Data Ball With Jason Ferrie

Would taking on Zack Greinke be a wise investment?



Zack Greinke is a six-time All-Star. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire)

Perhaps appropriately, Zack Greinke has quietly been one of the best pitchers of his era. The 35-year-old just made his sixth All-Star team and tops Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and Max Scherzer in career bWAR and JAWS, meaning he’s building a compelling Hall of Fame case. And even as he enters what should be the twilight of his career, Greinke remains a front-line starter, one that the Philadelphia Phillies continue to be connected to as they look to snap a seven-year playoff drought.

But as whispers of the Phillies interest in Greinke grow louder, would taking on his contract be a wise investment? There is no doubt that Greinke has been an elite pitcher for the past decade and change, but this would also be an investment the Phillies would be making into the future.

For starters, the Phillies would be acquiring a pitcher who owns a 2.93 ERA and has appeared in five of the last six All-Star games. One could make an argument that Greinke would be the best pitcher on the Phillies roster for the remainder of the season, but either way you’d argue that, pairing Greinke and Aaron Nola at the top of a rotation would be a massive rotation upgrade. For the remainder of the season, Greinke is projected to throw 73 innings with a 3.49 ERA and 1.5 fWAR by ZiPS. This would place Greinke at roughly 5-fWAR for the season and completely justify his $34.5 million price tag for 2019. This is also a price tag that will slightly increase over the next two seasons regardless of his home.

In his age-36 and 37 seasons, Greinke is set to make $35 million per season, which would only trail the aforementioned Scherzer as the highest for a starting pitcher in baseball. Greinke doesn’t exactly need to meet the $70 million in WAR value to justify the trade, and if 2019 is any indication, he won’t have an issue doing that anyway. To this point in the season, Greinke has been worth $27.2 million in 21 starts for the Diamondbacks per FanGraphs WAR to dollars scale. It is safe to assume he is going to be worth more value than he is being paid this season. The question is whether he will be near his contractual value in the next few years.

In his prime, Greinke featured a 93-94 mph fastball that guided him to the 2009 American League Cy Young Award while pitching for the Kansas City Royals. As the years have gone on, Greinke has watched the radar gun lower—but that hasn’t presented much of an issue. When starters lose their velocity, the big question is whether they will be able to adjust. In the past two seasons, Greinke has held a fastball that clocks in at an average of 89 mph. The decline in fastball velocity hasn’t caused many issues for Greinke as he has a deep arsenal of five to six pitches that allow him to keep hitters off balance. The first year Greinke witnessed his fastball velocity drop below 90, he allowed bad results on the pitch and is now featuring it a little less while mixing in some more changeups and curveballs. Greinke is pitching smarter as he gets older.

Greinke has done a great job of getting hitters to expand the zone. This comes from keeping them off balance with his deep pitch mix. The major league average on chase rate is 28.2 percent and Greinke is getting hitters to expand the zone 34.3 percent of the time.

Another way that Greinke is limiting damage and aging well is by keep the ball on the ground. Each season since 2015, Greinke has a ground ball rate of at least 45 percent, which plays.

This is not a one-year-wonder type of deal—Greinke has been able to dominate major league hitters for years. The Phillies would be buying a proven asset and one that has shown the ability to adjust with age.

As discussed earlier, Greinke is due $70 million over the next two seasons, so it would be important to make sure he will be valuable during his age-36 and 37 season. We could use projections to evaluate Greinke, but he has outperformed them in the past pretty often since they are a median projection. Here is a look at how ZiPS projects Greinke over the next two years:

Season Innings ERA FIP WAR
2020 159.2 3.83 4.03 2.1
2021 157 3.96 4.13 1.9

The innings are significantly lower than we are used to seeing with Greinke, but that’s what projections do—they’re pretty conservative.

Greinke is outperforming his 2019 ZiPS projections, too. They were a 3.69 ERA, 3.90 FIP and 2.6 fWAR. It’s fair to expect some regression from Greinke, as he is not getting any younger and has been up and down WAR wise over the past four years. But again, these progressions are on the conservative end.

One thing the Phillies would greatly benefit from is the ability of Greinke to stay healthy. Between 2014-2018, Greinke made at least 32 starts four times and totaled over 200 innings during each of those four campaigns.  If Greinke can manage to keep that going over the next two seasons, the Phillies should be confident that Greinke is able to deliver on the price tag they would acquire.

The final wrinkles to the Greinke and Philadelphia rumors are price, $62.5 million deferred between 2022 and 2026 and a 15-team no-trade clause that reportedly includes the Phillies. There are good number of pitchers available right now and the Phillies have been tied to many of them. Greinke has the largest contract of them all, but taking that money on may limit the players the Phillies have to give up compared to acquiring someone like Matthew Boyd. Of course, if Greinke doesn’t want to come to Philadelphia (or leave Arizona), it doesn’t matter how interested they are or what package they offer.

The Phillies are going to make a move at the deadline and while good pitchers are being floated by teams, Greinke may have the best resume and numbers going forward. A Greinke and Nola top of the rotation would definitely help the Phillies in their push to play October baseball this season and could be a powerful one-two combination for the next few seasons. From the perspective of getting a known commodity while limiting what they give up, it may not get better than Greinke and the $70 million he’s owed over the next two seasons.

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