchers in 2009. It is nice to see the "good news" stories in sports....
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.
It didn't mean all that much to him, though. Before he even made it to the big leagues, he had told reporters that his first win would be O.K., but that his first home run would be special. It would certainly prove to be memorable, occurring as it did on perhaps the worst pitching day of his life, in June 2005 against Arizona. He gave up 15 hits and 11 runs in just 4 1/3 innings. But on Greinke's first at-bat he hit a long fly ball to the wall in right. In his next at-bat Greinke crushed a long home run to left.
"I remember when he hit that home run, [manager] Buddy [Bell] walked to the top step and looked up at me in the press box with his hands out," Baird says. "And it was like, You have got to be kidding me."
Third pitch: 71-mph curveball, down and in, foul ball
Here's another Greinke story: During a dreadful 2005 season in which he would finish with a 5-17 record and a 5.80 ERA, Brian Anderson remembers Greinke once suddenly announcing in the dugout, "I'm going to throw a 50-mph curveball next inning." That was all he said.
Next inning, Greinke threw a preposterously slow curve to Detroit's Dmitri Young, the kind that made the whole crowd shout "Oooh." Anderson stuck his head out of the dugout to get the reading. It was precisely 50 mph.
The incident says something about Greinke's quirkiness and a virtuoso's feel for pitching, but it reveals more than that, too. It shows that Greinke was in trouble. He hated pitching so much that he had to invent little games to keep himself from crumbling. Everything was falling apart. He feuded with his pitching coach, Guy Hansen, who wanted him to move five inches to the left on the rubber. Never close to his teammates, he became even more distant, occasionally hostile.
Off the field it was worse. The simplest tasks overwhelmed him. He dreaded coming to the ballpark. Greinke talked with friends and family about becoming a full-time position player so that he could get to hit or, perhaps, taking up professional golf. He often talked with his family about it being another gray day.
The following spring training Greinke felt so distracted, he could not even concentrate on pitching. During one bullpen session his mind raced and he could not throw a strike. The next time out the results were no better. On a February morning in 2006 Greinke met with Bell and Baird and said that he needed to get away from baseball.
And here is where everything turned. Baseball is not a game known for understanding or compassion. The gentle relief pitcher for the Royals, Dan Quisenberry, wrote a poem about his manager Dick Howser, the refrain being Howser's quote for every occasion: "Piss on it." That was Howser's answer for losses, for slumps, for bad pitching performances, for anything gone wrong. Piss on it. Get 'em tomorrow.
And that's the image of the big league game: cold, hard, rub some dirt on it, walk it off, there's no crying in baseball, Texas manager Billy Martin once telling Mike Hargrove that Hargrove could not take off to attend his father-in-law's funeral because "that's not immediate family."
That's the game Bell and Baird grew up in. But on that February morning, they saw a young pitcher in pain, and they told him to go home and stop thinking about baseball. "There's business and there's personal," says Baird, now a special assistant with the Boston Red Sox. "And most times in the game, business comes ahead of personal. But I think in this situation, we were talking something bigger than business. There's right and wrong, and I don't think there was any gray area here."
Greinke took two months off, during which he was found to have social anxiety disorder, a condition marked by tension in social settings. He began taking medication, which made a big difference. He began to think more positively about baseball, too, which made a big difference. When he returned to pitch that June, at Double-A Wichita, he found himself enjoying the experience. He started to throw as hard as he could.
"I had just taken the job in Kansas City," says current Royals G.M. Dayton Moore. "I didn't even have an office. And then I get a page on my cellphone that Zack Greinke is here to see me. We sit down, talk for 30 or 40 minutes, he told me he was doing fine, but all through the conversation he kept saying that he really enjoyed being in Wichita.
"Allard Baird is not only a great evaluator [of talent], but he's also a very caring person. Buddy too. Lots of people cared about Zack."
Fourth pitch: 97-mph fastball, up and away. Ball two
Let it go. The first thing everyone noticed about the new Zack Greinke was how much harder he threw. The 89-mph fastball climbed to 98. His delivery had a couple of extra twists in it and a bit more violence. And right away, he was awfully good. He started seven games at the end of '07 and had a 1.85 ERA. In 2008 he was fifth in the league in strikeouts (183) and 10th in ERA (3.47).
Zack was still Zack, though. Another story: In 2007, when third baseman Alex Gordon was a rookie, he struggled terribly at the start. Before Gordon's seventh game, Greinke pulled his teammate into the video room and showed him a clip. It was of Greinke hitting his home run. "In case you forgot," Greinke said, "this is what a home run looks like." Gordon hit his first big league homer that night.
This year Greinke has been otherworldly. After his Friday start against Detroit, he led the league in victories (four), ERA (0.00), complete games (two), strikeouts (36) and shutouts (one), though he did give up one unearned run. "I know it's fashionable to say he learned how to pitch," Baird says, "but I don't buy it. The guy had a great feel for pitching from the start. I think he's just in a good place mentally. He wants to compete. People talk about 'Does he love to pitch?' I think he likes to pitch. But this guy loves to compete."
So what about the riddle -- the mind or the arm? Well, there are no easy answers to a good riddle. Greinke stares at Miguel Cabrera, and his mind could be telling him anything. For his fifth pitch he could throw his slow curve again, or he could throw the hard slider that's his God-given gift. He could also throw his suddenly devastating changeup -- that's the pitch he spent all of spring training throwing even though hitters battered it like crazy.
"He didn't care about the results," Moore says. "He just wanted to get a feel for the changeup. That's what's so amazing about Zack. He doesn't need the changeup to be good. He's already good. He worked on it because it can help make him great. And that's what the great ones do."
Greinke may have considered all those pitches or he may not have considered any of them. He begins his windup, turns his back to build the extra power, and he's let it go. The fastball is 96 mph. Miguel Cabrera may be the best fastball hitter in the American League, but he cannot catch up. Strikeout.
"I've come a long way," Greinke says into the camera after the game ends. That's the surprising answer to the riddle. Now Zack Greinke can let it go. He'll throw it as hard as he can, a young man in control. Sometimes the arm and mind both win.