I was looking at my Top 100 baseball players from 2009 and found something pretty amazing. Well, I actually found a few amazing things … one being that it's really not the world's smartest thing to do a Top 100 list in the middle of a baseball season -- you can become way too influenced by recent play. That list didn't turn out too well.
But perhaps even more, I look back and realize that 2009 was only three years ago, but when it comes to baseball performance it might as well have been a lifetime ago. I look at the Top 10 ...
1. Albert Pujols
2. Joe Mauer
3. Hanley Ramirez
4. Zack Greinke
5. Chase Utley
6. Alex Rodriguez
7. Tim Lincecum
8. Dan Haren
9. Johan Santana
10. Roy Halladay
… and realize I wouldn't want ANY of their contracts. None of them. Maybe Greinke's, but he just signed it. Let's look at that list again, this time with a bit of commentary:
1. Albert Pujols. Contract: 9 more years, $228 million. He's coming off back-to-back seasons where he finished 8th in his league in OPS+, after finishing first four out of five years.
2. Joe Mauer. Contract: 6 more years, $138 million. He hasn't ever played 150 games, has hit 22 homers in the last three seasons combined after hitting 28 in 2009.
3. Hanley Ramirez. Contract: 2 more years, $31.5 million. He hit .252/.326/.416 last two years and isn't even playing shortstop anymore.
4. Zack Greinke. Contract: 6 years, $147 million with opt out. More on him in a minute.
5. Chase Utley. Contract: 1 year, $15 million left. He has averaged 100 games the last three seasons, hitting .264/.367/.433 as his body sadly falls apart. One of the great players in the game in his prime.
6. Alex Rodriguez. Contract: 5 more years, $114 million. He has hit 16 and 18 homers the last two years, he's seriously injured, thoroughly despised, his future as and every-day player is in doubt.
7. Tim Lincecum. Contract: 1 more year, $22 million. In 2012, the two-time Cy Young winner led league in losses and posted 5.18 ERA, was used in middle relief in postseason and many see that as his future.
8. Dan Haren. Contract: 1 year, $13 million deal; signed with Nationals, posted career worst 87 ERA+ and failed to throw 200 innings for first time in his career in 2012.
9. Johan Santana. Contract: 1 more year, $25.5 million. He did throw the first Mets no-hitter in 2012 but after missing all of 2011 was 6-9 with 4.85 ERA and Mets reportedly would love to trade him, even if they have to eat some of his contract.
10. Roy Halladay. Contract: 1 more year, $20 million, but he has a $20 million option based on health in 2013. Perhaps the best pitcher of his generation is coming off injury prone season where he had an 89 ERA+ and often looked shockingly close to the end.
I look at that list and marvel … could 2009 really be that long ago? And I would again ask the question that is often asked here: Is it really a winning strategy to give a veteran star a long-term contract?
* * *
There's something else, though, that strikes me about the list. Here are six players and where they ranked in the 2009 Top 100:
(3) Hanley Ramirez
(4) Zack Greinke
(22) Adrian Gonzalez
(24) Josh Beckett
(35) Carl Crawford
(37) Matt Kemp
Yep, the Los Angeles Dodgers are in proud possession of SIX of the 2009 Top 40, and that doesn't even include Clayton Kershaw, who has been the best pitcher in the National League since 2009.
Now, obviously, the Dodgers came across these players in very different ways -- three came over in the Red Sox salary dump -- but it leads to a thought: I wonder if this is what you do when you have money to spend. You try to buy the past. You try to bring back a little bit of what once worked. Hey, if these players could somehow perform like they did in 2009, the Dodgers would be an unbelievably great team:
Ramirez: .342/.410/.543, 42 doubles, 24 homers, 101 runs, 106 RBIs, 7.1 WAR.
Greinke: 16-8, 2.16 ERA, 242 Ks, 51 walks, 205 ERA+, 10.1 WAR
Gonzalez: .277/.407/.551, 40 homers, 90 runs, 99 RBIs, 162 OPS+, 6.6 WAR.
