If this post had been titled the Astros Quiet Assassin, it might have been talking about Michael Brantley, who has been a force this season when he was not dealing with a quadriceps injury. But adding the word quirky in there points to only one player, the enigmatic Zack Greinke.
In the last couple months of 2019, Greinke pitched extremely well for the Astros, going 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA. And he was completely overlooked as the #1 and #2 pitchers in the rotation, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole battled tooth and nail for the Cy Young Award. That battle included Verlander’s September no-hitter (thank you Abraham Toro) and Cole winning 16 straight decisions. He almost grabbed the spotlight as he pitched brilliantly in the 7th game of the World Series, entering the 7th inning with a one-hitter and leaving with a 2-1 lead. However, that spotlight shifted as the bullpen lost the lead and the game and the focus turned to what would have happened if Gerrit Cole had entered in the seventh inning in place of the eventual loser, Will Harris. No one asked what would have happened if Greinke had been allowed to work through the rest of the 7th inning.
Turn the page to 2020 and with Cole in New York and Verlander in dry dock, you would think that Greinke would be the story as the team’s veteran ace. But between COVID and protests and hurricanes and the emergence of young arms like Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, Greinke has continued to toil almost unnoticed. But just like in 2019 and just like for almost his whole career, Greinke has been quietly solid this season with a 3-0 record and a 2.91 ERA. Among qualified pitchers in the AL he is 8th in ERA, 6th in WHIP (0.971), 3rd best in walks allowed (1.4/ 9 IP), and 5th in K’s/ walk (6.29). In his eight starts this season, he has only had one subpar start, that being the first where he seemed not quite prepared and low on stamina and gave up 3 runs in 3.1 IP. Since then he has been super steady and a little unlucky as he received a no-decision against the A’s (6 IP and 0 runs allowed) and Colorado (8 IP and 0 runs allowed).
His pitching style probably contributes to his lack of recognition as he is all about location, mixing pitches and topping out most days at 89 mph. Not quite the 99 mph of Cole or the 97 mph of Verlander.
The most recognition he gets is for his quirkiness. It is hard to keep track of it all, but here is a shot at things we have seen since he arrived, especially in 2020 when the lack of fans allows us to see and hear a lot more from him on the mound. This year there were discussions about how he was “calling” his game from the mound prior to pitches, how he often yells out when he throws a pitch where it does not belong, how he throws some of the slowest stuff (54 mph curveball) in the majors at times, how he likes to do that weird crouch down on the mound, how he was uncomfortable with how the mound was set up in San Diego but did not have it fixed right away because he did not want to slow the game down on the get-away day, how he sat cross-legged on the ground watching the ground crew do repairs, and how he has some of the frankest and oddest post-game interviews around.
One of my favorite writers, Joe Posnanski, wrote a bit about him with the D’Backs and I find it a fascinating portrait of an inscrutable person.
But again what gets lost here is what a terrific ballplayer he is. He may be the best fielding pitcher to ever pitch for the Astros as he flashed so often in crucial spots in the 2019 World Series run. With the universal DH spot gaining momentum, we, unfortunately, may never get to see what a fine hitter he is again. When he was traded from the D’Backs in 2019 he was slashing .271 BA/.300 OBP/ .883 OPS with 4 doubles, 1 triple and 3 HRs.
But what he is best at is pitching. Watching him pitch is sometimes like watching a sleight of hand magician up close. How does he do it? He hardly ever leaves one over the heart of the plate. Often he does not put a single pitch over the plate to a hitter, but somehow he makes them think the pitches are going to be over the plate. He nips the corners, nudges up against the top and the bottom of the zone and often hypnotizes the umpires to give him a Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine strike zone. His 89 mph fastball is nothing to write home about, but it looks a lot faster when paired with a 65 mph curve on the outside corner.
The Astros rotation would be hurting without the contributions of the youngsters, but the foundation that the rotation builds upon in 2020 is a quirky, quiet assassin named Zack Greinke.