"This Stuff's Harder Than It Looks"
Five years ago, I wrote an article after witnessing via MLB Extra Innings "two of the ten best pitchers in the history of baseball, one of the most underrated pitchers of the past 15 years, the favorite to win this year's American League Cy Young Award, and two of the most highly prized pitching arms in the game." In order, the six pitchers were Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Johan Santana, Zack Greinke, and Scott Kazmir.
Greinke was in the midst of his rookie season and Kazmir had been in the majors less than a month. In the comments section, my former partner Bryan Smith asked me, "Well Rich, we know you've now seen Zack and Kazmir pitch this year. You start a team, who do you want? And...let's throw in Ankiel."
I responded as follows:
I can't have all three? Boy, you're no fun.
I would rank them as follows:
Greinke is more fully developed than Kazmir and doesn't have Ankiel's past problems (control and elbow surgery) to deal with. He is the most polished of the three by far. However, Zack's stuff doesn't measure up to Kazmir's or Ankiel's. As such, Greinke may not have their upside but he is more of a "sure thing".
Another consideration: Although only 25, Ankiel is four years older than Greinke and 4 1/2 years older than Kazmir.
I followed up my comments by inviting readers to "feel free to jump into the discussion." More than ten writers, analysts, and bloggers ranked Greinke, Kazmir, and Ankiel with a couple mentioning Felix Hernandez, who had yet to make his MLB debut, and Jose Capellan, who had just made his MLB debut. The rankings are well worth reviewing.
Prompted by an email from Jonah Keri, Rob Neyer revisited the post in a Monday Mendozas a year ago August:
• From the Department of Forecasting: From almost four years ago, this discussion of some of the most impressive young starting pitchers of 2004. The general consensus of the commenters, most of whom are among the more highly regarded analysts on the Web, had them ranked in this order:
1. Zack Greinke, 2. Rick Ankiel, 3. Scott Kazmir. There was also some love for Jose Capellan, who at this moment is 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA as a starter in the majors. Hey, this stuff's harder than it looks.
At that moment in time, one could have easily argued that Kazmir was the most accomplished of the three and his lack of respect may likely have been what prompted Jonah and Rob to take a second look at our rankings.
A year later, there is no question that the consensus got it right, at least with respect to Greinke. And I'm happy to report that I was among those who ranked Greinke numero uno. In fact, I wouldn't change my order (Greinke, Kazmir, and Ankiel) at all, nor do I think anybody would dispute these rankings with the benefit of hindsight. However, I'm quite certain that a handful of participants would like to have a "do over."
While I got the order right, I missed on Greinke in the sense that I liked him more for his polish than his stuff. As I stated in the body of the article, "He is an artist in the mold of Greg Maddux. The youngster changes speeds, works both sides of the plate, keeps the ball down, and, most importantly, throws strikes." I did not foresee him increasing the average speed of his fastball by nearly five mph in a matter of a few years nor did I envision that his heater would become the most effective in the game. Add Greinke's filthy slider and changeup and his combination of pitches is perhaps the best among all pitchers today.
Kazmir has been pretty exceptional in his own right, fashioning a 3.85 career ERA while striking out 9.3 batters per nine over 865 innings. Meanwhile, Ankiel hasn't pitched since 2004, throwing a grand total of 10 innings since our discussion five years ago.
There are a few reminders here. Pitchers can get better, worse, or injured. Some like to point to the fact that "there's no such thing as a pitching prospect" (or TNSTAAPP for short). That's fine. While overly simplistic, it warns that there's no sure thing more than anything else. Put me in charge and I would change the meaning of TNSTAAPP to stand for: "There's no sure thing as a pitching prospect." In other words, there are pitching prospects out there. There are just no sure things. Greinke included.
For those with short memories, Greinke led the league in losses while posting a 5.80 ERA in 2005, underwent "social anxiety" and nearly quit baseball, spent almost all of 2006 in the minors and the better part of 2007 in the majors as a reliever, and didn't break through until last year. Zack tried the patience of those who saw great things in him, but he has delivered in a big way with one of the greatest single seasons ever.