A look at Greinke’s comparables
Over the last 5 years combined (age 24-28), Zack Greinke pitched 1,036 innings with a 123 ERA+, amassing 23.0 WAR by the Baseball-Reference method (rWAR) and 28.4 by FanGraphs (fWAR). His new 6-year contract covers age 29-34. I’m no forecaster, but I thought it would be interesting to find pitchers who were broadly similar to Greinke during age 24-28 and see what they did over their next six years.
(All comparison groups herein are “since 1920″ unless specified. All ERA+ averages are weighted by innings.)
Group 1 — There are 36 retired pitchers who had at least 22 rWAR for age 24-28. Since I used no upper boundary on rWAR, Group 1 averaged 27.5 rWAR for the 24-28 period, well above Greinke’s 23.0 rWAR and close to his 28.4 fWAR; they also averaged 1,255 IP and a 133 ERA+.
– For age 29-34 combined, Group 1 averaged 14.2 rWAR (median 12.4), with 914 IP and a 118 ERA+. A mark of 20+ rWAR was reached by 9 out of 36 (25%), while 14 had less than 10 rWAR (39%).
But maybe Group 1 is skewed by those who were overworked in their 20s. So I made another control group of retired pitchers who had IP and ERA+ similar to Greinke’s 1,036 IP and 123 ERA+ from age 24-28. Specifically:
Group 2 — These 52 retired pitchers had 886 to 1,186 IP from 24-28 (+/- 150 to Greinke), with an ERA+ of at least 115. I left WAR out of this picture. For ERA+, I set no upper bound, but set the lower bound so as to produce an average close to Greinke’s mark.
For age 24-28, Group 2 averaged 1,032 IP with a 125 ERA+, very close to Greinke’s numbers. Stars in this group included Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove (with his best years still to come), Bob Gibson (ditto), Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Jim Bunning, Bret Saberhagen, Jerry Koosman and many more.
– For age 29-34 combined, Group 2 averaged 12.9 rWAR (median 11.5), with 884 IP and a 116 ERA+. A mark of 20+ rWAR was reached by 12 of 52 (23%), while 24 had less than 10 rWAR (46%) .
But maybe it’s best to focus on recent pitchers, from the age of 5-man rotations, with a further requirement that they were productive at age 28:
Group 3 — From 1982-2006, the 18 pitchers who from age 24-28 had 800 to 1,200 IP and an ERA+ of at least 115, and had at least 3.0 rWAR in their age 28 season. I did not limit this group to retired pitchers, but did require that all were in the majors at age 24 and at age 28, and that their full 24-28 span was included in the time period. (The last rule excluded Mario Soto, who was 24 in 1981; he would have lowered the 29-34 averages, since he was finished at 31.)
From 24-28, Group 3 averaged 1,036 IP (exactly Greinke’s total), with a 130 ERA+ (Greinke 123) and 22.3 rWAR (Greinke 23.0). Their weighted average ERA+ is boosted by Pedro’s absurd 189; the median was 123, which happens to be Greinke’s exact figure.
– For age 29-34, Group 3 averaged 16.2 rWAR (median 16.4), with 951 IP and a 119 ERA+. A mark of 20+ rWAR was reached by 5 of 18 (28%, but with two more at 19.7), while another 5 had less than 10 rWAR.
To make explicit a trend you’ve surely noticed, the decline in value for all three groups came not just from how well they pitched, but how much they pitched. Group 3 had the best retention of innings, but they still declined from an average of 207 IP per year for 24-28 to 159 IP/year for 29-34, a drop of more than 23%. Group 2 dropped by 29%, and Group 1 by almost 40%.
Lastly, just for fun, what about the pitchers graded “most similar” to Greinke through age 28 by Similarity Score? I’ll just present the list, without making any claim for true similarity:
- Alex Fernandez (956)
- Andy Benes (956)
- Bill Gullickson (950)
- John Smoltz (949)
- Ismael Valdez (947)
- Larry Christenson (946)
- Josh Beckett (946)
- Mark Gubicza (946)
- Ralph Terry (944)
- Bill Monbouquette (943)
For age 29-34, Smoltz tops that group with 19.7 rWAR — and nobody else even reached 10. Beckett has 9.8 with two years to go … but I still wouldn’t bet the house on it.
I’ll leave the conclusions to others. But for those convinced that Greinke’s raw stats for the last two years — like 9.4 SO/9 and 4.05 SO/BB — paint a truer picture than his 109 ERA+, I’ll make two cautionary notes:
- Out of 53 retired pitchers with 1,500+ IP in the last 20 years, Javier Vazquez ranks 9th in SO/BB. He’s 6th in SO/9 and 15th in BB/9. But he’s 24th in ERA+, at 105. OK, part of his problem was a high rate of HRs, which Greinke doesn’t share (he’s been a little better than league average over the past two years combined). But another problem for Vazquez was pitching with men in scoring position, and that same problem has bedeviled Greinke each of the last three years.
- In 2000, 25-year-old Glendon Rusch had a 111 ERA+ in 191 IP for the Mets. His actual ERA was 4.01, but with great control and a good K rate, his 3.57 SO/BB ranked 5th in the NL, and his FIP was 3.50. I felt sure we’d stolen another one from the Royals. In 2001, with another strong SO/BB ratio (3.63, 6th in the NL), his ERA plumped to 4.63, while his FIP was 3.81. His future still seemed bright. But in the remaining eight years of his career, Rusch had an 86 ERA+ in 777 IP, producing just 1.3 rWAR.
Yes, those are just two data points. And I don’t deny that strikeouts and walks are very important markers. But they’re not the whole story. And while I don’t claim to grasp all the ways that defense has affected Greinke’s results, his BAbip last year was .310, one point below his career mark and just three points over his Cy Young season. No doubt a better defense should help him, but exactly how much remains to be seen.
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