The 10 Brewers Critical to 2011 Success: #1, Zack Greinke

In the time leading up to the start of spring training, I’ve decided to make a countdown of the 10 Brewers that I believe are most critical to their success in the 2011 season. It concludes today with number 1.

I guess you probably saw this one coming.Greinke

Zack Greinke did not have a great year last year. He had a fine year, but not a great year – and you would think that the number one most valuable player for the 2011 Milwaukee Brewers, who hope to contend, would have been worth more than 2.4 WAR last season. In 2010, Shaun Marcum was worth significantly more WAR, at 3.8. Five of Milwaukee’s hitters (Braun, Fielder, Weeks, Hart and McGehee) were worth 3.5 WAR or more.

To understand why Greinke is the most important Brewer in 2011, we need to skip 2010 and go back to 2009. In 2009, using Baseball Reference’s WAR numbers, you could double the 2010 WAR total of any Brewer, and only Ryan Braun and his 4.8 WAR would exceed Greinke’s 2009 number – and just barely. Greinke was worth 9.0 WAR in 2009. To find another pitcher who was worth more than eight WAR, we need to go all the way back to Randy Johnson in 2001 and his 8.8 total. To find a pitcher who did better than Greinke, we must go even further, to Pedro Martinez and his 10.1 WAR in 2000 – a season often regarded as perhaps the greatest single season pitching performance in the history of baseball.

Let that sink in a little bit. Zack Greinke is one year removed from the best pitching performance in ten years. The numbers from that year? Incredible. 16-8 (for a team that went 65-97), 2.16 ERA, 6 complete games, 9.5 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.073 WHIP, and a 205 ERA+.

In 2010, we all know how he came back down to Earth a bit. He put in a solid year, but not what you would expect from a defending Cy Young pitcher: 10-14, 4.17 ERA, 7.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 1.245 WHIP, and a 100 ERA+. There were rumors, of course, of Greinke becoming frustrated with the Royals as perennial losers, and it has been said that his mind wasn’t really in it by the end of the season. (This is troubling news in a different respect, but for now we’ll look at it as a positive.) Hopefully this means that next season, playing for a team expected to contend for the first time in his career, Greinke will be fired up and ready to contribute. Greinke is certainly being treated like the Cy Young award winner of 2009 rather than the average pitcher of 2010, both in terms of how the team is treating him and what they had to give up to get him.

Greinke has essentially been handed the keys to the #1 spot in Milwaukee’s rotation, even though Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum (and almost Randy Wolf!) had better statistical seasons last year. It seems like everyone, and not just the people in the Brewer organization, is just kind of ignoring Greinke’s 2010 and shoving it under the rug as some sort of statistical anomaly. In truth, 2009 was more likely the anomaly – it was just so good – and 2010 was actually closer to Greinke’s career averages than 2009 was, especially in his peripheral numbers, although it was his worst season since he was 21 years old (pre-anxiety disorder absence). Seeing as Greinke is just 26 years old, I fully expect Greinke to at the very least return to the quality of his 2007 and 2008 seasons where over a two year span he had 8.0 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, and a 125 ERA+. 2007-08 seem to be the years that Bill James is thinking about in his projections for next season: 14-11 with a 3.57 ERA, 7.82 K/9, and 2.27 BB/9. I would think, however, judging by typical career arcs, that you would expect Greinke’s 2011 to be much better than his 2010 was.

And that is the big thing. We are expecting Greinke’s 2011 to be more like his 2009 than his 2010, and we have pretty rational reasons for thinking so. Doug Melvin’s job probably depends on it, and if Greinke doesn’t live up to at least a good portion of the hype this year, then Milwaukee could be in for a long, long next few years, considering the amount to which the farm system has been depleted in order to bring in Greinke and Marcum.  Greinke also represents the change in the Brewer clubhouse.  The team went 77-85 in 2010 without Greinke or Marcum.  The offense remains about the same.  Greinke (and Marcum) will have to be the change that puts Milwaukee over the top, because they are really the only major thing that is different.

If Greinke even finds a healthy midpoint between 2009 and 2010, he would still be giving the Brewers a fabulous season – an ERA about 3, ERA+ about 150. With this offense, that’s probably good for close to 20 wins. Milwaukee hasn’t had a 20 game winner since Teddy Higuera in 1986. 2011 seems as good a time as any. And if Greinke is able to deliver a year resembling his 2009 season? And if Marcum and Gallardo can pitch like people are hoping they will? Well, watch out NL.

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