Instant classic: Greinke and Mauer meet

The schedule never conspired for them to meet until Sunday, which is a shame, really, because Zack Greinke(notes) vs. Joe Mauer(notes) is baseball’s version of an Old West gunfight. There is nothing so lonely for a pitcher as to stare at a man hitting .370, just as there is nothing so frightful for a hitter as to face a foe with an ERA around 2.00.

And yet fear obstructed neither in the first at-bat of the season between the should-be American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player award winners. Greinke hurled unfair sliders, and Mauer laid off 96-mph fastballs, and Greinke won out when Mauer couldn’t help but lunge and miss at a slider that ended up in the dirt. Same thing in Round 2, when with the bases loaded and one out Mauer flailed at a slider that registered 91 mph.

No pitcher had struck out Mauer twice in a game this season, let alone both times swinging, but then Greinke isn’t any pitcher. He notched win No. 16 Sunday, and that should be enough to convince holdouts that his season – with an ERA half the league average – is worthy of the Cy Young.

Photo Greinke

Greinke allowed an earned run in seven innings as Kansas City stopped Minnesota’s winning streak at five. It was the second run opponents scored in his last 43 innings. Since Aug. 25, Greinke has taken his AL-best ERA and shaved nearly half a run off it, all the way down to 2.06.

“He was just flat-out nasty,” said Mauer. As the Twins embark on a final-week push to outfox Detroit for the AL Central title, they’ve got two roadblocks. The first comes in a four-game series against the first-place Tigers starting Monday. And the last arrives in Minneapolis on Saturday, in the form of the very same pitcher who, with seven scoreless innings, will put up just the 11th season of 230-plus innings with a sub-2.00 ERA since the mound was lowered, and so …

1. Even though Zack Greinke is a postseason non-entity, it’s worth recognizing the breadth of his accomplishment one final time, as this week’s 10 Degrees hopscotch across the best seasons in baseball this year (along with some honorary degrees for the snubbed).

Lost among Greinke’s sparkling numbers is the environment in which he has done it. He plays on a terrible team. No, terrible does not do the Royals justice. Before their annual (and meaningless) September surge, Kansas City threatened to lose 100 games. Again. For the fourth time since Greinke arrived in 2004.

Photo Mauer

The ability to isolate himself from such pervasive losing – to overcome what surrounds him – is perhaps the most impressive sliver of Greinke’s season. No pitcher has done so since Steve Carlton somehow won 27 games during the Philadelphia Phillies’ 59-win season in 1972. Since that year, of all the pitchers with adjusted ERAs of 182 or better – that was Carlton’s, and it meant he was 82 percent better than league average – just four of 24 have pitched on sub-.500 teams: Kevin Brown in 1996 (80-82), Roger Clemens(notes) in 1997 (76-86), Pedro Martinez(notes) in 1997 (78-84) and Greinke (63-92).

Even if the Royals win out – and they won’t – that still makes them six games worse than Clemens’ ’97 Blue Jays. So here’s to Greinke’s mental strength – a hallmark now, less than four years after anxiety troubles almost forced him from the game – and to a well-deserved award, much like …

2. That of Joe Mauer, who, by the way, followed those two strikeouts by rapping a pair of singles to keep his batting average at .371. He’s going to win his third batting title. He leads the AL in on-base and slugging percentages. He may win a Gold Glove at catcher. And he’s spearheading a playoff run from a team that looked dead a month ago.

He is the best player in the AL. And the most valuable. And he’d be both across the major leagues, too, if not for …

Photo Pujols

3. Albert Pujols(notes), whose bases-clearing double Sunday nearly poisoned another game for sagging Colorado. It just showed that even with a trade-enhanced lineup, sometimes Pujols has to carry the Cardinals.

They had clinched the National League Central already, so the 4-3 loss to Colorado didn’t mean much to St. Louis. The Cardinals will do this week what champions do: Rest their regulars, set up their pitching rotation and try to maneuver past Philadelphia for home-field advantage in the first round.

For Pujols, it’s something of a victory lap. He beats Mauer – and only Mauer – with a .446 on-base percentage and .670 slugging percentage, which is one-one thousandth of a point behind his career best.

Is this Pujols’ greatest season? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s like asking which flavor of Ben and Jerry’s is the best. It’s too tough to say. They’re all amazing. Just ask …

4. Prince Fielder(notes), who looks intimately acquainted with each. Especially if he’s still doing the vegetarian thing. Because Milwaukee can’t creep over .500, and Pujols has a monopoly on first-base dominance in the NL, Fielder’s incredible season – as good, in fact, as his 50-homer 2007 – has slinked along anonymously.

