There was no question that this upcoming series at Kauffman Stadium against the Houston Astros was going to be a difficult one for the Royals. After all, the Astros lead the AL West by 8 games after today’s 6-1 win over the Royals, are 97-53, and are trying to position themselves for the top spot in the American League as they enter the postseason. The Royals on the other hand are currently 55-94 and only avoiding the AL Central cellar due to the lackluster Detroit Tigers. For Kansas City fans, avoiding a sweep by the Astros would be enough for celebration, which looks difficult to do after the Astros thoroughly outclassed the boys in blue in the first two games of the series.
Hence, the main story line of this series had nothing to do with the two teams or the overall series itself. Rather, the main story line of this September series between one of the best teams in baseball and one of the worst teams in baseball in 2019 centered on Saturday night’s contest, specifically on pitcher Zack Greinke, the 2009 Cy Young winner who spent seven seasons in Kansas City before being traded to Milwaukee during the 2012 season.
And once again, Greinke shined on the big stage at the K and continued to add to his complicated legacy in Kansas City.
Greinke was once again stunning on Saturday night at Kauffman, something Royals fans remember when he was mowing down guys during his seven years in the Royals blue and white. This year has been another classic Greinke season: he’s on pace to top 200 innings pitched for the third straight season, he’s on a World Series contender, and he’s doing it without top-shelf stuff. For the second straight season, his fastball velocity is under 90 MPH. And yet it doesn’t seem to matter, as he is relying on his fastball less than ever before (he’s only throwing it 41.5 percent of the time according to PitchInfo data on Fangraphs). It’s his breaking stuff and pinpoint command on it that’s leading to success in 2019 and resulting in him making hitters silly like Jorge Soler in the clip below.
Greinke’s stat line tonight may not look elite or as sexy as Gerrit Cole’s on Friday evening, but it’s still impressive nonetheless: 6 IP, 1 ER, 1 BB, 7 K on 95 pitches. He kept Royals hitters off balance all evening, and even when he allowed Nicky Lopez to score on a Whit Merrifield triple, the 35-year-old right hander didn’t lose his composure, and kept mowing guys down, en route to the win thanks to Royals starter Mike Montgomery unraveling in the 6th. Greinke didn’t let the early run bother him, as he probably knows there are bigger moments on the horizon, especially in the postseason, where the Astros will be looking to slug it out with the Yankees for an American League pennant.
And at the same time, it’s tough as a Royals fan to see Greinke sit down the Royals in efficient fashion in 2019. It’s tough because in some ways, Greinke should have always been a Royal, but without his trade, it’s likely the Royals would have never broken through for pennants in 2014 and 2015, and the magical World Series in 2015.
And that’s why Greinke’s legacy is complicated for many Royals fans.
First off, as an individual pitcher, one can argue that Greinke was one of the best ever to take the bump in Kansas City, which is an impressive feat considering this organization has seen pitchers like Brett Saberhagen and David Cone in the City of Fountains. His 2009 Cy Young season still ranks up there as one of the best seasons a Royals starting pitcher has ever had. The stats speak for themselves: 16-8 record, 2.16 ERA, 2.33 FIP, 8.7 WAR. That season the Royals’ second-best pitcher was Brian Bannister, a mediocre No.2/3 starter, and their third-best pitcher was closer Joakim Soria, both according to WAR. Combined, their WAR was 3.9.
That’s right: 3.9 WAR. Greinke was worth almost double than the second and third best pitchers combined. That’s how valuable he was to a Royals club that went 65-97 in 2009. Without Greinke, not only do the Royals lose 100-plus games, but they might have given the ’62 Mets as one of the worst teams in baseball history that season as well.
And yet, ask a lot of Royals fans about Greinke’s legacy, and it largely is one that tends to lean toward the negative. Royals fans didn’t like how he asked to get traded a season after his Cy Young campaign. Royals fans like to point out that Greinke netted shortstop Alcides Escobar, outfielder Lorenzo Cain, and pitcher Jake Odorizzi (who ended up netting Wade Davis and James Shields), who were key pieces to the World Series runs of 2014 and 2015. It’s common to see Royals circles mention that while the Royals have won a World Series since he was traded, Greinke has failed to do so.
It’s a hot and cold relationship when it comes to Royals fans and Greinke. And yet, it probably shouldn’t be. It would have been nice to see Greinke finish his career in Kansas City, akin to Felix Hernandez of Seattle, who dominated and won a Cy Young despite playing on non-competitive Mariners teams. But even though he ended up moving on from KC, Greinke electrified Royals crowds during a time when it wasn’t exactly the easiest to be a Royals fan. Furthermore, what Greinke went through wasn’t exactly easy by any stretch of the imagination: in addition to his frustrations of carrying a struggling club, he struggled with mental health issues and was criticized for it unfairly by the fans and media, a product of an era that didn’t value mental health as a serious issue just yet.
Ryan Heffernon put it eloquently in his piece today on Royals Review when talking about the expectation for maybe Greinke’s last start at the K:
His story and legacy go beyond baseball, and it would be a shame if we neglected that. Did he want out of Kansas City? Sure. Was he justified in wanting out? Of course. It stung, but both sides were better for it. At the end of the day, Greinke is one of the best athletes to every play in Kansas City and he might just wind up wearing a Royals cap when he makes his way to Cooperstown…He is perfectly unique, hilarious, and fun. There are so many amazing stories. The Alex Gordon/Jeremy Affeldt stories. “No.” The 50-MPH curveball…So, when he takes the mound tonight, stand up and clap. Clap loud. And don’t take for granted that it might be the last time he pitches at Kauffman Stadium.Ryan Heffernon, “What is Zack Greinke’s legacy in Kansas City?”, Royals Review
As I watched Greinke keep the Royals at bay tonight, it definitely was bittersweet. Yes, I want this Royals club to win and finish the year strong. It’s kind of my duty as a Kansas City Royals fan. I want to see Soler make a run at 50 home runs. I want Ryan O’Hearn and Nicky Lopez to show that they’re worth being in the mix for starting jobs in 2020.
Ad yet, it was hard not to feel somewhat good for Greinke as he flourished on a warm Saturday night at the K. Yes, there wasn’t a great crowd in attendance. Yes, the Astros are probably looking more forward to their next series against the A’s, who are fighting for a Wild Card playoff spot. But despite this series probably not mattering much to the Astros team overall, it probably meant something to Greinke, and he rose to the occasion and delivered a sterling performance that showcased his development and growth as one of the better and more under-appreciated pitchers in the game.
He may not have the Royals fanfare of Moose or Hoz or LoCain or Wade Davis or Salvy.
But in my mind, especially as I watched him tonight throw another gem at the K, Greinke should be seen by Royal fans as “Always Royal.”