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Is Hunter Greene the Answer for the Reds?

Hunter Greene pitching for the Reds minor league; CC by License 2.0

In April of 2017, Sports Illustrated introduced the world to a California high school phenom when its cover read, “He’s 17. He Mashes. He Throws 102. Hunter Greene is the star baseball needs (First he has to finish high school).” A few months later the Cincinnati Reds made Greene the second overall pick in the MLB Draft before signing the UCLA commit to a $7.23 million signing bonus. Since then, Greene’s time in the Reds organization has been a bit of a rollercoaster filled with promise, injuries, a pandemic, and finally, success at the big-league level.

In the summer of 2017, Greene reported to Rookie Ball with the Billings Mustangs where he struggled mightily with adjusting to facing more seasoned prospects. In three starts, Greene pitched only 4.1 innings and surrendered 6 earned runs, pitching to a 12.46 ERA and a 2.077 WHIP. Then a two-way player, Greene batted .233 and drove in 3 runs for Billings across 30 plate appearances.

A year later, the now 18-year-old prospect joined the low-A Dayton Dragons with the two-way plan having been abandoned and the Reds shifting their efforts to developing Greene as a pitcher. Early returns on Greene failed to improve during his time in Dayton as he posted a 3-7 record with a 4.48 ERA and a 1.302 WHIP. However, there was some reason for optimism as Greene struck out 89 batters while walking 23. Unfortunately, Greene’s 2018 campaign was cut short by a sprained UCL in his right elbow in August. While the club had originally hoped to avoid surgery, Greene’s condition failed to improve and he underwent Tommy John surgery in the Spring of 2019, ending his season before it began.

Due to the pandemic canceling Minor League Baseball in 2020, Greene was unable to make his return to the mound until 2021. To begin the 2021 season, Greene was assigned to the AA Chattanooga Lookouts where he finally showed signs of being the young man that Sports Illustrated called “Baseball’s LeBron.” In 7 starts in Chattanooga, Greene posted a 5-0 record while pitching to a 1.98 ERA with a 1.000 WHIP. Across 41 innings, Greene fanned 60 batters and walked 14. In June, Greene was promoted to the AAA Louisville Bats. As a Bat, Greene seemingly returned to many of his previous struggles, albeit with more organizational optimism due to his strong showing at Chattanooga. In Louisville, Greene made 14 starts, going 5-8 and pitching to a 4.13 ERA with a 1.286 WHIP. Still a high-strikeout pitcher, Greene fanned 79 batters across 65.1 innings. Greene’s season ended in September of that year when he surpassed his innings limit set by the Reds’ player development staff.

Buoyed by a strong showing in Spring Training, Greene was elevated to the Reds’ Opening Day roster. In his first Major League appearance, Greene provided the Reds with five innings of 3-run, 4-hit, 7-strikeout ball. Troublingly, opposing batters launched 11 home runs in Greene’s first six starts. Eventually, Greene settled into his new role and pitched rather effectively as his rookie season went on, including tossing a one-hit complete game shutout against Arizona in June. Overall, Greene posted a 5-13 record in 24 starts as a rookie. He pitched to a 4.44 ERA with a 1.210 WHIP. Greene was below the 50th percentile in limiting hard-hit balls and barreled contact and allowed very high average exit velocity. However, Greene’s fastball ranked in the 99th percentile for velocity. Additionally, his K% and Whiff % were well above average.

This year, Greene’s ascent to the top of the Cincinnati pitching staff has continued to be a rollercoaster ride but he is showing signs of improvement. Thus far, Greene is 1-4 in 12 starts and is pitching to a 3.92 ERA with a 1.323 WHIP. Additionally, Greene has surrendered a batting average on balls in play of .343, which is decidedly above average and could lead some to suggest he has been unlucky. While luck may be part of the issue, it is important to recognize that Greene ranks in the 21st percentile at limiting exit velocity, meaning the balls that are put in play off him are hit hard enough to cause problems. While those numbers leave quite a bit to be desired, Greene appears to have turned the corner of late. Two starts ago, against the Cubs, Greene tossed 6 no-hit innings while walking 2 batters and striking out 11. In his most recent start on Thursday, he went 6 innings allowing 1 run on 2 hits, 3 walks, and 8 strikeouts against Boston. In his start at Fenway Park, Greene became the fourth fastest pitcher to reach 250 career strikeouts as a starter since the mound was moved to 60 feet, 6 inches in 1893.

While his last two starts illustrate the brilliance which Greene is capable of, they also show his biggest weakness. Despite having fastball velocity in the 98th percentile and similarly high whiff rates, Greene is simply not pitch efficient. In his 6 no-hit innings against Chicago, Greene required 110 pitches, in 6 innings against Boston, 109. This lack of efficiency renders Greene unable to pitch deep into ballgames. Greene is currently averaging 4.34 pitches per plate appearance, the most in the Major Leagues, ahead of Spencer Strider and MacKenzie Gore. While Greene has shown signs of improvement in most areas of his game, it seems hard to believe that he will become substantially more pitch efficient as his high-strikeout style lends itself to pitchers being forced to throw a large volume of pitches.

Owing to his strikeout ability and potential, the Reds signed Greene to a 6-year $53 Million extension back in April. The extension is the largest the organization has ever signed with a pre-arbitration player and can swell to $90 million with incentives. In signing the extension, Greene joined Felix Hernandez and Spencer Strider as the youngest pitchers to ever sign an extension. For Greene, the deal secures his future in Cincinnati and grants him the financial security which many young players can only wish for. For the Reds, the extension represents the opportunity to lock up a potentially valuable asset at a reasonable price for a six-year period. This is an important move for an organization that has not made the playoffs, save the pandemic-altered season, since 2013 and has frequently been the subject of headlines and criticism due to its unwillingness to possess the kind of payroll that is held by many contending clubs.

At the end of the day, the rebuilding Cincinnati Reds appear to have acquired a substantial amount of offensive talent and are dependent upon Hunter Greene to take up the mantle of the leader of its pitching staff. At merely 23 years old and having missed two full years of development, it is reasonable to expect Greene to continue to develop and his occasional flashes of brilliance are certainly enough to inspire confidence. However, it has not been all sunshine and rainbows for the Cincinnati right-hander as his professional career has taken the shape of a pitcher who strikes out a large number of batters but allows a substantial amount of hard contact. Greene’s lack of pitch efficiency limits his ability to develop into a true Major League ace. Is he as Sports Illustrated declared, “Baseball’s LeBron,”? No. But in the age of high strikeouts and analytics suggesting that pitchers should not face a lineup for a third time, the Cincinnati Reds were willing to bet a large sum of their payroll that Hunter Greene is the star their organization needs.

Sources:

Baseball Reference

ESPN

FanGraphs

MLB.com

Sports Illustrated

USA Today


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