Will switching leagues make Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum even better?
For pitchers, there's just something about the National League. The air is sweeter. The food tastes better. Oh, and those pesky designated hitters are gone in favor of light-hitting pitchers. If the American League is the rough part of town, the National League is the Playland at the local McDonald's.
It's no secret that pitchers tend to fare better in the Senior Circuit, and in recent years we've seen some pretty drastic improvements in hurlers moving from the AL to the NL.
In 2008, CC Sabathia went 6-9 with a 3.83 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 18 starts for the Cleveland Indians before being traded to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 17 starts.
And finally, in 2010, R.A. Dickey posted a career-best 2.84 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 27 games (26 starts) with the New York Mets after posting a 4.62 ERA and 1.62 WHIP with the Minnesota Twins in 2009, albeit mostly in a bullpen role.
We don't expect to see such wild swings in production from Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, both of whom were acquired by the Brewers over the offseason to improve a starting rotation that finished the 2010 season with a 4.65 ERA, the second-worst mark in the National League (only the Pirates' rotation was worse). But things are definitely looking up for the two right-handers.
The headliner of the two acquisitions is undoubtedly Greinke, whom the Brewers acquired in exchange for Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, among others. The right-hander fell short of expectations last year after his Cy Young Award-winning effort in 2009, winning just 10 games with a 4.17 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. He finished 56th among starting pitchers in the 2010 ESPN Player Rater, meaning that hurlers such as Jon Garland and Brian Duensing were better fantasy options last year. Sad but true.
As a general rule, moving from the AL to the DH-less NL can knock roughly a half-run off a pitcher's ERA. More importantly, though, Greinke won't have to rely on the Royals' anemic offense to help him register wins. Greinke's 4.66 run-support average ranked 85th out of 92 qualifying starting pitchers last season. Meanwhile, the Brewers' top two starters last year, Yovani Gallardo (7.98) and Randy Wolf (7.47), ranked fourth and 13th, respectively. A Brewers lineup anchored by Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder should help Greinke eclipse the 13 wins he has averaged in Kansas City over the past three seasons.
From a defense perspective, the Royals had the third-worst Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in baseball last season with a -44.5 mark, while the Brewers ranked 15th at -0.7. Things will obviously be different in 2011, as the Brewers, for example, will have Yuniesky Betancourt manning shortstop instead of Escobar, a future Gold Glove candidate. But Greinke should still have somewhat stable glove work behind him in Milwaukee.
We have little reason to think Greinke will ever duplicate his 2009 numbers again, even in the National League, but he is better than his numbers showed last season. His 65.5 percent strand rate, the third-lowest mark in baseball last year, indicated poor luck and should, at the very least, revert closer to the league average (roughly 70 percent) in 2011, and it could even return closer to his career average (72.5 percent). Greinke's K/9 rate did slip, going from 9.5 in 2009 to 7.4 last season, but his fastball velocity remained intact, his 2.25 BB/9 stayed in line with his career average (2.27), and he also induced more ground balls than ever (0.89 ground ball/fly ball ratio), all good signs. At the very least, Greinke's strikeout rate this season should inch closer to his 2008 K/9 mark (8.1) simply as a result of facing pitchers 2-3 times per start instead of DHs.
The one potential concern with Greinke doesn't have anything to do with numbers; it has to do with what's between his ears. There were rumors that the right-hander lost focus last season, at least partly because of his frustration with the Royals' seemingly never-ending rebuilding plan. And it's possible that lack of focus could be attributed to his struggles in the second half, when he posted a 4.70 ERA and 1.35 WHIP. The hope is that a fresh start in a competitive environment will do him good. Either way, there's not much that Greinke will miss about Kansas City aside from maybe the barbecue.
As for Marcum, he also gets a boost with the move to the NL, but not necessarily for the same reasons as Greinke. The Blue Jays ranked ninth in runs scored last season with 755, while the Brewers ranked 12th with 750 runs, so trading one lineup for the other is essentially a lateral move. And in terms of UZR, the Jays and Brewers were nearly identical last season, so there's no real upgrade in the defensive department, either.
On the surface, Marcum had a fine 2010 campaign, going 13-8 with a 3.64 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, which ranked him 27th among starting pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater. Keep in mind, however, that 2010 was his first year back after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he posted the best K/9 (7.6) and BB/9 (1.98) rates of his career. His 3.84 strikeout-to-walk ratio also ranked sixth in baseball, ahead of guys like Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum and Sabathia.
The main reason to be excited about Marcum, though, isn't that he's going to the National League; it's that he's leaving the AL East. The top three teams in baseball (in terms of runs scored) last year all resided in the AL East: the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays. Of Marcum's 31 starts last season, 10 of them came against those three powerhouses. In those 10 starts, he went 1-6 with a 5.63 ERA and 1.29 WHIP.
That means he posted a 12-2 record with a 2.74 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in the other 21 starts. In 2011, not only does he not have to worry about the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays (aside from some possible interleague starts against them in June), but he'll also be in a division that houses the Pirates and Astros, the two lowest-scoring teams in the National League last season. That's a trade-off fantasy owners can get behind.
If he can stay healthy, Marcum could very well post career-best numbers in his first season in Milwaukee. And while Greinke is the better pitcher from a skills standpoint, Marcum's ADP (116th overall and 28th among pitchers) actually makes him a better draft-day value (Greinke is being drafted 41st overall, eighth among starting pitchers).
In its simplest terms, the bottom line is this: In the American League, Greinke and Marcum were good. In the National League, they're even better.