Zack Greinke Returns to the Royals…And It Just Feels Right

Not too long after the Royals traded Mike Minor to Cincinnati for Amir Garrett, Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo shocked the baseball world by announcing this free-agent starting pitcher signing:

The Royals didn’t sign Greinke to a long-term contract, as they inked him to a one-year, $13 million dollar deal with incentives based on innings pitched, as USA Today’s Bob Nightengale posted on Twitter shortly after the deal was announced:

At 38-years-old, it makes sense why Greinke and Royals agreed to just a one-year contract.

Greinke is entering the twilight years of his career, as this may be his last season or two in the Major Leagues, depending on how it goes in Kansas City in 2022. As for the Royals, with so much invested in their young pitching core, they are in need of a veteran starting pitcher who cannot only give productive innings at the top of the rotation but also help mentor a green staff that went through their fair shares of ups and downs in 2021.

Thankfully for the Royals, Greinke kills both of those birds with one stone.

That being said, this isn’t just a “James Shields-esque” deal, as was the case leading into the 2013 season. Yes, Shields and Greinke will serve similar roles on the Royals pitching staff. On the other hand, Shields was an outsider in his prime who provided a shot in the arm to a Royals franchise that was in desperate need of rejuvenation, especially after not making the postseason since 1985.

Greinke’s situation is different. He’s not in his prime. He won’t be here in Kansas City beyond 2022.

But Greinke means so much more to the Royals fans and Kansas City as a whole, especially considering all he did and went through for the Royals from 2004 through 2010, a dark period for Kansas City baseball.

This is a homecoming for Greinke…

And, as Royals fans, we are counting the days until his arrival back on the mound at Kauffman Stadium, which most likely will be on Opening Day on April 7th against the Cleveland Guardians.

It sounds like Greinke’s return to Kansas City has been a long time coming, as Moore talked about in an interview with the media shortly after the announcement of the trade:

There is no question that Greinke has had an elite, if not Hall-of-Fame-caliber career since he left Kansas City after the 2010 season.

From 2011 to 2021, Greinke has pitched for the Brewers, Angels, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, and Astros. Over that time span, not only has he appeared in 320 games and pitched 2002 total innings, but he has averaged a 3.19 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, a K/9 of 8.4, and a K/BB ratio of 4.35.

Furthermore, he has also made the All-Star game five times, and accumulated six Gold Gloves to boot. And even though his lone Cy Young award came in 2009 while he was pitching in Kansas City, he finished high in Cy Young voting four times (2013-2015; 2017).

Over the past decade, Greinke has been one of baseball’s best pitchers, and he has done it in his own way, even if it has been atypical and a bit odd in the process.

Now, Greinke is not quite the pitcher he was during his Royals days.

Last season with the Astros, Greinke posted an ERA of 4.16, his works mark since 2016, his first season with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In addition, he only threw 171 innings and generated a 1.2 bWAR, the latter his lowest mark in that category of a full season since the 2012 season, his lone season with the Angels.

Also, his percentiles from 2021 via Baseball Savant don’t paint the picture of a pitcher who was once an annual Cy Young candidate in both the American and National League:

It will be a different Greinke on the mound in 2022 in Kansas City.

Granted, that is not a bad thing. Greinke has grown to be a craftier pitcher on the mound the past few seasons, even though his stuff isn’t as dominant as it once was.

Last season, Greinke’s four-seam fastball only averaged 88.9 MPH. And yet, despite the sub-90 MPH velocity, he threw it 39.9 percent of the time and generated a run value of -4 on it, the second-best pitch in his arsenal on a run value end last season (only his changeup was better at -6).

Yes, the swings and misses aren’t as plentiful on the four-seamer as before, as evidenced by the 11.9 percent whiff rate and 17.4 percent K rate on the pitch in 2021. That being said, Greinke has become better at pairing the pitch with his changeup and generating called strikes with the four-seamer as well.

Here’s a look at the CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate data on his four-seamer from a season ago via Pitcher List. As evidenced in the table, he still posted a plus CSW rate, despite a meager swinging strike rate:

In addition, here’s an example of Greinke showcasing pinpoint command on his four-seamer, as he paints it low in the zone on a 3-2 count to get Arizona’s Josh Rojas looking in a September 19th game at Minute Maid Park.

The big question though with his fastball will be this: can he limit the barrels on the pitch in 2022?

Last season, his four-seamer was hit hard early on, but he was able to neutralize those barrels in the middle months of the season. Unfortunately though, during the last month of play, his barrel rate sharply spiked up, which can be seen in the graph below via Baseball Savant:

That barrel rate increase in September was a big reason why Greinke’s 5.34 second-half ERA was nearly two points higher than his first-half ERA. That being said, Greinke wasn’t necessarily fully healthy either, as he only made 11 appearances and pitched 55.2 innings after the All-Star break.

Therefore, Greinke’s health will be key to watch, and his four-seamer effectiveness this Spring and early on in 2022 could give Royals fans an indicator of where Greinke’s health is leaning.

The Royals will need Greinke to perform on the mound to make his one-year deal worthwhile. Nonetheless, the intangibles of Greinke’s return also should be put into consideration when evaluating the value of this Royals free agent signing.

There’s no question Greinke will be a positive influence on Royals starting pitchers in 2022. Greinke has been through the trials and tribulations of not just being a top pitching prospect in baseball but being a top pitching prospect in the Royals system, specifically.

Additionally, Greinke is known for imparting his wisdom to other players, even if it may be in somewhat awkward or uncanny ways. Greinke is truly a student of the game and he connects with other players and pitchers who are also passionate about getting better.

For young starters such as Kris Bubic, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar who are looking to take the next step at the Major League level, Greinke’s guidance will undoubtedly be beneficial in their maturation process. His mentoring won’t be the same as Shields or even Danny Duffy, who was traded last season to the Dodgers. That being said, it will still be effective and valued by fellow Royals players as well as management.

Lastly, the return of Greinke to Kansas City is a “feel-good” story that is much-needed for this Royals fanbase, and maybe Greinke himself.

Royals fans are looking for more signs of positive progress after five straight losing seasons. Greinke is looking to find a place where he can ride off into the sun, and Kansas City seems to be the perfect place, especially since the Royals are the organization that drafted him.

Even Greinke himself has embraced his homecoming to Kansas City via Twitter:

Thus, the Royals bringing back Greinke for 2022 is a win-win for everyone involved.

Sure, the Royals could have gotten a veteran pitcher more in their prime. They could have traded prospects to Oakland for Frankie Montas or Sean Manaea, as was rumored earlier in the day.

But instead, they paid a little more for Greinke via free agency and kept all their key prospects in this process (in addition to shedding an expensive expiring contract Mike Minor through the Garrett trade).

The Royals are in great shape for not just 2022 but beyond.

It may not be more than an 80 to 82-win season in Kansas City next year. They most likely will miss out on the playoffs, even though their young players will see considerable growth and opportunity, which is a win in itself.

However, with Greinke at the helm pitching-wise, I guarantee that this upcoming season will be one to remember for Royals fans…

And hopefully for Greinke as well.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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