Joe Posnanski
Wednesday August 26th, 2009

Zack Greinke turned in a spectacular eight-inning, five-hit, 15-strikeout game against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night. Those 15 strikeouts were a team record and tied Tim Lincecum for the most in a game this season. Nobody had 15 strikeouts in a game last year.

I've been banging the drum for Greinke for a long time. I've taken plenty of hits over it -- like the time I put Greinke at No. 4 on my Top 100 list. Fair enough -- in fact that's part of the fun. I'll just keep saying it until more people believe me: Zack Greinke is the best pitcher in the game. I have five reasons for this.

1. Greinke pitches in the American League.

I know there is a lot of knee-jerk stuff out there now about the NL being the inferior hitters league -- what with Cliff Lee (5-0, 0.68 ERA in NL) suddenly pitching like he's Lefty Grove. And, of course, CC Sabathia, with his career 3.80 ERA in the AL, was a full two runs better -- 11-2, 1.65 ERA -- when pitching for the Brewers last year. Matt Holliday is killing the ball again now that he's back in the NL. And so on. These seem to me like random examples that don't prove much.

BUT ... it's obvious that, just because of the DH, the American League will naturally be the tougher league to pitch in. The American League ERA is almost always higher, and often a half-run higher. It's just obvious: DHs are hitting .256/.340/.754. National League pitchers are hitting .144/.186/.186 and NL pinch-hitters are hitting .228/.315/.358. That's just a huge difference. There are undoubtedly other differences ... but I think it's clear that the American League is the tougher league for pitchers.

And so ... Greinke has to get some credit for that. I saw a couple of weeks ago there was a smattering of talk about maybe giving Tim Lincecum the MVP award in addition to the Cy Young. The talk -- our emigo Jonah Keri seemed to start it -- was built around the idea that Lincecum isn't just having a great season, he's having an historic one, a season a lot like Pedro's great year or Clemens' or Gooden's. Now, I think Lincecum has not pitched quite as well since then, but still I look at his season compared to Greinke's ...

Win-Loss Greinke: 12-8 Lincecum: 12-4

ERA Greinke: 2.43 -- leads league Lincecum: 2.43

Innings Greinke: 181.3 Lincecum: 185.3

Strikeouts Greinke: 197 Lincecum: 214 -- leads league

Walks Greinke: 39 Lincecum: 51

WHIP Greinke: 1.119 Lincecum: 1.041

Homers per Nine Greinke: .5 -- leads league Lincecum: .4

ERA+ Greinke: 181 -- leads league Lincecum: 178

Complete Games and Shutouts Greinke: 5 and 2 -- both lead league Lincecum: 4 and 2 -- both lead league

Wins Above Replacement Greinke: 7.2 Lincecum: 7.1

OK, you can see what I'm getting at here: There is virtually no difference in their statistics -- except maybe win-loss percentage (which nobody could blame Greinke for) and Lincecum does have an edge in K's and WHIP. If Lincecum is having an historic season, then Greinke is too. But there's this: Greinke is having HIS season in the American League. And that's a huge difference, I think. I think it's fair to say that, considering league, Greinke's having a better year.

You can do the same thing with Chris Carpenter if you want -- there was a bit of a civil war on my Facebook page as Cardinals fans and Royals fans attacked over Greinke vs. Carpenter -- but I don't think it's quite the same comparison since Carpenter (and, believe me, I LOVE this Carpenter story) has been off and on and has pitched almost 40 fewer innings than Greinke. He also pitches in the NL ...

2. Greinke pitches for a terrible team.

You will sometimes hear people say that what Greinke is doing is somehow LESS IMPRESSIVE because he's doing it for the Royals while, say, Josh Beckett or Carpenter or Sabathia or Lincecum are doing it in something resembling a pennant race.

Well, I have the opposite view. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that if the Royals were a good team and in a pennant race, Greinke would be pitching much better. Obviously I can't prove this -- and no one can prove the opposite either -- but I would say that losing wears down someone like Greinke way more than pressure. The guy loves to compete. That's where he gets his kicks. It has always been like that for him. Part of his magical April, I think, was built around the hope that the Royals (this time, finally) were real contenders.

Again, I couldn't prove it: But I'm utterly convinced that pitching for a going-nowhere team has worn Greinke down physically and mentally. He craves big moments. He hungers for pressure situations. This is the stuff that drives him. And this team, this season, has been like Kryptonite.

