Greinke is truly one of a kind

March 4th, 2017

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- This is how the conversation started after Zack Greinke's first start of the spring on Friday, a 15-3 D-backs win over the Dodgers:

Me: So how did you feel today?

Greinke: Really? That's what you want to ask me?

Me: Yeah, not really.

We've played this game for quite some time.

    • *

      Let's see here, the first time I met Greinke, he was 19 years old. It was at the All-Star Futures Game in Chicago in 2003. He had just been called up from Kansas City's Class A team after going 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA. Greinke was a phenom. I was a Kansas City sports columnist desperately trying to find something hopeful to write for Royals fans.

      Greinke pitched one brilliant scoreless inning in that Futures Game, just the sort of optimism-inspiring performance a sportswriter can work with.

      "So," I said, trying to open up the conversation, "were you nervous?"

      Greinke looked at me blankly, sort of the same look he gave me on Friday in Scottsdale, and then he pondered the question.

      "I don't know if I was nervous," he said. "I mean I felt something."

      "Nerves?" I asked.

      "I don't know if I was nervous," Greinke said. "It was like a different feeling."

      "Nerves?" I asked.

      "Um, I don't know what you call it."

      That's how it began. I had no idea at that moment that Greinke would become the most puzzling, interesting and eccentric athlete I would ever write about.

Oh, I have a million Greinke stories. My two favorites, quickly: Once his teammate was pitching in relief. Affeldt gave up a home run and got pulled from the game, and he was angry at himself.

"You know," he said, "that wasn't a bad pitch. The guy hit it. That wasn't a bad pitch."

"Actually," Greinke said. "it was a bad pitch."

Affeldt looked over at Greinke and saw that same placid look that Greinke usually wears.

"Thanks, Zack," Affeldt said sarcastically.

"No," Greinke said, "seriously, I went to the back, watched the video, it was a bad pitch, middle of the plate, right in the guy's zone."

Affeldt, defeated, looked at Greinke again. "Thanks, Zack," he said.

The second story is of the time that a different teammate, , was really struggling at the plate. Gordon just couldn't hit anything at all, and one day Greinke came up to him and said he wanted to show Gordon something in the video room. Gordon was thrilled -- Greinke is renowned for his baseball eye. For a long time, the Royals thought Greinke would make a great scout after he retired (that plan is probably scuttled since Greinke will clear $300 million in baseball after he plays out this contract).

Anyway, Gordon followed Greinke into the room and got ready to receive some advice.

On the television, cued up, was the home run Greinke hit against Arizona in his fourth big league at-bat. They watched it together. And then watched it again.

"Do more of that," Greinke said.

There are so many where that come from, some from my own life, like the time Greinke refused to pose for the Sports Illustrated cover story I wrote (they had to shoot him from behind while he warmed up in the bullpen), or the time that he was on a long road trip and had his girlfriend at the time read to him a long story that I had written about him.

"That thing was a BOOK" was his review of the story.

"Thanks," I said.

"No, really, it took her like an hour to read to me." Greinke said. "That got me halfway across Florida."

Beyond the funny stories, the quirky thoughts and the blunt observations, a marvelous pitching mind is at work. Greinke is quietly having what could be a Hall of Fame career. After his age-32 season, he has 51 career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and 155 wins as a pitcher, a combination that compares well with Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and Warren Spahn when they were his age. Greinke won an American League Cy Young Award, almost won another in the National League, and he seems to have a good shot at 3,000 strikeouts (2,021 heading into this season). If he has a few more good seasons, Cooperstown is very much in play.

Greinke is also coming off a rough season, his roughest probably since he left Kansas City after the 2010 season. He was beat up all year -- strained oblique, stiffness in his throwing shoulder -- but there was something else going on.

"I pitched worse," he told the reporters, though he didn't go into it much. There's a reason he doesn't go into it much. He hasn't quite figured it out. The mind whirls.

Friday against the Dodgers was just Greinke's first spring start.

"I thought it was all right," he said.

Greinke didn't say any more. He's still trying to get things straight in his mind.

Greinke talks me through it just a little bit. He thinks hitters stopped chasing his changeup last year. He doesn't know exactly why, but he has a theory. Greinke purposely tried pitching up in the zone more.

"There are so many left-handed hitters," he said, "and unless it's perfect, they really hit the pitch down and away."

And Greinke thought by pitching up, hitters would be more likely to chase his changeup. But it didn't work out that way.

So Greinke wonders if maybe he was somehow tipping the changeup by throwing it from a slightly different arm slot than his fastball. Then he wonders if maybe because he was pitching up in the zone, his changeup lost some of is effectiveness.

"I don't have a good answer yet," he said.

And then Greinke talked a little bit about velocity. His velocity dropped every so slightly last year. I ask him if it's a problem, and he shrugs. I ask him if he wants to add more velocity, and he smiles.

"One hundred," he said, "is better than 90."

But then Greinke begins talking about that, saying he wouldn't change anything just to gain a few mph because in that velocity range it's more important to have your pitches in sync. He throws a lot of different pitches -- Statcast™ shows him throwing eight different pitches, with various fastballs to go with a curveball, a slider, a cutter, a changeup and a slow curve around 60 mph. That variety is what has marked Greinke's career. He wouldn't want to break up the balance to add one or two mph to his fastball.

"But if I could add five mph," he said, "yeah, I'd change whatever. It would be worth it."

It is fascinating to see the game through Greinke's eyes, even a little bit. This is the part of him that is so easy to miss because he's so quirky. I'm reminded of his former teammate, , who happened to be pitching for the Dodgers vs. the D-backs on Friday, saying that few things made him happier or taught him more than just hearing Zack Greinke talk about pitching.

"Is that it?" Greinke said suddenly, like he always does when he's ready to stop talking. He smiled. We've been playing this game for just about all of Greinke's adult life. I've seen him through good times and bad, talked with him when he was close to giving up the game, talked with him when he loathed pitching and considered becoming a shortstop, talked with him when he gingerly made his way back, talked with him when he was dealing, when he was about as unhittable as any pitcher in the last decade or more. That's a lot of road behind us.

"Yeah, that's it," I said.

Greinke smiled again and immediately started complaining about how everyone on Twitter keeps talking about politics.

"I don't know," he said sadly, "I can't block everyone."