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Hunter Greene shut out of NL rookie award, but might wind up being best to debut in 2022

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Hunter Greene did not receive a single vote — not even a random third-place nod — on a 2022 National League Rookie of the Year ballot.

But when we look back at the rookies from the class of 2022 in five years, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the flame-throwing right-hander from Cincinnati is the best player who made his NL debut this season. And that’s not a knock on the other stellar rookies in a deep and talented class of NL newbies. It’s just that Greene’s going to be that good, folks. 

MORE: MLB awards 2022: Updated list of finalists, winners

The thing is, I understand why he didn’t get a vote for Rookie of the Year. The voting — the three-deep ballots are cast by two BBWAA writers in each of the 15 NL chapters — is about what the players did in 2022. It’s not about “who will be the best player?” It’s “Who was the best player” and Greene was not as consistent this season as the three finalists. 

Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, the two young Atlanta stars who finished 1-2 in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, are outstanding players and have bright futures. There’s a reason the Braves have already locked up both players to long-term deals. Brendan Donovan, the third-place finisher, feels destined to be the type of versatile — he won the first-ever Gold Glove issued to a utility player — get-on-base stalwart who plays a major role in helping playoff-bound Cardinals teams survive injury issues, whatever might arise.

But Greene, folks, is special. Like, Hall of Fame arm special, with the work ethic, mentality and baseball IQ to match. 

Let’s start with some numbers. Greene finished his debut season with a 4.44 ERA in 24 starts. In his 125 2/3 innings we saw the good — 164 strikeouts, only 104 hits — and bad — 24 homers, 3.4 BB/9, 5-13 record — that are typical of a young starter in his first MLB season. 

The good starts were just brilliant, and they were plentiful. A sampling:

May 15: 7 1/3 IP, 0 H, 1 ER, 9 K
June 6: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 8 K
Aug. 1: 6 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 8 K
Sept. 17: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 11 K
Sept. 27: 6 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 10 K
Oct. 3: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 8 K

The bad starts, well, that’s why he wasn’t a Rookie of the Year finalist. 

May 5: 2 2/3 IP, 9 H, 8 ER, 5 HR
May 26: 5 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3 HR
June 23: 5 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 3 HR
July 4: 5 1/3 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 HR

Too many home runs, obviously. The thing about throwing hard is, when hitters connect, it goes a long way. It’s not a coincidence that three of those four starts noted above were at home, where the baseball flies over the fence on a regular basis. 

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According to Statcast data, Greene’s four-seam fastball — checking in at an average velocity of 98.9 mph — ranked in the 99th percentile in 2022. His strikeout rate of 30.9 percent is in the 91st percentile and his overall whiff rate of 31.9 percent — hitters swung 1,074 times and missed 343 times — was in the 88th percentile. Among pitchers with at least 120 innings in 2022, Greene’s 11.75 K/9 ranked fifth. Now we’re talking elite. 

“There was so much to be impressed by,” Reds manager David Bell told The Sporting News the day after Greene’s Sept. 17 start in St. Louis. “The velocity is part of it. It’s not everything, but when you’re throwing that hard, it’s tough to hit that. But if you’re doing that and you’re not locating, or you’re getting behind or not throwing strikes, it’s totally different. Or if you don’t have anything to go with that, to get really great hitters off the fastball, it’s not going to be as effective.”

In that game, Greene was brilliant, limiting the NL Central champs to just four hits in six shutout innings, while he fanned 11 Cardinals. 

“He’s had starts similar to that, maybe not to that point, but it was the strike-throwing and the conviction behind the pitches, the fastball and the slider,” Bell said when asked what stood out the most. “I thought he did a nice job of mixing those pitches and not just throwing 101 every time. Which probably would have given him a pretty good amount of success, but not to the level that he did.”

Greene was, for the most part, a two-pitch pitcher in 2022. He threw 2,200 pitches on the season: 1,184 four-seam fastballs, 900 sliders and 116 changeups. He could get away with a limited pitch repertoire because his stuff is so elite.

In just his second MLB start, he set an MLB record with 39 pitches of at least 100 mph. And that slider, which checked in at an average velocity of 88.1 mph, produced a whiff rate of 38.0 percent.   

“Their biggest thing is ‘stay the course,’” Greene told TSN during a pregame conversation in mid-June. “I’m 22 years old. A lot of people lose sight of that, think I’m older than that. I might be the youngest starting pitcher in MLB right now, so understand that. For me, I’m super competitive but at the same time I have to keep things in perspective as well, to understand and know it’s a process and there’s a lot of work that has to be put in.”

And though he’s been a professional for six seasons — he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft — he’s still a relative newcomer, still learning lessons. He had Tommy John surgery in April 2019, so he missed that entire season. And then, of course, the 2020 minor league campaign was shut down during the pandemic. He made seven Double-A starts in 2021 and 14 Triple-A starts, then was in the bigs in 2022. He’s pitched a total of just 311 2/3 innings in his pro career. 

MORE: The Sporting News’ 2022 MLB awards, as decided by players, managers and execs

Did you happen to notice, with the listing of the good/bad games earlier, how many of those good games came late in the season? You can bet the Reds did. He missed about a month-and-a-half in August and September with a shoulder strain, after throwing 102 2/3 innings to that point in the season. His first start back was the one in St. Louis on Sept. 17. I asked Bell why it was important for Greene to return. 

“That’s what we do, to be out there on the mound and do what your job is,” he said. “But more than that, to mentally finish the season is important. To know you’re healthy going into the offseason is important. And to get as many innings in as possible is important, because for future seasons the whole point is to pitch for seven months, and if you don’t get close to that it’s going to be harder on your body to be able to be used to doing that.”

And those last four starts were evidence of why the Reds are so excited about Greene’s future. His combined stat line for those four outings: 0.78 ERA, 1.77 FIP, 23 IP, 12 H, 2 ER, 7 BB, 37 K, 1 HR.

Yeah, that’s the good stuff. That’s the Hunter Greene we’re going to see in the years to come, the one who’s going to make people look at the 2022 NL Rookie of the Year results and think, “How was Greene not on that list?”


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