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The season of perpetual hope (Pt. 1 of 3): Zack Greinke

The Zack Attack keeps coming back

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

I consider Home Alone to be one of the greatest holiday films ever made. A favorite line comes from young Kevin McCallister’s mother—played by Catherine O’Hara—as she struggles to get home to her marooned son:

This holiday season, I’ll be examining a few baseball figures who best represent that spirit. First, the indomitable Zack Greinke.

In 2023, Greinke posted this line with the Kansas City Royals: 27 GS, 2-15, 142.1 IP, 5.06 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 87 ERA+. A season that would send most MLB hurlers to the bread-and-soup line. Yet, Zack seemed to enjoy every moment of it. Why? Because he has already overcome so much more than wins and losses.

Drafted out of Apopka High School (Orlando, FL) by Kansas City in 2002, Greinke was a top prospect from the word go, having won the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award as a senior. After just two minor league campaigns, KC called him to Kauffman in May of 2004.

Royals v Athletics
Rookie Greinke
Photo by Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Despite showing some promise on that potential in ‘04 (fourth in AL ROY voting), Greinke cratered in 2005: 33 GS, 5-17, 183 IP, 5.80 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 76 ERA+. But the problem wasn’t just physical performance. After unexpectedly leaving Spring Training in 2006, Greinke was diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder. Probably not uncommon for struggling pro athletes—but certainly uncommon to be so open about it.

Off and on throughout my life, I’ve battled anxiety and bouts of depression. I’ve been gripped by panic attacks that can turn a physically able body into a useless shell. I’ve had trouble getting through a routine day—to say nothing of being dead-center in an MLB stadium—when my mind can focus on nothing but the seeming disaster around every bend. I can’t imagine managing such emotional distress and performing at peak physical capacity.

Greinke made a few scattered relief appearances in 2006, but generally took the season to work with a sports psychologist. Whatever he did certainly paid off, as by 2009 he was not only entrenched in the KC rotation again but also winning the AL Cy Young Award!

80th MLB All-Star Game
Cy Zack & MVP Joe at the ‘09 All-Star Game
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Amazingly, the best was yet to come for Zack. In three seasons (2013-2015) with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he made a case as the premiere pitcher of the National League—often surpassing even mound mate Clayton Kershaw! Greinke’s 2015 is one of the best single campaigns of recent memory: 32 GS, 19-3, 222.2 IP, 1.66 ERA, 0.844 WHIP, 222 ERA+.

After a few years in the desert—Arizona Diamondbacks—racking up victories and stats, Greinke joined the Houston Astros from 2019-2021 and more-often-than-not was a solid cog in their regular and post-season dominance.

At the age of 38 in 2022, Zack returned to the Royals—which leads us back to his 2023 showing. But now a better understanding can be gleaned for how Greinke was able to stomach so much failure with a smile on his face.

New York Yankees v Kansas City Royals
Grizzled vet Zack
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Zack Greinke’s career line if he never plays again (he’s currently a free agent but hasn’t announced retirement) would be 225-156, 3,389.1 IP, 3.49 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 121 ERA+. Not too shabby for an individual who nearly abdicated the sport before courageously battling the symptoms and stigmas surrounding mental illness. Somewhat remarkably, the Twins handled him pretty well: 29 GS, 5-16, 172.2 IP, 4.95 ERA. He’d have my Hall of Fame vote in a heartbeat—though I’d be perfectly fine waiting if it means he slings it a little longer.