Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Hitting Curveballs

Zack Greinke's genes gave him a career as a star pitcher. But then they almost took it away.
Greinke was supposed to be a star pitcher. He was a top-notch prep pitcher who was supposed to be the total package: a pitcher with good stuff, great control, and strong makeup. And he was.

The Royals drafted him in the 1st round of the 2oo2 draft. The Royals pushed Greinke aggressively through the minors, and he seemed to respond well. Well, maybe "aggressive" isn't strong enough. Greinke made just three starts in Rookie League, two in Low-A ball and then pitched one game in High-A. That's three levels, 12 innings, 18 years old.
The Royals didn't stop the fast track in 2003, when Greinke was still just 19; he began the year back in High-A and pitched very well. He threw 87 innings, posting a 13:78 BB:K ratio and a 1.14 ERA. That's simply amazing for any level, especially for a player who's younger than the competition. So he got bumped up to Double-A, and while he wasn't amazing, he was still quite good (3.23 ERA, 5:34 BB:K ratio in 53 IP) which is, again, fantastic for his age. The Royals had a promising year in 2003 (83-79), and it looked like Greinke might move up and complete the renewal of a moribund franchise. But the team's success in 2003 was misleading and illusory; one could argue that this disappointment and the need for some good news (and good pitching) played a part in Greinke's promotion to the majors in 2004.
Of course, they may have just brought him up because he was good. The team started him in Triple-A in '04, and he pitched very well in 6 starts. With the major league team suffering and with little competition among the resident starters, Greinke came up to the majors.

Greinke pitched quite well; his 8-11 record was more a reflection of the team's struggles, as Greinke posted a 3.97 ERA (120 ERA+) and again showing his truly outstanding control; he walked just 26 batters in 145 innings while striking out 100. His only trouble was home runs, as he allowed 26 in limited work, more than one per start. Optimists called him a poor man's Greg Maddux, whereas pessimists pointed out that even with his great control, his low strikeout rate and high home run totals. But there was no denying that any 20-year-old who can pitch above-average ball in the majors is promising.

But Greinke took a big step back in 2005. He made 33 starts, but lasted just 183 innings. His walks went up, although not alarmingly (53 total). His strikeout rate dipped (114), as did his home run rate (23). The biggest difference, though, was in his hits allowed. In '03, Greinke allowed 143 H in 145 IP, but in '04 that ballooned to 233 H in 183 IP in '04. The 2003 number was pretty low, donsidering, and the 2004 total may have been the result predicted by the pessimists; that a pitcher in front of a bad defense in a hitter's park can't afford to allow as many balls in play as Greinke did.

But then something else came up. Something that seemed to have nothing to do with baseball, hits, projectability, scouts, or computers. But as it turned out, it had everything to do with it.

That's because Greinke suffered from depression and social anxiety disorder. It's impossible to say to what degree, if any, this affected his 2005 performance. Only Greinke and his close confidantes know how bad he was suffering at this point. His struggles may have just been pitching struggles unrelated to his mental health. Or it could have had a lot to do with it, because baseball as a profession requires a great deal of confidence, self-assurance, and resilience in the face of public pressure. Greinke stated later that the diseases were genetic, so it's no telling how long he's been affected. But it came to the forefront in 2006.
Greinke pitched in three games in 2006, and they were all in September. Before the season started, the Royals went public with the fact that Greinke wouldn't be able to pitch for an indefinite period. It eventually came out that it was due to mental illness, although I can't find out if the Royals ever confirmed this specifically or if this knowledge just leaked out.
I have to say right away that the Royals, at least externally, handled this situation with great sensitivity and great regard for Greinke's privacy. The specific problems that Greinke suffered from didn't even become public for quite a while. And the mainstream media deserves credit as well for not digging into Greinke's private life and publishing his psychiatric troubles on the front page. Although we must recognize that Greinke played for a team in Kansas City, and it's doubtful that a player in New York would get similar treatment.
Greinke spent a great deal of time away from baseball. That was deliberate, as it was baseball that caused the greatest grief to him. Over a period of time, that would slowly change. The Royals eventually sent Greinke back to the minor leagues to work things out. Greinke made 17 starts with Double-A Wichita and was his old self, even if it was against minor league competition. He threw 106 innings and posted a Greinke-an BB:K ratio of 27:94. And he allowed just 12 home runs.
The Royals recalled Greinke in September of that year. He made three appearances with the major league club, posting a 4.26 ERA (110 ERA+). Although there was a great deal of work ahead, Greinke had returned to the majors after a career interruption as serious as any arm injury.
In 2007, the club used Greinke as a starter and reliever (52 games pitched, 14 of them starts) and he was quite good. The Royals were still in last place, but Greinke went 7-7 with a 3.69 ERA and a typical BB:K ratio of 36:106 in 122 innings. Even his home run total (12) was back to normal.

