Houston Astros ace Zack Greinke is today’s version of Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
One of the best stories on this 2020 Houston Astros team is how, in the absence of ace Justin Verlander, veteran Zack Greinke has stepped into that role with aplomb. His pitching style and his enduring success are drawing comparisons to a similar pitcher in Hall of Famer Greg Maddux.
Now I’m not saying Greinke is as good as Maddux was. The Professor won 355 games with a 3.16 ERA over a 23-year career, winning four Cy Young Awards and four ERA titles. He was arguably the best pitcher of his generation, and Greinke won’t come close to touching many of Maddux’s stats.
But their similarities are hard to ignore. Both have pitched in eras dominated by power pitchers. Maddux’s contemporaries included Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Kevin Brown, Curt Schilling and longtime teammate John Smoltz, all of whom pitched with good velocity. Similarly, pitchers like Verlander, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg will light up the radar gun and rack up the strikeouts.
At age 36, Greinke’s fastball is among the slowest in the game, yet he’s pitching as well as he ever has. He had better velocity in his younger days, as he averaged 94.3 mph on his four-seamer in his Cy Young season of 2009. But now he’s in his third season of averaging below 90 mph, and he succeeds by mixing his pitches, locating them well and just knowing how to attack hitters.
That’s largely how Maddux was for his entire career. He could paint the corners as well as anyone to ever pick up a baseball, and he was the closest thing to an artist this sport has ever seen. He never relied on velocity or strikeouts, yet he was even more effective than the best power pitchers of the day.
Both are also excellent defenders, with Maddux collecting 18 Gold Glove awards over the course of his career. Greinke may only have six, but that’s still plenty impressive. Neither pitcher will be mistaken for a flamethrower, but they’ve commanded a great deal of respect for their ability to pitch. The main difference is Maddux was always that way, while Greinke has evolved after throwing harder in his earlier years.
Greinke Getting Closer?
Part of what was so impressive about Maddux was his longevity and consistency. He won at least 15 games in every season from 1988 to 2004 and remained remarkably durable and effective until the end, putting up a 4.22 ERA in 33 starts in his age-42 season.
Greinke hasn’t quite reached that level of durability but isn’t far off, as he’s averaged more than 31 starts per season since 2008. He’s had one or two subpar seasons in that time, but he’s mostly been excellent and still continues to pile up the innings and the wins. But the next couple of seasons will be interesting to watch.
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I would consider Maddux’s age-36 season to be the last of his prime, as he put up a 2.62 ERA at that age in 2002. His ERA jumped to 3.96 in 2003 and settled in between 4.00 and 4.25 in every season for the rest of his career. He was still plenty useful, but not quite the Maddux of old.
Greinke is now 36, and so far he’s showing no signs of slowing down. After tossing eight scoreless innings against the Rockies on Tuesday, he owns a 1.84 ERA in five starts. The Astros aren’t helping him in the win column, but at 206 for his career, he’s not catching Maddux there anyway. The main thing is he’s already proven he can pitch without good velocity, and that should help him moving forward.
As long as his body allows him, I see no reason why Greinke can’t continue to pitch like an ace, or at least a good No. 2, for as long as he wants to. The Astros have him under contract through 2021, so he will reach free agency at age 38. If he remains effective, I would much prefer he finishes his career in Houston. With so many young pitchers on the roster, the mere presence of Greinke would benefit the whole team.
One day he will likely join Maddux in Cooperstown, and if he finishes his career with the Astros, it’s possible he could wear their cap on his plaque. He’s quickly become one of my favorite players, and hopefully we can all appreciate watching Greinke pitch, knowing we’re seeing a master at work.