3. Greinke gets no run support.

This is obvious, but can't be repeated enough. He gave up one run in eight innings at Anaheim and lost, and he threw seven shutout innings against Detroit and got a no-decision. He gave up three hits and one run in seven innings against Texas (10 strikeouts, too) and lost, and he gave up one run in seven innings against Tampa and got a no-decision. He has four other no-decisions when he had quality starts, and he has another loss as a quality start. So that's, what, nine games he had a quality start -- often a lot better than a quality start -- and either lost or got a no-decision.

It's so bad that when he gave up four runs in seven innings against the White Sox -- the ball was just flying out of U.S. Cellular that day -- he said afterward that when you give up four runs you "shouldn't win." No worries there -- he has given up four or more earned runs in a game four times all year and he didn't win any of those games.

Six Cy Young candidates' ERA by decision (you can see that King Felix Hernandez has gotten really jobbed by a lack of run support, too).

Wins King Felix (12) -- 1.19 ERA Greinke (12) -- 1.20 ERA Beckett (14) -- 1.54 ERA Justin Verlander (14) -- 1.60 ERA Sabathia (15) -- 2.01 ERA Roy Halladay (13) -- 2.10 ERA

Losses Greinke (8) -- 4.62 ERA Halladay (7) -- 5.25 ERA Verlander (7) -- 6.86 ERA Sabathia (7) -- 6.95 ERA Beckett (5) -- 7.99 ERA King Felix (5) -- 8.89 ERA

No-Decisions Hernandez (9) -- 2.25 ERA Greinke (6) -- 2.45 ERA Halladay (5) -- 2.73 ERA Verlander (6) -- 4.30 ERA Sabathia (5) -- 4.55 ERA Beckett (6) -- 5.40 ERA

It's pretty clear -- nobody is more consistently good than Zack Greinke.

4. He never gets to face the Royals lineup.

This is more of a funny line ... but it's absolutely true. You know that wins play a big role in Cy Young voting. Well, four of the last five Cy Young winners have come out of the American League Central. Last year Cliff Lee won the American League Cy Young. He went 5-0 against the Royals. Sabathia went only 2-2 against the Royals the year before (his team was the Twins), but Johan Santana in 2006 went 3-0 against Kansas City, and in 2004 he went 3-1.

A few potential Cy Young Candidates against Royals this year:

Halladay: 1-0, 0.00 ERA Beckett: 1-0, 0.00 ERA Sabathia: 1-0, 0.00 ERA Scott Feldman: 1-0, 0.00 ERA Jon Lester: 1-0, 0.00 ERA Verlander: 2-0, 2.08 ERA -- 19 Ks in 13 innings King Felix: Has not faced Royals yet .. might in coming week.

5. He's the most complete pitcher in the game right now.

On Tuesday night Greinke made one of the best defensive plays I've ever seen a pitcher make. It was a hard chopper up the middle -- Greinke finished his motion, stopped, jumped about two feet straight up in the air, somehow snagged the ball, pulled it down, landed in a balanced way and threw the runner out at first. You will see pitchers make great plays, but many of them are reflex plays -- throw the glove up fast, stab for the white blur, and so on. Greinke knew exactly what he was doing. It was a fabulous play.

And it reminded me: This guy is a terrific defensive player. He was a shortstop in high school, and he still plays the position like a shortstop.

And so you have a guy who throws a 97-mph fastball, a devastating slider, a 68-mph curveball and an occasionally devastating change-up. As mentioned, he fields his position. He's got a good quick move. He's been the toughest guy in the American League to hit homers against, he's second in the league in strikeouts, he's fifth in the league in walks per nine, and he's second in the league in WHIP.

Over the last year -- this would include last September -- he's 16-9, 2.39 ERA, 224 K's in 214 innings, 46 walks and 12 homers allowed, for one of the worst teams in the league. Nobody has been better than that.

You know Carlos Beltran had that amazing playoffs for Houston and then signed the huge deal, then had the great season for the Mets in 2006. During that time, people would come up occasionally and say, "Sure, you knew Carlos Beltran was good in K.C. but you couldn't have known he would be THIS GOOD."

We knew. We really did. Baseball might not be great in Kansas City, but it does count. And I'll just say it again: Zack Greinke's the best pitcher in the game.

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