Beckett: 17-6, 3.85 ERA, 199 Ks, 55 walks, 4.7 WAR
Carl Crawford: .305/.364/.452, 28 doubles, 8 triples, 15 homers, 60 SBs, 96 runs, 4.7 WAR
Matt Kemp: .297/.352/.490, 26 homers, 34 SBs, 101 RBIs, 97 runs, 4.6 WAR
Whew, that would be nice -- throw in Kershaw, a few average players, that's a World Series contender.
But can you just recapture 2009 by hoping for it? Can you reel in three years ago because it doesn't SEEM so long ago? The ability to recognize just how quickly skills and production diminishes in baseball has always been a rare one … Branch Rickey, perhaps the shrewdest baseball mind in the history of the game, famously said: "Trade a player a year too early rather than a year too late."
But it's so hard to do. Sometimes, you get burned. Reds GM and Rickey protege Bill DeWitt famously traded Frank Robinson in 1965 based on that year-early-rather-than-year-late strategy -- Robinson won the Triple Crown in 1966, and was a hugely productive player for another six or seven years. The Red Sox, of course, dumped Roger Clemens in the mid-1990s for that very reason, and, well, we know that story.
There are many counterexamples, though, of teams saving themselves a lot of headaches and money by moving on before a player declines into a liability. There isn't a bigger Dale Murphy fan out there, but the Braves clearly did the right thing trading him away in 1990 -- Dale, himself, thought so. They took heat for that move at the time, but Murphy simply (and sadly) was at the end and the Braves went on to bigger things. The Red Sox traded away Nomar Garciaparra in the middle of his age-30 season, another scary move, but Nomar really was done as an every day player. The Red Sox let Pedro go at the end of that year, another painful but shrewd move. Well, there are a lot. Oakland with Zito. Atlanta with Andruw Jones. Seattle with Griffey. And so on.
I guess it still comes down the simple truth that there are no hard rules. There are only general guidelines. In general, players in their early to mid 30s will decline … but every now and again an Edgar Martinez or Gary Sheffield or Chipper Jones will keep playing at a high level after 33. In general, signing a player to a very long contract will hurt the team toward the end but every now and again a long-term Derek Jeter signing will be like hitting the jackpot. Exceptions do happen. And if you hit on one of those exceptions, really good things will usually follow.
* * *
All this brings us to Zack Greinke. I have been following Greinke since he was 18 years old and drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 2002. He has always been a different breed of cat. People are aware of the various social anxiety and depression issues he has battled in his life. He walked away from the game when he was 22 and, for a time anyway, was thoroughly serious about never coming back. He thought about trying to become a pro golfer (something Robin Yount also thought about) and he thought about coming back to the game as a shortstop. He met with a psychologist, began taking medication, and those things helped modulate some of his biggest fears and lowest depths. He returned to the game and reached spectacular heights.
He has always looked at everything a little bit differently. I remember seeing him pitch at the Futures Game, I guess this goes back to 2003, and it was a day when pitchers were just lighting up the radar gun. Why not? They were young, they were healthy, their arms felt magnificent, it's only natural to see if you can post triple digits on the gun. Greinke, though, did exactly the opposite. He was 19 then, and he purposely threw slower. Oh, he could throw high 90s if he wanted, maybe even 100 if he really let go. But he didn't let go. He wanted to see if he could get people out without breaking 90. He was disappointed because he threw 92. It was … well … different. I remember talking about it with his catcher that day, a 20-year-old named Joe Mauer. It was clear that Mauer, like everyone else, wasn't quite sure what to make of Zack Greinke.
Greinke came up to the big leagues at 20 and was immediately fascinating as a pitcher. He just wasn't like anybody else. He wanted to throw a curveball so slow it would not even trigger the radar gun -- he once struck out Jim Thome on a 55-mph variety curve. He tried a quick pitch a couple of times. He fooled around with his windup. He threw his fastball at any number of different speeds … though never the fastest he could throw. He liked talking more about his hitting than his pitching. He would tell us, "Oh, I could throw 95 or 98 if I wanted. But I don't think I could control it." And he would smirk. He always smirked after his best quotes, like he was just having a gag. Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn't really smirking, maybe it was just a nervous tick. He really did not like talking to reporters.
