This story of Zack Greinke’s Opening Day start reflects why he’s still so effective

About 20 minutes before the first pitch of the 2023 season, the Royals were introduced in the sequence of their Opening Day lineup. Over the course of nine names, six of them were experiencing it for the first time in their lives, so it felt appropriate that their manager was along that ride with them.

This is what has drawn the most conversation over the winter, because, frankly, new is interesting, and it’s particularly interesting when the team is coming off a 97-loss season.

But for all of the change that will dominate the early part of the season, the Royals’ most pressing storyline — the one most revealing of their future — is the same as it was a year ago.

Do they have the pitching?

More specifically, how will a group of young pitchers, acquired in succession through the draft, develop?

Develop.

It’s a funny word, come to think of it. It naturally points a spotlight toward a collection of pitchers in their mid-20s, all the while overlooking the 39-year-old occupying the corner of the clubhouse. See, you might think that Zack Greinke would’ve spent the offseason and spring training working to build his body to prepare for what has long passed most 39-year-olds by.

His primary focus? The pitches. Believe it or not, 19 years after his rookie season arrived on the same mound in which he began the Royals season Thursday, he is trying to develop some new options. Or, in one case, a new wrinkle.

“He’s still sitting there trying to get better and better,” Royals pitcher Brady Singer said. “He still doesn’t think he has it all figured out.”

That’s precisely the point that should resonate.

Greinke was tagged with the loss when the Twins left Kauffman Stadium with a 2-0 win in the season opener Thursday, but the initial loss of the year was tied more closely to a lineup that managed only two hits. This lineup is going to have days like that. More than they’d like. More than you’d like. They have to play anyway. The guy they were facing, Twins starter Pablo Lopez, was pretty good, too.

But this is about the other guy on the mound. The final stat line was plenty good enough: 5 1/3 innings, six hits, two runs, one walk, four strikeouts. He threw 80 pitches, and only 24 missed the zone.

The story of how he did it — how he’s still doing it — predates the weekday afternoon inside Kauffman Stadium. About three years ago, Greinke explained, he noticed that hitters were beginning to “catch up a little bit to some of my stuff.” It’s since been a constant work in progress to find the right mix, and so this offseason, he added to the mix.

A wrinkle to the slider.

And a two-seam fastball.

He’d thrown the latter early in his career, but mostly ditched it in favor of the four-seamer for the past decade or so. He already had five effective pitches, and that offers a pitcher more than enough to work on. Besides, it’s tough to incorporate six or seven in a game.

Well, he’s got seven now, but the idea isn’t to use all of them into a game. (He did use them all in spring training.)

This is an insight into how Greinke approaches his craft, how he’s survived in this league for two decades, how he’s been named an Opening Day starter seven times — and the Intel in which a young starting rotation could use.

The first fastball Greinke released Thursday came against a former teammate, Twins shortstop Carlos Correa — a four-seamer fired at 90.8 miles per hour. Correa hit the offering harder than it arrived, shooting it 112 miles per hour into left field.

And just like that, six pitches into the game, Greinke all but abandoned the pitch, throwing it just five times in the game.

In its place, the offseason addition. The two-seamer.

“Most of my pitches were working pretty good, so I was able to do a lot of stuff,” Greinke said. “Today I used my two-seam a lot more than my four-seam because my four-seam wasn’t as good as my two-seam. That’s one thing I kind of switched today.”

On the fly.

Experience plays a significant factor in this story of one start, but not the only factor. It’s knowing your arsenal but also knowing how the opposition is responding to it. Because for the initial three innings or so, Greinke was off-speed heavy. He picked up on something, though. The Twins, he thought, were starting to sit on the off-speed.

So after throwing just three two-seam fastballs in three frames, he ripped 10 of them over the next 2 1/3 innings. Got three outs with it.

On a pitch he just reintroduced this spring.

“That’s definitely not easy, especially working on pitches that you’re going to use in a game,” Singer said. “Messing around and tweaking little things is easy, but adding two pitches is extremely hard.”

Hard to replicate too. But the process isn’t. The reasoning behind it isn’t either.

Greinke is a former Cy Young winner and six-time All-Star, and you can cite a plethora of reasons for the career arc. The arm talent sure doesn’t hurt.

But that’s not enough to carry a 39-year-old Opening Day starter. Heck, he threw one pitch harder than 91 miles per hour Thursday. One.

Yet he walked off the mound as the lone bright spot in a season opener absent many of them. He’s never stopped attempting to accomplish what the Royals so desperately need a young rotation to do.

Develop.