The Royals earned a solid 9-7 series-opening win over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday at Guaranteed Rate Field, but make no mistake: this September will be about determining the roster by Spring Training in 2023.
Granted, Mike Matheny benched MJ Melendez for a second-straight game for undisclosed reasons (Royals.com beat writer Anne Rogers hinted that it had nothing to do with health). Furthermore, Ryan O’Hearn was tabbed not only as Kansas City’s DH but cleanup hitter as well (he went 1-for-5). Even despite those puzzling moves from Tuesday, it is likely that every lineup or pitching decision that Matheny will trot out over the next month of play will be key in terms of identifying which Royals players can be depended on in the long term.
One interesting roster decision the Royals will need to make this offseason centers on a pitcher who is currently on the IL and may not play much, if at all, over the last month of play.
That player is none other than (likely) future Royals Hall of Famer Zack Greinke, who not only returned to Kansas City this offseason but will be turning 39 years old in October after the season is concluded.
Over this past week, Greinke has been the hot topic of many Royals talk shows, as Royals Review noted in their post today, whether it’s been with 610 Royals Insider Josh Vernier or Cody and Gold, who runs the midday show at 610 AM radio.
Here’s the interview Vernier had with Bob Fescoe of the”Fescoe in the Morning” show at 610 AM on August 29th, as Vern mentioned that GM JJ Picollo expressed that the Royals are considering bringing Greinke back for the 2023 season.
The possibility of Greinke is an interesting, if not polarizing, scenario for Royals fans.
On one end, Greinke’s return to Kansas City has been a lot of fun, and it certainly feels like he and the city have buried the hatchet after they parted in 2011, when the Royals traded Greinke to the Milwaukee Brewers in a blockbuster deal that pretty much solidified the Royals’ World Series core (the deal netted the Royals Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, and Jake Odorizzi was a key part of the deal with Tampa Bay that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City). It also seems like Greinke’s been a Royals beat writer’s dream this season, as he has frequently been the center of many intriguing clubhouse stories throughout the season.
On the other end though, the Royals need to field a much better squad than the one they composed in 2022.
The Royals are probably better than their 53-77 record indicates, especially with young players such as Melendez, Bobby Witt, Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, Nick Pratto, and Michael Massey firmly in place in the lineup on a regular basis. And yet, the Royals’ biggest Achilles heel this season has been their pitching staff, especially the rotation, which ranks 26th in ERA and 27th in WHIP, as of Wednesday, according to Fangraphs. The Royals need anchors in the rotation in 2023 that they can trust, and at 39 years old, it doesn’t seem entirely clear that Greinke can do that.
But then again, it’s not like the Royals have a whole lot of internal options either. While Brady Singer has been solid (last night’s start against the White Sox notwithstanding), Daniel Lynch, Brad Keller, Kris Bubic, Jon Heasley, Carlos Hernández, and Jackson Kowar have failed to add much stability or consistency to the rotation this season. While Greinke is no longer the “ace” that he once was when he first started in the Major Leagues, he could hold down the middle to end of the rotation next season in what could be his final “hurrah” in professional baseball.
And that could be enough to keep Greinke in Kansas City for at least one more season, even though it should cost a lot less than the $13 million his contract earned him in 2022.
Lack of K’s, but Still Premium Control
There’s no question that Greinke isn’t generating the K or swings and misses that he once did when he was an annual competitor for the Cy Young award in both the American and National League.
If one looks at his rolling K chart since 2015 via Baseball Savant (posted below), Greinke has been seeing a steady decline in K rate starting last season. He pretty much bottomed out in terms of K rate not just at the end of last season with Houston, but at the start of this season as well.
Even though Greinke has seen a spike in K rate over the course of the 2022 season, it is still nowhere close to MLB average, or even his own average K rate in 2021. For the year, his 5.30 K/9 is not only a career-low for Greinke but also the lowest mark for him in that category since his sophomore season in the bigs back in 2005, according to Fangraphs.
And it’s not just the K’s that have been down for Greinke this year, but swings and misses in general.
Greinke’s whiff rate of 18.2 percent is 3.6 percent lower than a year ago, and 9.5 percent lower than his mark in 2020. In terms of CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate, his 25.6 percent CSW rate is the second-lowest of his career and the worst percentage since 2006 (when it was 23.4 percent). After four straight seasons of 29 percent or over CSW rates from 2017-2020 (which is good for a starting pitcher), Greinke has seen a decline in CSW in 2021 and 2022, as evidenced by the 26.7 and 25.6 percent marks (the trend can be further explored in Greinke’s plate discipline metrics below).
While the swing-and-miss data doesn’t favor a Greinke return to Kansas City, his ability to generate called strikes and limit walks still makes Greinke a valuable asset to the rotation in 2023, especially for a pitching staff that ranks last in the league in BB/9 this season, as of Monday.
Greinke’s 4.5 percent walk rate ranks in the 94th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. Additionally, of Royals starting pitchers with 10 or more IP, Greinke not only ranked first in BB/9 at 1.74, but he also had the best first-strike percentage as well at 63.9 percent.