In 2005, he failed for the first time as a pitcher. And failed. And failed. He lost 17 games, the league hit .309 against him, he couldn't miss a bat. And the Royals were a miserable team, worse than usual, a manager quit in the middle of the year, an interim stuck around for a while, Buddy Bell came in just in time to guide the Royals on a 20-game losing streak. The accepted low point for Greinke happened in Arizona: Bell left him out there to give up 15 hits and 11 runs in 4 1/3 inning (though Greinke did hit his first big league homer after saying before the game that he would). This was at a time when the Royals wondered if they hadn't babied Greinke too much.
Anyway, I don't think that was the low point. The 20-game losing streak began about six weeks later. That streak included:
• A blown 5-0 lead
• A blown 4-0 lead
• A blown 4-1 lead
• A 16-1 loss
• An 11-0 loss
• A blown 5-run lead in the ninth by allowing 11 runs, a meltdown highlighted by a dropped fly ball.
• A blown 2-0 lead
• An 11-3 loss
• An 11-5 loss
Greinke made four starts during that astonishing stretch of horror, pitched terribly, and I have to think that was the low point, to pitch poorly when surrounded by a sea of losing. It's hard to imagine it getting much lower in big league baseball. Here he as, 21 years old, widely viewed as baseball's next great pitcher, and he was on a historically awful team in a Midwestern town that had not been a factor in the game for almost two decades. Just about every time he pitched a baseball, it would get crushed into a gap somewhere. The few times someone did hit a ball at a fielder, there was only a moderate chance it would be turned into an out. Add in his anxieties, his inability to handle much of what life threw at him, his competitive streak, his uncertainty about Kansas City baseball and everything else, it's clear why Zack Greinke was a very unhappy, confused and troubled young man. The following spring, he briefly quit.
After he decided to come back to the game, after he determined that he wanted to be a great pitcher and committed himself to that, he became a great pitcher. First he pitched in the bullpen, then he became a starter, then he became a dominant starter. His 2009 season might be the best of the last decade.
Best seasons from 2003-2012 (adding together Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR):
1. Zack Greinke, 2009, 19.4
2. Randy Johnson, 2004, 18.0
3. Roy Halladay, 2011, 16.6
4. Johan Santana, 2004, 16.1
5. Roy Halladay, 2003, 15.7
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 2003, 15.7
7. Justin Verlander, 2011, 15.3
8. Tim Lincecum, 2009, 15.1
He has not been nearly as good in the three years since then. He has played for three teams in those three years (Kansas City, Milwaukee and Los Angeles) and will be playing for a fourth team in the Dodgers. And while he's generally pitched OK the last two years -- his 31-11 record looks shiny, and his 4 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio is fabulous -- it's a weird kind of OK. He hasn't thrown a complete game in the last two seasons. In 2009, he had seven starts with a Game Score of 75 of higher; he has had only 10 in three years since. It's hard to break down exactly why he has been good rather than great the last three years, but I would say it comes down to small things. Home run balls and wild pitches are up a bit, walks are up a tick, innings pitched are down (he seems to get in pitch count trouble a lot), it's just a few mosquitoes that seem to be wearing him down.
And, as Greinke himself has said: A year like 2009 doesn't just happen because you want it to happen. A lot of things must come together just right. He's been periodically awesome the last three years. But it hasn't ever come together quite like it did that year.
So the question is: At 29 -- in a pitcher's park, with a life-altering six-year deal, with a team that looks like it can contend -- can Zack Greinke recapture the mastery of 2009?