If that weren't good news enough, Greinke has taken another step forward to become one of the league's best pitchers in 2008. He's made 31 starts for 195.1 innings and managed a 3.59 ERA (125 ERA+). He currently ranks 13th in the AL in ERA and even 14th in the AL in strikeouts (179). Basically, Zack Greinke is back, and it's just as amazing as a pitcher returning from injury. In fact, it's more amazing, because his were problems that were new to many people who follow baseball.

The reason I'm talking about Zack Greinke is that I suffer from almost the exact same mental illnesses. It was very encouraging for me to see the way Greinke's troubles were publicly handled, and I could only hope that it helped a lot of people come to terms with diseases that still carry a significant stigma.
In fact, the similarities between Greinke and myself (apart from the whole ace-pitcher thing) are striking. I suffer from chronic depression that has a strong genetic influence. The best way to describe depression is to take life's ups and downs, eliminate most of the ups and deepen all of the downs. Depression becomes a serious problem when it affects your ability to function in your life. Obviously, Greinke's troubles reached this point, as it made him completely unable to play baseball.
I can't speculate as to what other symptoms Greinke had. Many people have similar symptoms, but nobody has them all. The story Greinke tells in the interview linked above -- of crying himself to sleep clutching a bat -- is heart-wrenching and is not the sign of moderate depression. I guess you could say that I'm defensive about depression, if only because there are still people out there who don't really see it as a disease. And that's an argument that offends me personally. As for the interview I mentioned, Greinke gave an interview to the Kansas City Star about his struggles about a year ago that offers the most specific information about his problems. The story is no longer extant on the Star's website, so I linked to the article above, which excerpts some of the more pertinent passages.

Greinke also suffers from social anxiety, as do I (I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, but it's particularly acute in social situations). I can certainly relate to some of Greinke's troubles.
Social anxiety isn't necessarily the same as being introverted. It's a pervasive and usually unfounded fear of other people and social situations. This is a problem for anyone functioning in this world. Do you want to get a job? That's a stressful people-related situation for most people, but it can become a nightmare for people with social anxiety. Need to socialize with your peer group or try to form romantic relationships? These situations are beyond nightmarish for most people with social anxiety. We either suffer terribly through them or simply learn to avoid them, thus becoming hermits.
I should point out that while my job does have me dealing with people on a daily basis, it does not have me doing so in front of 20,000-40,000 screaming people all looking at me. A big part of social anxiety is the fear of being judged and/or feeling like you're constantly being judged. Well if you're a baseball player, that's basically true. And I can't imagine having to deal with that.
Like many people with social anxiety, I came up with my own ways to cope. I don't know what Greinke's strategies were, but I started honing my sense of humor early on. Being funny is a great replacement for substantive conversation, especially with people you want to impress. I also enjoyed from an early age performing in theatre. That way I can pretend to be someone else to get acceptance.

It's amazing to me that someone can surpass all of the obstacles it takes to become a professional baseball player and deal with a potentially debilitating illness at the same time. Whether he intends to be one or not, Greinke is an example to a lot of sdifferent people.

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