Photo Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Few pitchers in Cincinnati Reds history arrived with as much fanfare as Hunter Greene - and for good reason too. When you can throw a fastball over 100 MPH with ease, the baseball world tends to take notice. While Greene’s rookie season wasn’t the spectacular success many hoped for, it wasn’t a complete disaster either. The tools and talent are there. He just needs a little more time to put everything together. Will 2023 be the year he finally does?
The season hasn’t begun, but for Greene, it’s been a spring filled with positives. He nailed down the starting job on Opening Day after a very solid performance in spring training, becoming the youngest Red to do so since Frank Pastore in 1980. Pastore threw a three-hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves that day, so Greene has a lot to live up to.
Fortunately, Greene has all the ability anybody could want in a starting pitcher. He’s got a killer arm, a wiry, athletic 6’4’’ frame, and the stamina to do it over and over again. Last year, he set a record for throwing 39 fastballs at over 100 MPH in a single game – an MLB record. In other words, this dude is the definition of smoke.
There’s one problem: MLB hitters can handle the smoke. 100 MPH might seem like nothing more than a blur – and to some extent, it probably is – but give an MLB hitter a couple chances, and they’re more than capable of catching up to it. And what happens when a batter makes solid contact on a 100 MPH fastball? See ya, baseball.
This, in a nutshell, was Greene’s Achilles heel last year. He routinely overpowered hitters early in the game when they hadn’t timed his fastball, but as the game progressed and batters started seeing him for the second and third time, that fastball just didn’t have the same shock value. Home runs, in particular, were a killer for the 23-year-old Greene. Of course, playing at the hitter-friendly (to put it mildly) stadium that is Great American Ballpark didn’t help, but neither did the fact that Greene rarely had a consistent secondary pitch to keep hitters honest. If spring is any indication, his slider might be ready to take center stage with his fastball instead of being relegated to a bit part.
Looking back on Greene’s rookie year, it’s easy to feel a bit underwhelmed. Here’s this kid who’s been hyped up since his freshman year of high school, who was the second pick in the draft, who throws like a right-handed Aroldis Chapman, and it feels like he gives up a homerun every other inning? Is he just another Homer Bailey?
Not so fast. While Greene’s rookie year certainly wasn’t the immediate coming-out party that Cincinnati desperately wanted (or needed, given how atrocious the Reds were last year), given the context of the team, it’s almost a surprise he succeeded as much as he did. Check out Greene’s rookie year stats compared to some similarly sized and skilled right-handed pitchers.
All in all, not bad. Sure, the home run rate and his walk rate were a little high, but, at least in regard to his home run rate, there’s a gigantic (or diminutive, depending on your perspective) factor: Great American Ballpark. As long as Greene is in a Reds uniform, playing at GABP will do him no favors in terms of allowing home runs. Ever since it’s completion in 2003, it’s been one of the friendliest ballparks to hitters in all of baseball.
But where Greene is likely to see significant improvement is in his ability to limit walks. Out of all 14 players I referenced, they almost all improved their walk rate from their rookie season, and those that didn’t, like Noah Syndergaard, had such bonkers first-year statistics that improvement was unlikely as best.
If Greene can limit his walks – and maaaaybe cut his HR9 rate just a tad – he could be in position to be very special this year. He’s still so incredibly young (he’s just 23) and so incredibly gifted. He just needs time – and the Reds, as currently constructed, are in no position to rush him.
Hunter Greene is the Aroldis Chapman redemption the Reds were lucky to receive. Back when the Reds first signed Chapman in 2010, the intention was for him to be a starting pitcher. However, a playoff run that year made Reds’ management antsy in the pantsy, and so his development was tabled, and it was off to closer duties for the Cuban Missile. He would never start a game in the majors.
Things are different now, so there’s no need to worry about Greene being shuffled out to the bullpen, but the Reds absolutely cannot afford to rush this once-in-a-decade kind of prospect. The potential is there for Greene to win multiple Cy Young awards. The Reds have to give him the time to reach that potential. If he does, this season could get interesting in a hurry.