Who is the best cross-over to the N.L.? Cliff Lee or Zack Greinke?

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Lee may be the right choice for some, Greinke for others

A member of the Scoresheet Yahoo Forum scoresheet-talk asked this week who was the top AL to NL crossover: Cliff Lee or Zach Greinke? That is a really tough question. On paper (projection by peripheral stat analysis, etc.)  they are almost identical, except that Greinke is 5 years younger. Pitchers do not age very predictably, however. They could decline steeply at 33, or these days they could keep going strong until 40. Still, that is a significant plus for ZG.

Another difference is that Lee is more consistent. When Greinke was "on" as he was the first half of 2009, well, it doesn't get better than that. However, Lee hasn't had an "off" year as Greinke had last year in the last three - when Lee emerged as a star. I'm not sure if consistency is a major plus in this case, but I would give the edge to Lee, because one never knows for sure if an "off" year is just that or the beginning of a new inferior level of pitching.

In fact, in 2010 while Greinke suffered his lowest strikeout rate since 2007, Lee jumped to not just his career best, but an astounding 10.28 K/BB. His strikeout rate was the highest since 2004. However, it was his walk rate of 0.76 BB/9 innings that was so incredible. That was a better rate than Greg Maddox’s best. Of pitchers with seasons of 162 innings since they began using clean baseballs in 1920, only Carlos Silva (0.43 in 2005), Babe Adams (0.62 in 1920), Bret Saberhagen (0.66 in 1994), and Red Lucas (0.74 in 1933) have had lower walk rates. Although, the 2010 Cliff Lee had a higher strikeout rate than Saberhagen in 1994, Saberhagen’s K/BB was slightly higher. It was the all-time highest of the lively ball era. Lee’s 2010 and Saberhagen’s 1994 were the only 162+ seasons since then with K:BB over 10.00. Curt Schilling’s 2002 came in at 9.58. Then it drops much further to Pedro Martinez’s 8.88 in 2000 and Greg Maddux’s 8.85 in 1997. Schilling, Martinez, and Maddux each have two of the top 10 post 1920 K:BB seasons. Ben Sheets and Carlos Silva have the other two. No. 11 Roy Halladay would have made the top 10 last year, if Lee hadn’t. Pardon the digression.

Greinke moves to the NL Central to a slightly pitcher friendly park. Kauffman is a neutral park in the somewhat weakest division of the stronger league. As an A.L. guy, I can't tell you how much Milwaukee's defense will help him, but Kansas City has had probably the weakest defense in the A.L. over the last few years - so if Milwaukee has close to average defense, the move should significantly help him. Lee has pitched for Philly before and fared well. Although, Bank Park is slightly hitter friendly, they have a fine organization and have good reason to expect continued excellence from Lee. I'm guessing Greinke will enjoy a boost in the new league with an improved defense this year, while Lee will continue his plateau.

Lastly, let's look at the men. Lee looks like he is in great physical shape. I haven't seen much of Greinke lately. Both have had some history of arm trouble, but not much for a good while - although, Greinke did complain of a sore shoulder last year - perhaps, the reason for his down year. Lee had an abdominal strain early in the season and a little back strain late in the season. He pitched deep into the post season, which can be worrisome, except he did the year before without any noticeable adverse affect. Sometimes the affects of overwork show up the year after the next year. Then there is Greinke's psychological battles from a few years ago. I have no idea if that is something that could re-occur or not, but he is moving his occupation to a new city.

I suppose you can summarize it thusly: Lee is the safer choice, but Greinke has more upside in terms of both level of excellence and length of protectable career. If your team is building, I would pick Greinke. If you have a strong chance of winning it all this year, stick with Lee.

John Carter