Kansas City Royals

Greatness is Greinke's motivation

SURPRISE, Ariz. —Michael Jordan wore No. 23, which is why Royals ace Zack Greinke wears No. 23. The young pitcher is one of millions who grew up idolizing Jordan for his success and demeanor, but their connection runs deeper.

Great players with an unquenchable drive to get even better possess the ultimate fundamental skill.

Greinke's success in overcoming the twin roadblocks of social anxiety and clinical depression, which once threatened his career, is well-documented. His growing ability to navigate smoothly in what he once viewed as terrifying social situations is every bit as impressive as the season-long performance that resulted in his overwhelming selection as the American League Cy Young Award winner a year ago.

That is the big-picture story on Greinke.

This is something smaller, but no less telling. And no less Jordanlike. It confirms again the fundamental truth that greatness refuses to coast.

For years, Greinke refused to throw a changeup. He also refused to throw a two-seam fastball, although that's another story.

Part of Greinke's first conversation four years ago with then-new pitching coach Bob McClure was a flat statement that he would never throw either pitch. He now throws both, and once he unleashed his darting two-seamer, it quickly became one of the game's best.

The changeup was different.

"When I started throwing it," Greinke said, "I was just trying to figure it out. Some of them were good. And some weren't good."

That was last spring, when he allowed 30 runs and 47 hits in just 28 1/3 innings. Much of that damage came against the changeup. So it's not surprising that Greinke shelved the pitch once the season started.

Shelved it in games, that is.

He continued to work on it between starts. And by August, he was starting to make it dance in bullpen workouts. Still, he was hesitant to throw it in games. Statistics show he threw it only about 6 percent of the time; still less frequently in tight situations.

Greinke didn't quite trust the pitch, but, fact is, he didn't need it. He had two effective fastballs, a killer slider and a nasty curve that he could slow so effectively that it served the purpose of a changeup.

And he dominated. His 2.16 ERA was the best in either league.

So why bother?

If greatness is a fundamental part of you, that's not how greatness works.

"My attitude is that if you push me toward something that you think is a weakness," Jordan once said, "then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength."

It was McClure who pushed Greinke toward the changeup. Gently. Greinke remains an independent thinker who chafed at a short leash long before he won a Cy Young Award. He needs to buy into change.

The story still circulates from 2005 when McClure's predecessor as pitching coach, Guy Hansen, stressed to Greinke that command — the ability to spot a pitch — was far more important than velocity, break or anything else.

Hansen has numerous devoted pupils from a distinguished career, but Greinke reacted to Hansen's theory by "spotting" batting-practice speed fastballs in a spring game against the Milwaukee Brewers.

He got pounded. And while club officials and teammates were understandably furious at what they perceived as a juvenile stunt, it's also undeniable that Hansen's theory no longer seemed particularly sound.

"Here's what I sold him on last year," McClure said. "If you can learn this pitch, you'll never be boxed in.

"You've already got the good fastball command. You've got a dynamite slider. You can change speeds with the curveball, but you can still get boxed in with those pitches. A changeup separates you even further from everything."

Greinke bought into it and came this year to spring training determined to perfect the pitch. And guess what? The pitch has enough movement that it now resembles a slow slider.

That's right; it not only comes in far slower than a fastball with the deception of being delivered at fastball arm speed.

It moves.

"The thing about him is he's not satisfied," veteran catcher Jason Kendall said. "He just had one of the best years ever as a pitcher. Ever. And his changeup is his fourth-best pitch, and that's what he's working on... "

By mid-March, Greinke said his changeup was so good that he had to remind himself not to fall in love with it. He also didn't even throw his slider — either his best or second-best pitch, depending on who is asked — until late in spring training.

"I don't need to work on that," he explained. "I can throw a slider where I want it whenever I want to. This spring, I just wanted to work on my changeup and my fastball command."

That changeup has evolved from a pitch he didn't throw until just over a year ago, to a pitch he wouldn't throw last season in key situations, to a pitch that might now be the best changeup on the staff — and, just maybe, among the best in the league.

"Last year, his changeup was straight," McClure said. "Now, it just falls off the table. You know what? He never ceases to amaze me. His perception as a pitcher is amazing in the way he sees things."

Greatness is never satisfied with what it's already done.

"He's the most competitive person I've ever met," teammate Brian Bannister said. "It doesn't matter what it is, he will claim he's better than you. Brushing your teeth. He'll somehow criticize your technique and explain how he's better at it."

Jordan's competitiveness was legendary.

"I play to win, whether during practice or a real game," he once said. "And I will not let anything get in the way of me and my competitive enthusiasm to win. I'm not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat."

Greinke wants to do more than just sweat, too.

"I know I can pitch better than last year," he said. "It's possible, obviously."

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