Ask Alex: Can Zack Greinke win the Cy after move to NL?

We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: We met Zack some time ago, when he was so young. Kansas City faithful have been through thick and thin with him — they lost, they tied, they won. They thought they'd be friends forever. But they were wrong, and now the National League is about to get ready for a Zack Attack.*

*If you thought I wasn't going to make an extended, tortured Saved By the Bell reference in a post about Zack Greinke(notes), you just don't know me very well.

American League imports have had a pretty good recent history in the National League Cy Young race. In the past three years, three former AL Cy Young Award winners have switched leagues and finished in the top five in the Cy Young race: Roy Halladay(notes) won it last year in his first year in the Senior Circuit, and in 2008, Johan Santana(notes) finished third in his first season in the National League, while C.C. Sabathia(notes) finished fifth despite only pitching half a season in the NL. The Brewers were criticized by some for overusing Sabathia, who tossed seven complete games in 17 stretch-run starts — more complete games than he's ever posted in a full season before or since. But their reckless treatment of his rubber arm certainly helped him cement his case as one of the league's best pitchers.

The Question: Will Zack Greinke win the 2011 NL Cy Young Award?

The Analysis: I don't feel remotely comfortable counting him out. Greinke's subpar 2010 has been dissected in a number of corners, and many people have explained it partially as a result of his dissatisfaction at being on a perpetually losing, perpetually rebuilding team, the situation that led him to ask for a trade in the first place.

So, there's this: Much in the same way that I caveat all of my projections by saying that I have no idea what will happen with a player's health, I have to admit that I don't know what's going on in Greinke's head. He is a phenomenally talented pitcher who has publicly admitted struggles with depression and social anxiety disorder, and most Royals watchers agree that his troubles in 2010 were not due to physical ailment.

Nor would — or should — they claim it's all in his head, either: The Royals defense was truly atrocious, and Greinke was supremely unlucky, suffering a precipitous drop in his strand rate. The important thing is that the physical talents that produced his 2009 have not been impaired. His talent is otherworldly: 2009 was perhaps the best season by any pitcher since Pedro Martinez's(notes) prime.

And now Greinke goes to a good situation in Milwaukee. As Rany Jazayerli noted:

The same thing that made Greinke so popular in Kansas City — that he was the rare superstar who was perfectly happy playing in a small market, at least until the losing became unbearable — should make him the same way in Milwaukee.

Since 2007, Zack Greinke has a 3.32 ERA in 773 2/3 innings pitched, averaging 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings and 3.6 strikeouts per walk. Perhaps not coincidentally, those numbers are awfully close to what major projection systems are forecasting for his performance. Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection predicts a 3.28 ERA, 8.6 K/9, and a 4.1 K/BB. Less optimistically, the Bill James Handbook predicts a 3.57 ERA, 7.8 K/9, and 3.5 K/BB. Both were calculated back when he was a Royal, and therefore not adjusted to his new park and league context. In recent years, Milwaukee's Miller Park has actually been slightly more pitcher-friendly than KC's Kauffman Stadium, while the American League has averaged appreciably more runs per game than the National League. So those projections would both look rosier in his new home.

The biggest red flag from 2010 is his strikeout rate, which dropped after climbing nearly every year that he's been in the big leagues. In the past four years, his K/9 increased from 7.8 in 2007, to 8.1 in 2008, to 9.5 in his 2009 Cy Young campaign, then dropped to 7.4 K/9 in 2010. Eno Sarris of Fangraphs speculated that some of his strikeouts may have been casualties of a change in his curveball strategy.

But more important is that he got really unlucky, with an ERA nearly a full run lower than his FIP. His home run rate increased slightly and batting average on balls in play increased almost imperceptibly, but his strand rate fell from 79 percent (a bit above league average) to 65 percent (way, way below league average). And by UZR, the Royals had the second- or third-worst defense in the majors, behind only the hapless Pirates and Indians. With even an average defense behind him, Zack almost certainly would have finished with an ERA below 4.00. Last year, the Brewers were solidly middle-of-the-pack, and even though they traded two pretty good defensive players to the Royals, they'll probably be more or less middle-of-the-pack again this year. They'll certainly pick it better than the 2010 Royals.

The Forecast for 2011: Zack Greinke may never again pitch as well as he did in 2009, but few pitchers ever do. Even if he splits the difference between 2009 and 2010, he'd still be one of the best pitchers in the league, and it would not at all be beyond the realm of possibility for him to finish with an ERA below 3.00 and start picking up Cy Young votes. That seems like a tall order, though I prefer the ZiPS projection to that of Bill James. I think he'll put up an ERA between 3.00 and 3.25, with around 8.0 K/9 and a K/BB between 3.5 and 4.0, and between 12 and 15 wins, and maybe an All-Star nod if not a Cy Young Award. (He'd be the sixth pitcher to win the award in both leagues, joining Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson(notes), Roy Halladay, Gaylord Perry and Pedro Martinez.)

The Brewers need him to hit the ground running. After trades for Greinke and Shaun Marcum(notes), they have some terrific frontline talent, but pretty thin depth, and the $38 million they gave to Rickie Weeks(notes) indicates that they think he can stay on the field. If they can keep their core together for a full season — Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo(notes), Weeks, Ryan Braun(notes), Prince Fielder(notes) — they have a very good chance at beating out the Reds, Cubs and Wainwright-less Cardinals for the NL Central title. And with Zack attacking the mound every fifth day, I wouldn't count them out.

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Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?, Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?, Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?, Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?, Will Neil Walker be a top 10 second baseman?

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