Unwarranted Familiarity With Zack Greinke

Houston, TX, USA; Milwaukee Brewers starting pitcher Zack Greinke (13) leaves the field after being ejected against the Houston Astros in the first inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-US PRESSWIRE

As baseball players go, Zack Greinke might be the very most difficult one to understand. Which seems to have led people to believe they understand him.

We don't know a whole lot about people. Even the people we know the best have things about them we don't know and never will. People who aren't close friends or relatives are closer to being complete mysteries than they are to being understood. We don't know strangers, even if we know a few things about them, and this obviously carries over to athletes and professional baseball players, whom we know for their skills. We've got a pretty good grasp on which baseball players can best perform which baseball activities. The players, the people themselves ... well, we don't know the people, nor do we usually care to.

Zack Greinke presently finds himself soaking in a torrential downpour of trade rumors. Or maybe we're the ones soaking, and Greinke's somewhere indoors, totally dry. But with Greinke approaching free agency and with the Brewers barely in the race, Greinke could get moved to a contender in need of a dominant starter.

Right now, Greinke's had his next start pushed back. The Brewers want him to "recharge his batteries," and this isn't helping his trade value. He's probably fine, though. And as for this:

Here's data.

Average pitch speeds

Fastball Cutter Curve Slider
2012 92.4 90.5 73.6 84.2
13-Jul 92.3 90.3 74.8 85.7


Greinke might be in trouble, or he might simply be in a statistical slump. He might still get traded. And that isn't even what's important here. This isn't the first time Greinke has been involved in rumors, he's been traded before from Kansas City to Milwaukee, and what strikes me is the way people seem to think they know what makes Greinke tick, and what he could and couldn't handle.

This is all just based on my perception, and my perception is largely informed by what I find on the Internet, but the way I see it, if there's one player we understand the least, in all of baseball, it's Zack Greinke. He's complicated, unusual, and utterly perplexing, as much now as he's ever been. If there is an average sort of person who goes on to become a major-league baseball player, Zack Greinke isn't it. Zack Greinke isn't the average sort of person who goes on to become anything specific.

We knew of Greinke as a talented prospect and pitcher, but our first exposure to him as a person came early in 2006, when he walked away from the Royals and nearly quit baseball on account of social-anxiety disorder. It was around that time that Greinke also conducted one hell of a strange interview that sadly seems to have been pulled from the web. There was crying about Jennifer Aniston and sharing home and garden magazines and everything. In the long history of athlete interviews, that's one that's always stuck with me.

It was clear that Greinke was different, but starting around then, he developed the reputation of being weird. Which was fine, because he did seem weird, relative to other players. But the thing about weird people is that they're tough to figure out, tough to put into boxes. That's what makes them weird. People have understood Greinke to be weirder than most, but they've taken that to make assumptions that they don't know enough to make.

The most prevalent example is that Greinke wouldn't want to pitch in a big market, and indeed that he couldn't handle it. There would be too many people, too much attention, too much pressure for a guy of Greinke's personality and mental health. If a pitcher is socially anxious in Kansas City, how could he possibly deal with New York or Boston? Of course, about that:

"I wouldn’t put it past him to go to New York," the source said. "I don’t think he’d rule out anybody. He says he likes New York. Especially because they’re winners. He wants to go to a team that wins."
(source)

"There's more people to ignore in New York or Boston than there are in Milwaukee," he said, "but I would still ignore them, probably."
(source)

More generally, it seems a lot of people act like they know what's best for Zack Greinke, and what he might like and dislike. People know Zack Greinke as being weird, and then they put him in a weird box and expect him to do things they think weird people would do. Greinke doesn't fit the usual profile, so people have given him a different profile that's equally restrictive and under-informed. Probably more under-informed.

What we know about Zack Greinke is that, when healthy, he's an absolutely outstanding starting pitcher. One of the best in the world. There aren't a lot of pitchers capable of blending his high strikeouts with his low walks. What we don't know about Zack Greinke is most of everything else. We don't really know what he wants, we don't really know how he feels, and we don't know what conditions he might find to be the most comfortable. We don't know if Greinke could pitch in New York, any more than we know if Yovani Gallardo could pitch in New York. A pitcher with a history of social anxiety in Kansas City and Milwaukee is still a pitcher with social anxiety in the major leagues. Greinke's already gotten this far, and flourished.

We've known for the better part of a decade that Zack Greinke is unusual. As such, there are people who think that we understand him. What we really ought to understand is that we don't.

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