Well, his 137 RBIs are tied for first in the NL, his .596 slugging percentage second, his 43 home runs third, his 102 walks fourth, his .406 on-base percentage and 99 runs sixth, and his Ultimate Zone Rating on defense about average. And he’s only 25.

So if the Brewers do trade Fielder this offseason, they’ll do so at near his absolute peak, which means Doug Melvin has every right to ask for an enormous return. Should Fielder go, the NL Central would still have right to claim itself as the best first-base division in baseball, especially after …

Photo
Lee

5. The comeback of Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee(notes), who may not deserve a place on this list. Actually, he’s probably on the honorary-degree list, along with Derek Jeter(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes), Tim Lincecum(notes), Adam Wainwright(notes), Chris Carpenter(notes), Miguel Cabrera(notes), Chase Utley(notes) and others.

It just gets back to the Greinke corollary: Anyone who can produce on a miserable team is worthy of tremendous respect, and Lee has thrived in a dysfunctional Chicago Cubs clubhouse contaminated by Milton Bradley(notes) and rendered insignificant by its own underachievement. In the second half, Lee has turned into his 2005 self: a .336 batting average, .432 on-base percentage and .672 slugging percentage. His .975 season OPS bests all but Pujols and Fielder.

Lee turned 34 three weeks ago. He may never have such a season again. He’ll retire an excellent and underappreciated, if fragile, player. Someone who had all the potential in the world …

Photo Kemp

6. And never quite lived up to it. Some baseball people worried the same fate would befall Matt Kemp(notes), the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 25-year-old center fielder, who, like Lee, was a fine multi-sport athlete with tools out the wazoo and raw like sashimi.

Everything is coming together. Kemp’s gap power is turning into home-run pop (26). His speed is translating into stolen-base prowess (34 of 42 attempts). He’s a plus center fielder (sixth among center fielders in UZR). Only one other player can match Kemp’s power-speed-athleticism triumvirate, and he happens to be …

7. On the way to his first batting title and a second-place MVP finish. No one in Boston’s organization will ever cop to regretting the Hanley Ramirez(notes) trade, and why would they? The Red Sox rode Josh Beckett(notes) to a World Series, and rings are the things.

And yet what would they – what would anyone – give for a .348-hitting, .551-slugging, believe-it-or-not above-average shortstop who doesn’t turn 26 until December? Five prospects? Six? Seven? It’s incredible to watch Ramirez’s talent manifest itself, and infuriating to so many in the Marlins’ clubhouse who he has isolated with pompous, selfish behavior.

Ramirez is a diva, and Florida accepts it because he’s Hanley Ramirez, and there is no one in baseball like him. How novel, then, it would be to have someone …

Photo Rivera

8. With otherworldly talent and humility. Such a thing exists, you say? No, Mariano Rivera(notes) isn’t some sort of a cyborg, though it often appears he is programmed to get outs. Following the best individual season of his career – and, honestly, it’s the Ben-and-Jerry’s thing again, except the 47 baserunners in 77-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio were his equivalent of Mint Chocolate Cookie – Rivera did it again.

He’s posting his highest strikeout rate since 1996, the year before he took over as full-time closer. Since then, Rivera has thrown more than 900 innings, recorded 520 saves and posted an adjusted ERA of 220. He’s been twice as good as the AL, with plenty of room to spare.

And remember: It’s all with one pitch. One dazzling, amazing pitch, the single greatest pitch a man has ever thrown. For the last 14 years, hitters have known they will see a cut fastball from Mariano Rivera, and it is such a good pitch, they cannot do anything with it. It overwhelms hitters, much like …

9. All of the pitches in the repertoire of Felix Hernandez(notes), the Seattle Mariners’ remarkable 23-year-old right-hander. He throws a fastball, curveball, changeup and slider, and every one gets hitters out. Only five other pitchers can count four above-average pitches, according to FanGraphs’ linear pitch weights: Javier Vazquez(notes), Dan Haren(notes), Jon Lester(notes), Josh Beckett and Roy Oswalt(notes).

Hernandez has been the best of all, the only potentially legitimate argument against a unanimous Greinke Cy Young win. Grienke played in the Central and Hernandez in the more competitive West, and Greinke didn’t face the big boys (Hernandez beat New York and Boston, whom Greinke avoided), and Hernandez pitches on a better team. All of those factors are indisputable.

And yet they obviate the reality that …

10. The best pitcher in baseball this year, and the most dominant player compared to his peers, has been Zack Greinke. Which is funny, because back in spring training, during an interview that turned into this story, Greinke started talking about the Cy Young. He never had given it much thought before.

The goals always were less ostentatious. But no. This year was different. He wanted to be good enough to win the Cy Young, and when Greinke wants something – to win a game of pingpong or a tennis match or a video game – he does.

And if he hadn’t already, on Sunday, he did.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 28, 2009