I would like to bet "yes." In fact, I would bet "yes" because I tend to bet on things I want to happen. I like Zack Greinke. I find him funny and pretty honest. And when he is right, he's about as fun to watch as any pitcher of my lifetime. It's a 96-mph fastball, and it's a 60-mph curve, and it's an 82-mph slider, and it's a 61-mph knuckleball he just learned that morning, and it's a wicked change up that he just thought up on the way to the mound, and suddenly he's throwing left-handed, and then he's playing charades, and it's joyous. So, sure, I'd bet on him. It's so much more fun than betting no.
But, a few years ago, I wrote something about how if you want to be right on a prediction … go negative. Here's the quote:
There’s another bit of misdirection that you can use in sports, one that works very well for a lot of people around the country. You can go negative ...it just goes to figure. If a new coach or manager gets hired for some loser organization, you can say: “Oh boy, that’s a terrible hire, that won’t work.” Most of the time, you will be right, it won’t work. If a team is picked by lots of people to, say, win the World Series or Super Bowl, you can say: “Oh, I’ll bet they won’t win the World Series or Super Bowl.” Most of the time you will be right -- teams predicted to win it all rarely do. You can say, “I’ll bet Chipper doesn’t hit .400,” or “I’ll bet the Patriots don’t go undefeated” or “I’ll bet Tiger doesn’t win the Grand Slam” and you’re going to be right almost every time … it’s misdirection. The odds are very, very much in your favor, even though it may not look that way.
In other words, the money pick is to say that Zack Greinke will not be worth the money. The money pick is to say he might have one or two good years, maybe, and then will fade into a pattern of pitching OK, assuming of course he stays healthy. The most expensive pitching contracts ever -- Greinke, Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee -- are still in the jury room at the moment, but go back at least four years and look at the most expensive contracts per year:
• Johan Santana in 2008, $23 million per 6 years
(46-34, 3.18 ERA, only once made 30 starts, missed all of 2011)
• Carlos Zambrano in 2008, $18 million per 5 years
(50-36, 4.06 ERA, headaches galore, Cubs happily dumped him on Miami)
• Barry Zito in 2007, $18 million per 7 years
(58-69, 4.47, soap opera after soap opera, relatively happy ending)
• A.J. Burnett in 2009, $16.5 million per 5 years
(50-45, 4.46 ERA, more soap operas, Yankees dumped him on Pittsburgh)
• Jason Schmidt in 2007, $15.7 million per 3 years
(3-6, 6.02 ERA, got hurt and never did recover)
• Mike Hampton in 2001, $15 million per 8 years
(56-52, 4.81 ERA, missed two full seasons with injuries and bulk of two others)
• Roy Oswalt in 2007, $14.6 million per five years
(61-46, 3.42 ERA, pitched well for Astros, but they couldn't afford him and traded him for last 1 1/2 years)
• Mark Buehrle in 2008, $14 million per four years
(54-44, 3.88 ERA, pitched pretty well -- not great but pretty well -- this generally worked out)
• Roy Halladay in 2008, $13.3 million per three years
(58-31, 2.67 ERA, fabulous deal for Blue Jays who traded Halladay for last year because they knew they could not re-sign him)
• Pedro Martinez in 2005, $13.25 million per four years
( 33-23, 3.88 ERA, one full season, two half seasons -- the last a real struggle)
Most of these, you wouldn't want. The Halladay deal you would take, obviously, and the Buehrle and Oswalt deals worked out OK, but this is the point. Right now, with the contract just signed, the Dodgers would hope for two or three Cy Young type seasons from Greinke. And they might get it. They might. But it's a long shot. While 2009 to us old people seems like yesterday, it wasn't yesterday. Miley Cyrus was huge in 2009. Mark Sanchez was drafted in 2009 … Tim Tebow was still in college. The Hangover had no sequel. Manny Pacquiao was unbeatable. Careers in entertainment and politics have crested and fallen since 2009.
Which is not to say the Greinke signing won't work out. I think it will. I hope it will. But the odds are it won't, at least not the way the Dodgers are hoping. You give a guy $24.5 million a year, you expect a huge payoff. But time expects to be paid too.