Nowadays, some people talk about Royals pitcher Zack Greinke's smile as much as his "stuff."
The 24-year-old right-hander, once dubbed the "future of pitching" by Baseball Prospectus, has always been able to masterfully manipulate the ball as if it were a puppet on a string.
But as the blond, boyish-looking Greinke bounds about the clubhouse, squeezing between teammates on a couch, cracking jokes and flashing his half grin, his buddies see the heat-throwing hurler finally happy.
"A couple years ago," Royals centerfielder David DeJesus says, "you wouldn't have seen that at all."
Two years ago, Greinke shocked many in the baseball world by walking away from the game he was born to play.
The former Gatorade national player of the year and first-round pick said he was "bored" between starts, but his biggest problem was beneath the surface. Diagnosed with depression and social anxiety disorder, Greinke spent a few months away from baseball in 2006 finding himself — and finding help.
But Greinke has bounced back, silencing his demons — and his doubters — by becoming one of the majors' top young pitchers (7-4, 3.65 ERA), and is scheduled to start Saturday at the Trop against the best-in-the-majors Rays.
"You talk about mental toughness. … Zack is the epitome of that," said former Royals general manager Allard Baird, now with the Red Sox. "To go what he went through and be where he is today, it's a testament to him."
Bored with pitching
In 13 seasons in the major leagues, former Royals lefty Brian Anderson has "never seen anything like" Greinke's prediction against Detroit in 2005.
Greinke, in the midst of a frustrating 5-17 season, sat next to the veteran in the dugout.
"I'm going to try to throw a 50 mph curve next inning," Greinke deadpanned.
Anderson was initially stunned because the shy rookie often kept to himself.
But Greinke's second pitch to Dmitri Young spoke for itself. The floating curve, "as slow as it can be," Anderson says, shocked the left-handed slugger.
Anderson looked at the stadium's radar gun: 50 mph on the dot: "I'm like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' "
Greinke followed with a 94 mph fastball, freezing Young for strike three. Young, who didn't even get the bat off of his shoulder, shook his head walking to the bench.
"He can manipulate a baseball like no one I've ever seen," said Anderson, now an assistant to the pitching coach with the Rays. "You name it, he can do it. If you want him to be a knuckleball pitcher for a game, it may take him a side session, but he could probably do it."
Baird said scouts loved Greinke's stuff but also his ability to analyze and break down hitters — and his pitches — on the fly. When more than 20 scouts hovered around Apopka High's baseball field for one of his games, Greinke was asked by a National League scout, "Should we draft you or Scott Kazmir?"
Greinke quipped: "Me. I'm a better hitter."
Greinke said he'd get bored between starts. He'd throw trick pitches such as the 50 mph "Eephus" curve "to have a little fun."
"I just didn't like pitching, really," Greinke said. "Not so much pitching, but everything that leads up to pitching.'
But it wasn't until a February workout in 2006, after an erratic bullpen session in Sunrise, Ariz., that Greinke broke down, walking off the mound — and away from the game. Greinke, whom Anderson said was considered "the savior" of the foundering franchise, told Baird and manager Buddy Bell he had to leave. To outsiders, it was shocking the kid with the golden arm and Dallas Cowboy cheerleader girlfriend wasn't happy.
But when Greinke went back to Orlando and sought professional help (the Royals put him on the 60-day disabled list), he found out his clinical depression ran in the family. Don Greinke, his father, said he didn't "see it coming."
"It surprises you, for sure," Don Greinke said. "We thought he was fine, although some instances he'd tell us, 'I'm not really enjoying this day,' or 'I'm struggling with all this stuff.' Over time, it just got worse."
During his break, Greinke fished, he read, he played golf. He spent time with his longtime girlfriend, Emily Kuchar, a model who will compete in the Miss Florida USA pageant this month.
Anderson, who was rehabbing in a facility nearby, checked in on Greinke to talk "anything but baseball." One time, Greinke rode his bike to the ESPN Zone at Lake Buena Vista to meet up with Anderson. The two played catch on the grass outside the yacht club before eating lunch.
"You just wondered if it was ever going to click with him," Anderson said. "Or is time going to run out?"
Back in the groove
It took some time for Greinke to battle his way back. Helped by antidepressants, he started to get back into the groove, becoming pitcher of the year for Double-A Wichita.
The Royals called him up on Sept. 19, 2006, and Greinke went to the bullpen, where he spent most of 2007.
He said being in the pen really helped because it allowed him to get more consistent action. It showed as he led baseball with a 1.54 ERA from Aug. 7 until the end of the season. And he has stayed on that roll ever since.
"He's becoming a man," DeJesus said. "He was so young, and they expected so much. Now he's coming into his own. We always knew that he could. It was a matter of time.
"Now it's time."
Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith @sptimes.com.