On Baseball: Zack Greinke Would Rather Not Discuss His Contract

TEMPE, Ariz. — In most settings, admittedly, it is impolite to ask people about their salary. In baseball, it is a regular part of conversation, especially as the industry absorbs the shock waves of three new contracts worth a combined $890 million.

As lucrative as they were, none of those deals — Bryce Harper to the Philadelphia Phillies, Manny Machado to the San Diego Padres and Nolan Arenado remaining with the Colorado Rockies — carried an average annual value as high as Zack Greinke’s. As he starts the fourth season of his six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Greinke still sits atop the salary pile, at $34.4 million per season.

Just don’t ask how he feels about that. At least, don’t ask it as a follow-up to another reporter’s question about labor issues. Greinke declined to answer the first question, and framing the second in a personal context did not change his mind.

“I guess that was a good way of wording it, because it almost had me answer a labor question,” Greinke said. “That was a professional question.”

Maybe so, but it was not effective. Does it matter to him — or surprise him — that he still has the game’s top salary?

“I don’t want to answer it,” Greinke said, matter-of-factly, and that was that.

Greinke, 35, spoke on Saturday at the Los Angeles Angels’ minor league complex, where he had thrown about 50 pitches in a morning scrimmage. He allowed a home run to Jonathan Lucroy — “Golly!” he shouted, before the ball had even cleared the fence — but retired Albert Pujols on two grounders and a pop-up.

Greinke is a former teammate of Pujols’s with the Angels and of Lucroy’s with the Milwaukee Brewers. He has also played for the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He won a Cy Young Award for the Royals in 2009, and has twice led the majors in earned run average.

But Greinke has mainly been known for quiet consistency: a safe bet for around 15 victories, 200 innings and 200 strikeouts every season. He almost never grants one-on-one interviews, but his Hall of Fame case gets louder and louder, a testament to the way he combines data, intuition and skill in a way few others can.

“The amount and information that he takes in, in my mind, it’s impossible for me to try to do,” said Zack Godley, a younger Diamondbacks starter. “I can’t fathom trying to think of all those little things when I’m just trying to throw a pitch. What he does is amazing. His thought process on everything is just on a different level than anyone else.”

To get on that level with Greinke in December 2015, the Diamondbacks had to stand out. He had just opted out of his contract with the Dodgers after going 19-3 with 1.66 E.R.A., the best in the majors in 20 years. He was closing in on a deal with the San Francisco Giants before Arizona’s owner, Ken Kendrick, overwhelmed him, eager to lift a team that had just improved by 15 victories, to 79-83.

Greinke has generally been excellent for the Diamondbacks, going 45-25 with a 3.53 E.R.A. Of the 48 pitchers to make at least 80 starts in the last three seasons, Greinke is tied for ninth in ERA+, a metric that adjusts for ballpark factors and rates him as 27 percent better than the league average.

“He’s deserved every dollar,” said Derrick Hall, the Diamondbacks’ chief executive. “He’s been the pitcher we hoped he’d be when we signed him. It’s not his fault we haven’t gone as far as we hoped.”

Hall added: “In no way can we look back with any regret.”

Even so, the Diamondbacks lost their gamble to capitalize on the prime of Paul Goldschmidt, a star first baseman signed to a below-market contract. The team missed the playoffs in Greinke’s first and third seasons — with a wild-card victory and division series loss in between — and Goldschmidt was traded in December to the St. Louis Cardinals.

Other stars from the 2017 playoff team have left via free agency over the last two winters, including starter Patrick Corbin and outfielders J. D. Martinez and A. J. Pollock. The Diamondbacks will have a payroll of roughly $125 million this season — second-highest in their history — but the team is comically top-heavy.

Greinke will make nearly five times the salary of any of his teammates; the next highest-paid Diamondback is outfielder David Peralta, at $7 million. Hall said the Greinke contract had made it harder to afford other premium talent, but the team was still happy to have him.

“It’s definitely a factor, it plays in, but we obviously knew that when we signed him, it was something we’d be faced with way down the road,” Hall said. “We hoped to cash in much sooner, but we believe that in order to win, you need a guy at the top of the rotation. So we did not have an appetite to move Zack.”

So Greinke forges on, leading a rotation that also includes Godley, Robbie Ray and Luke Weaver, who was among those to arrive from St. Louis for Goldschmidt. Greinke threw no harder than 88 miles an hour in Saturday’s exhibition, but baffled hitters with location and movement.

His changeup is the best pitch in baseball,” Ray said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. There’s just something about it — sometimes it’s harder than his fastball. It’s like 89, but it’s got split-action on it. When he’s going good, it doesn’t matter if it’s a righty or a lefty.”

Greinke, who said the changeup is so good he does not even need to set hitters up for it, also baits hitters with a curveball that puttered in at 66 m.p.h. on Saturday. He said he never planned to feature that pitch as often as he now does.

“That one just evolved,” Greinke said. “I’ve gotten in more trouble in my career trying to reinvent myself before I need to.”

Reinvention is a hallmark of the greats, and Greinke compares well to Mike Mussina, who pushed himself to the Hall of Fame by constantly seeking new ways to win as his fastball diminished in his 30s. Last season was a low-level triumph for Greinke, who recovered from a wobbly April with a 2.94 E.R.A. thereafter — dominant, or something close to it.

“I wouldn’t say dominant,” said Greinke, who then paused. “Can you say the question again? I kind of stopped listening halfway, and then I forgot what you started with.”

He was asked to evaluate last season, in which he earned his fifth All-Star selection. Torey Lovullo, the Diamondbacks’ manager, said Greinke is “extremely honest, and his insight is quick and to the point” — and Greinke’s self-assessment bore that out.

“I was feeling really bad in the spring,” he said. “I just wanted to try to put a respectable season together when I started, and then my pitches started going more where I wanted, and my results started to do better and I was able to make good pitches all year. Over all, everything worked out pretty good. All the pitches were pretty crisp and location was pretty good.

“Just not amazing anymore, but it’s still pretty solid. I mean, better than solid. I’ll take it.”

Not amazing anymore, but better than solid. The Diamondbacks will take it, even at $34.4 million per season.