Greinke being compared with greats
Right-hander's great start like those of Johnson and Valenzuela
It has been building for a couple weeks now, the wave of excitement over Zack Greinke growing with each start as more and more national media train their eyes on the Royals young sensation.
On Monday night in Kansas City, in front of a solid weekday crowd of 21,843 at the newly renovated Kauffman Stadium, under the lights of the increased media attention, on the heels of gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated, the 25-year-old right-hander with a well-documented and public battle with social anxiety disorder took the hill and delivered a gem that put him forever into the discussion about the best starts ever to a season.
On Saturday, Greinke gets a chance to extend his stellar start, this time on the road -- where he is yet to allow a single run in two starts -- against Angels left-hander Joe Saunders (3-1, 3.29) in Anaheim.
His six-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout complete game blanking of the White Sox on Monday raised his record to 6-0, with a near perfect 0.40 ERA. Only two other pitchers in Major League history have done as well -- Walter "Big Train" Johnson in 1913 and Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
Johnson, also 25 years old in his season of renown, started the season 6-0, with a 0.35 ERA and went on to win an incredible 36 games for the Senators in 1913, posting a 36-7 record with a league-leading 1.14 ERA, 29 complete games and 11 shutouts en route to the AL MVP award. Both Johnson (19) and Greinke (20) broke into the Majors Leagues at a young age, and both struggled in their first few seasons.
But by 1913, his sixth full season, Johnson was an established star. In 1912, he had gone 33-12 with a league-leading 1.39 ERA. Of course, it was a different game then, and so the statistical comparisons pretty much end there, but the spoken ones do not.
"The first time I faced him, I watched him take that easy windup," Ty Cobb said of the sidearming Johnson. "And then something went past me that made me flinch. The thing just hissed with danger. We couldn't touch him ... every one of us knew we'd met the most powerful arm ever turned loose in a ballpark."
Greinke won't even get 36 starts this season, let alone 36 wins, but he is drawing the same kind of rave reviews from opponents that the Big Train did all those years ago.
"He's just got the command going right now. He's got the feel going," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said after Monday's game. "Any time you have a power pitcher that gets that feel for throwing quality strikes -- not just right down the middle -- he's gonna be tough."
While comparisons to Johnson are difficult due to the difference of the game in that era, it is much easier to compare Greinke with Valenzuela, and there is a very real chance that his season will eclipse the Dodger left-hander's 1981 campaign. Valenzuela burst onto the scene that year as a 20-year-old rookie with the funky delivery and even funkier screwball. He threw shutouts in four of his first six starts, going 6-0 with a 0.33 ERA. With "Fernandomania" in full swing, he followed that up with a shutout in his seventh start and won again in his eighth start, allowing two runs for the first time in raising his record to 8-0 with 0.50 ERA.
"It's hard to do," Valenzuela said Thursday. "When you have confidence in yourself and you know what you have, anything can happen. You don't think much about streaks when they're happening. You just want to look at it a day at a time.
"But when you're not on the field, the people in the stands talk about it. And when you're away from the game for a while, the people still remember and they remind you and talk about the numbers. For this guy, it's great. I hope it continues and for him to do it in a small market, it's great for that city."
Valenzuela lost his first game to the Phillies, 4-0, on May 18 -- the day Sports Illustrated hit the streets with him gracing the cover, mid-windup with eyes to the sky and the word "UNREAL!" A two-month midseason player's strike seemed to sap his momentum and he won only five more games the rest of the season, finishing 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA. But the great start had captured the public's imagination, much as Greinke is doing right now, and he won both the NL Cy Young and the NL Rookie of the Year.
Monday night was Greinke's second start since his SI cover, and he has suffered no such jinx. He needed just 104 pitches to put the White Sox away, throwing 72 for strikes. It was a dizzying array of pitches, as recorded on MLB.com's Gameday Premium, from a blistering four-seam fastball that averaged 94.1 mph to a slow 70-74 mph curve with up to 15 inches of break to a devastating mid-80s slider with 8-9 inches of tilt. And he threw only a couple changeups, a pitch that he spent all spring working to perfect. It's an arsenal that is drawing comparisons to another great pitcher, one who also wore the Powder Blue and is one of just three Royals, along with Greinke and Jose Lima, to ever start a season 6-0.
"That's the best performance I've seen in a long time by any Major League pitcher," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "It reminds me when we came here one day and we faced [Bret] Saberhagen and he threw a no-hitter. I think this kid's got better stuff than Bret in that particular time."
Ozzie is far from his only admirer; he's found a fan in Saberhagen himself.
"I like the fact that he throws inside," Saberhagen said. "Every successful pitcher pitches inside. And that's not throwing at guys, that's knowing how to pitch inside. Any time you can throw inside and get under anybody's skin, it's great."
It seems Greinke has done just that. Hitters are batting just .189 off Greinke with no homers, one RBI, eight walks and 54 strikeouts. They have posted a ridiculously low .484 OPS off him. Even harder to believe are his numbers with runners in scoring position: .097 average, one RBI, no walks, 14 Ks, and an unfathomable .194 OPS in 31 at-bats.
"Any time you've got control and you can spot your pitches and you've got that nasty curveball he has ... yeah, it's great. Fun to watch," Saberhagen said. "I love the kid. He's great. It's great for him, it's great for Kansas City and the team's doing well, which makes it even better. It's been long overdue."
Greinke closed out Monday's game with Sox DH Jim Thome, who stepped to the plate with two out and a man on second in the top of the ninth. Greinke reached back and served him three straight fastballs -- 95 on the outside corner for a strike, 95 just off the inside corner for a ball, and 95 low and away that Thome popped up to third to end the game as the home crowd roared and rose to its feet to give their emerging star a standing ovation.
"The biggest difference was probably the fans; they were great today," Greinke said after the game.
As catcher Miguel Olivo walked to the mound to congratulate Greinke, the young ace who had once walked away from the game in frustration could not help himself -- a small grin broke out beneath the brim of his Royals cap as Olivo patted him on the chest. The game, once again, is fun.
"Definitely my favorite game of the year so far, if not ever," Greinke said. "That was a lot of fun."
And more is sure to come. No one has yet come up with a catchy name for it, but Greinke-mania is in full swing in Kansas City.
"That'd be nice," Saberhagen said of the excitement in Kansas City. "I'm sure there are a lot of jerseys that are going to be floating around, if there aren't already, around the stadium, with GREINKE on the back."