PLAYER TO WATCH
People tend to remember the start that AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke had last season: 8--1 with an 0.84 ERA and not a single home run allowed through his first 10 appearances. He was a sensation.
It's the end, though, that sticks with Greinke. The numbers over his last eight starts were nearly as impressive—a team-record 15 strikeouts against the Indians on Aug. 25, a one-hit shutout against the Mariners his next time out and a 5--0 finish with a 1.29 ERA—but what excited Greinke was how his changeup emerged.
He had been working on the pitch for a long time and had not felt good about it. His brilliant start had been built around the rest of his embarrassment-of-riches repertoire—a mid-90s fastball he can spot anywhere, a devastating slider and a slow curveball that usually drops below 70 mph. "I don't really know why," Greinke says, "but late in the year, suddenly, my changeup was really good. It was moving. Guys were missing it."
That changeup gives Greinke and the Royals hope that, as improbable as it seems, he can improve on a 2009 performance that was not only the bright spot of a dismal Kansas City season but also was the bright highlight of a dismal decade. The Royals lost more games from 2000 through '09 than any other team in the majors. This season isn't expected to be much better for K.C., but every five days Greinke will make the team worth watching.
Percent of first pitches Royals relievers threw for strikes last season, the lowest in the AL. All those 1-and-0 counts led to disaster. Even with standout closer Joakim Soria, K.C. had the league's worst bullpen ERA (5.02) and highest walk rate (4.6 per nine innings).
Last year 35-year-old catcher Jason Kendall had a .241 average, .331 OBP and .305 slugging percentage for the Brewers while throwing out just one in five base stealers, and even his mediocre OBP was inflated by batting in front of the pitcher most of the time. It was his third straight lousy season at the plate. But that didn't stop Kansas City from giving him a two-year, $6 million contract in December. It would be money down the drain, but the Royals should distance themselves from their mistake by giving switch-hitting Brayan Pe√±a most of the playing time behind the plate. Pe√±a slugged .442 in part-time play last year while throwing out 35% of base stealers. He is a career .308 hitter at Triple A with a mature approach at the plate: he has nearly as many walks as strikeouts in five seasons. Pe√±a is better than Kendall, plain and simple.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Trey Hillman
3RD SEASON WITH ROYALS
MARK CUNNINGHAM/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (GREINKE)
CHANGE IS GOOD Mastering an off-speed pitch helped Greinke finish '09 strong.
CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES (PE√ëA)