Baseball fans, most of us anyway, believe we know when we are watching a future Hall of Famer. We will watch a player like Clayton Kershaw or Michael Trout and say to our kids or our grandkids or someone who happens to be standing nearby: "Someday, you're going to see that guy in Cooperstown!"
Sometimes we're right: Kershaw and Trout will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame. Sometimes we're wrong. In the 1970s and '80s, for instance, people said things like that all the time about Steve Garvey, Pete Rose, Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela and Dale Murphy, but for one reason or another, none of them has been elected yet. Don't even get anyone started on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and those guys.
Meanwhile, other players whose greatness might have eluded us at the time -- such as Bert Blyleven, Tim Raines, Don Sutton and Alan Trammell -- have been elected to the Hall.
So it's a dangerous game thinking that you are seeing a future Hall of Famer in mid-career.
But I'm going to make the call right now: Zack Greinke is going to the Hall of Fame.
Greinke was just added to the All-Star Game roster on Thursday. It will be his fifth All-Star appearance. Greinke has some nice bonafides: He's a Cy Young Award winner, finished second another year, he's a two-time ERA champion and, this is crazy, he's only 34. But by year's end, Greinke could have a higher career WAR than Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Dennis Eckersley, Jim Bunning and certainly the short-career legends like Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford.
The thing about Greinke is … well, stop right there, there is no one "thing" about him. He's one of the most fascinating, strange and thought-provoking athletes I've covered in my way-too-long career. I'm going to police myself here and not just go off telling a bunch of Greinke stories, because the point here is something different.
So the thing about Greinke that fits our point here is that he's a thoroughly modern pitcher. Greinke-types simply did not exist before, say, 2000. Before then, pitchers completed games. Greinke doesn't. He has made 400 starts in his big league career, and he has completed 16 of them. In baseball history, only Kyle Lohse and Jeff Suppan have started 400 games and had a lower complete-game percentage:
- Lohse, 418 starts, 12 complete games, 2.2 percent
- Suppan, 417 starts, 16 complete games, 3.8 percent
- Greinke, 400 starts, 16 complete games, 4.0 percent
- John Lackey, 446 starts, 18 complete games, 4.04 percent
- Steve Trachsel, 417 starts, 20 complete games, 4.8 percent
Pitchers back then threw shutouts. Greinke doesn't. Well, he can't because he hardly ever completes games. Greinke has only five shutouts in his career, which old-timers will tell you is the same number of shutouts that Bob Gibson had. In 1968. In June.
Greinke lacks so many of the traditional touchstones that people reach for when thinking about all-time great pitchers. He has never won 20 games in a season -- heck, he has only won more than 17 once. Greinke has never struck out 250 in a season or pitched 230 innings or whatever old-fashioned standards are called to mind.
But this is the important part: Those are indeed old-fashioned standards … and outdated ones. The reason Greinke doesn't reach those standards is that the game has fundamentally changed. A starting pitcher isn't asked to complete games or throw shutouts or pitch 250 innings. He's asked to prevent runs until the bullpen can finish the job.
And what Greinke has done so well -- Hall of Fame well -- is prevent runs.
I will tell one Greinke story. When he was young, just coming up, he rebelled hard against the radar gun. It was one of the many interesting things about Greinke. He was one of the pitchers in the 2003 Futures Game -- a ridiculously loaded game, by the way, which featured Robinson Cano, Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Grady Sizemore and so on.
The other pitchers in the game, I mean every one of them, threw gas. Serious gas. Rich Harden pitched in that game, Gavin Floyd, Denny Bautista, Edwin Jackson, and it seemed like every one of them threw fastballs around 100 mph. Some topped 100. You get it. These are kids trying to prove themselves, it's their first moment on a big stage, the scouts are out with their radar guns, their families are watching on TV, their adrenaline is pumping, their hearts are pumping even faster, of course they throw 100 mph.
Greinke did not throw one pitch faster than 92 mph.
"Yeah, I can throw 95 or 98 or whatever," he said. "But why?"
But why. That's Greinke in two words. But why throw as hard as you can when getting people out is about so much more? But why worry about radar guns when pitching has so much more to do with control and movement and timing and game theory? He was only 19 then, but he already understood big and important things about pitching.
Greinke's career started rough for various reasons, among them his social anxiety, a general unhappiness and the not insubstantial fact that he was on a struggling team. He had an astonishingly bad and unlucky season in 2005 when he was 21 -- led the league in losses, had a 5.80 ERA, and he was utterly miserable. At the beginning of the 2006 season, Greinke quit baseball. He just couldn't deal with it anymore. Greinke considered for a time trying to come back as a shortstop. He also considered a career in professional golf. These were unhappy days.
It took Greinke two years to get himself together, to find a way to deal with the world, to reach the right balance in his pitching, to come to grips with his baseball life. In 2008, he started again and he was good. In '09, Greinke was incredible, that was his Cy Young Award-winning year and one of the best pitching seasons of the century so far.
And here it is: Since 2008, Greinke is 160-77 with a 3.13 ERA and a 4-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. That's pretty great. By Baseball Reference WAR, he is third, squeezed right between Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, with only five wins separating the three of them. Greinke is top 5 in ERA, strikeouts, strikeout-to-walk ratio, Fielding Independent Pitching and many more -- the only other pitcher who is top 5 in all those categories is Kershaw.
Greinke does it as only he can, by manipulating hitters. This year, his fastball is averaging slightly less than 90 mph. Throwing 89 always makes scouts and managers and general managers uncomfortable. But not Greinke. He knows that he gets people out with variety, not power. Greinke mixes that fastball with the changeup, the slider, the fast curve, the slow curve and the sinker. And it works.
Greinke gets people out with rhythm, by mixing up his deliveries, by holding on to the ball for a couple of extra seconds, and then pitching a half beat before the hitter expects it. He gets people out with his defense -- four Gold Gloves so far, and every year he steals a few hits, snags a couple of line drives, covers first base with enthusiasm.
Greinke gets people out with his command, crazy command; he is annually in the top 5 in fewest walks per nine innings, and this matters because he is not throwing to the middle of the plate. He's throwing for the edges, the corners, the hidden places of the plate where things go dark for hitters.
"It was just kind of crazy," Greinke told me when he was 19, and I asked him how he got people out in the Futures Game with a 91-or-so mph fastball. "I mean, I don't know how, but it's like everything I threw just kept going over the plate, you know? And it didn't just go over the plate, but it went over the corners. It was crazy."
Crazy. Let's just say for argument's sake Greinke finishes this year more or less as he started, and he has three more years like the past three years. Not impossible, he would be 37 at the end of the stretch. By doing that, suddenly, Greinke's wins would be up to 240 or more. He'd have 3,000 strikeouts. He would have 75 wins above replacement, maybe even 80. All of this would make Greinke a dead lock for the Hall of Fame.
Three more years that good is no sure thing, to say the least. It might not even be likely. Most pitchers fade long before they turn 37. But if there's one thing you can say without fear of argument it is that Greinke is not most pitchers. I suspect most people watch him pitch these days and think he's had a good career, a nice career, but it has already been so much more than that. We are seeing something special. Someday, you're going to see that guy in Cooperstown.