The Royals rank last in the league in first-strike percentage with a 57.7 percent mark, according to Fangraphs. Thus, the Royals pitching staff in 2023 needs as many pitchers as possible who can pound the strike zone and limit free passes on the basepaths (even if it comes at the expense of strikeouts).
And in this case, Greinke fits the Royals’ dire need quite nicely.
A Revitalized Pitch Mix? (Fueled by the Cutter?)
Greinke has always sported a diverse pitch mix throughout his career, as he has thrown nine different pitches to hitters since 2008, according to Savant pitch tracking data.
Last season, Greinke pretty much relied on his four-seamer (39.9 percent usage), changeup (22.3 percent usage), curveball (16.4 percent), and slider (15.2 percent). In 2022 though, while the four-seamer has continued to be a primary pitch for Greinke (38.1 percent), he has upped the usage of his curveball (19.7 percent), while decreasing the usage of his changeup (15.9 percent) and slider (10.2 percent). Royals fans have also seen the return of a cutter from Greinke, which he has thrown 13 percent of the time this year (he had not thrown a cutter since 2019).
Here is a look at his career pitch tracking chart, and notice those jumps in curveball and cutter usage.
What’s interesting to note is that his four-seamer and curveball have been quite effective on a run value end, as they have combined for a run value of -15, according to Savant.
On the other hand, his changeup and slider have combined for a run value of +12, and his cutter hasn’t been all that consistent either, as it is producing a run value of +3.
All the run value data on his pitches can be seen in the table below.
On a positive note with the cutter, while the run value isn’t great, the other metrics suggest that his cutter has the potential to be more effective.
His cutter is generating a 22.9 percent whiff rate, and 17.9 percent K rate, which are the best marks respectively of any of the six pitches he’s thrown this year. In addition, his hard-hit rate allowed on the cutter is only 41.5 percent, which ranks third of his six pitches this season (behind his curveball and slider, which sport 30.2 percent and 34.7 percent hard-hit rates, respectively).
Here’s an example of Greinke utilizing the cutter effectively in a strikeout of the Angels’ Brandon Marsh at Kauffman Stadium on July 25th.
And here’s an example of Greinke inducing Arizona’s Jake Hager to “sword” strike out on a cutter low in the zone back on May 23rd at Chase Field.
What is interesting about the cutter is that nearly all of the hits that Greinke has given up on the pitch have not hurt him too badly. Here’s a look at all the base hits Greinke has allowed on the cutter this year, and notice that they are pretty all singles with the exception of two instances.
It’s also interesting to note that after his home run allowed on the cutter to Teoscar Hernandez on July 15th, he has kept the exit velocity on batted balls pretty reasonable on base hits. Of the seven base hits allowed on the cutter since July 15th, only two could be classified as “hard hits” (i.e. 95 MPH or higher). When he has thrown the cutter as of late (especially in August), they haven’t been “damaging” hits by any stretch of the imagination (i.e. extra base ones).
Thus, Greinke’s embracing of the cutter and his improved command of it over the course of the year could hint at him perhaps sustaining his performance from 2022 into 2023 (as long as he’s healthy of course).
What Could Prevent a Return?
What’s been pretty remarkable about Greinke’s performance this year is how well he’s pitched at Kauffman Stadium in comparison to on the road. Here’s a look at Home/Away splits, via Fangraphs:
Greinke’s home ERA is 4.35 points LOWER than his ERA on the road which is pretty remarkable. He seems to not only benefit from the pitcher-friendly yard (only one home run at the K in comparison to 13 on the road), but he also seems to command the ball better at home as well (3.33 K/BB ratio at the K in comparison to a 2.83 K/BB ratio away).
But, what could get in the way of a Greinke return to the Royals in 2023?
Well, a big roadblock could be Greinke himself.
Does he want to continue to play baseball next year? Or will Greinke call it a career after struggling through injuries in 2022 (he has only pitched 108.2 innings this year)? After this latest IL stint, Greinke may be tired of the recovery process, especially if this latest injury puts him out for a while this offseason.
The next possible roadblock could depend on the contract offer the Royals would give him next year.
It’s doubtful the Royals will want to re-sign Greinke at $13 million per year as they did in 2022. That AAV amount for this year made sense, especially since he was a pretty good pitcher still back in 2020. But after two sub-par years? He really should be earning somewhere in the $8-10 million AAV mark, and that’s even generous as it is, considering his injury issues this year.
Will he accept that, especially in a market where pitchers are commanding very high AAV marks? That is another question that remains unanswered for now, though the picture will become quite clearer when the season ends for the Royals in early October.
A Greinke return to Kansas City isn’t a slam dunk by any means. There still are a lot of roster pieces that need to fall or be sorted out before Picollo and Dayton Moore address Greinke’s future with the Royals (the good news is that there probably won’t be as many suitors as a year ago).
Greinke coming back for one more season in Kansas City wouldn’t be the worst thing for this club, even if they are looking to build and win with youth next year and beyond…
In fact, it could be a good thing for the Royals in the short and long term, especially considering the impact he has had on the young pitchers in terms of his presence and informal mentoring as well as his connection with the loyal Royals fanbase.
However, the Royals need a somewhat healthy Greinke in 2023 to make such a one-year deal worth it.
Another 108-inning season won’t cut it this time around.
Photo Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports