From 13-year-old phenom to fireballing major leaguer, Hunter Greene takes his star turn

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CINCINNATI — Hunter Greene, the Cincinnati Reds’ 22-year-old flame-throwing phenom, has been famous for about as long as he can remember, and he has no problem saying as much.

“Since I committed to college in eighth grade,” he says. “So I've had the magnifying glass on me since I was 13 years old.”

He says it without arrogance or artifice.

It’s mid-summer weather in Cincinnati and we’re sitting in the Reds’ dugout the day after his first start at Great American Ball Park. The team lost that game, like they had nine times in a row before that, too. The difference was that the previous night, Greene, who had implored fans on social media to show up for the hapless and largely hopeless team, had done little to help stave off the continued streak. That kind of failure is a new experience for him, but we’ll get to that.

The commitment to UCLA — made before he played a single high school game and which everyone involved understood was merely a placeholder until he went pro — may have put him on the map. But by then he had already demonstrated his precocious talent and poise at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, near where Greene grew up in Los Angeles, and as a pupil of Alan Jaeger, the founder of a widely adopted pitcher training program. His parents — who merit a mention in every story written about Greene both for their role in his preternatural maturity and for his father’s career as a private investigator for celebrities — had surely been preparing him for public scrutiny for far longer.

The college thing, though, that was just the beginning. Nothing like the fame that would follow Greene’s appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old. He had participated in MLB’s official high school home run derby and could throw over 100 mph as a teenager. Experts and executives compared him to LeBron James, Doc Gooden, Cal Ripken. Literally Babe Ruth. He is tall, humble, eloquent and Black. The cover called him “the star baseball needs.”

The hype crescendoed with Cincinnati selecting him second overall in the 2017 draft. The kid famous for everything he could do as an amateur had made it to pro baseball.

Five years later, he debuted against the reigning champions Atlanta Braves and threw 20 pitches over 100 mph. Six days after that, he went back to his hometown of Los Angeles to face the formidable Dodgers and set a record for the most triple-digit pitches in a single game at 39. To reiterate: It was his second big-league game. That start was the day after Jackie Robinson Day, when everyone wanted Greene to talk about his “only baseball idol” and how the sport can address the waning number of Black players. To be clear: He is currently the youngest pitcher in the majors.

By the next week, on the other side of his first bad big-league outing, Greene is thinking about how it might be nice to go off the grid, lay low. He calls himself a “pretty chill person.” Not that he would ever complain about the opportunities or platform or success.

“I don't like to be in the limelight when I don't have to,” Greene says.

“But I've never known anything different.”

Cincinnati Reds' Hunter Greene throws during a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Cincinnati, Friday, April 22, 2022. The Cardinals won 4-2 (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)
Cincinnati Reds' Hunter Greene throws during a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in Cincinnati, Friday, April 22, 2022. The Cardinals won 4-2. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)

Early challenges readied Greene for MLB

It can feel a little like Hunter Greene — the rookie still working on his command and the 22-year-old who won’t always be talked about in terms of how well his parents raised him — lives in the shadow of his own foretold celebrity. He wants to be a Hall of Famer, a role model, an ambassador for baseball both internationally and to the next generation of Black athletes. But he also wants to figure out how to avoid some of the many media demands he’s facing without having to say no or upset anyone.

It seems like he wants to be everything to everybody. It seems like he’s realizing how, even for a kid raised in a pressure cooker, everything to everybody is a whole lot more once you’re a big league star.

Before he was a big leaguer, though, and after he was the most-hyped high school draft pick since Bryce Harper, Hunter Greene had to learn how to pitch.

“I was mostly a shortstop,” he says. “I barely pitched in high school.”

And even once he was in the Reds’ organization, it would be a few years before he got a real chance to hone his craft. Last year, across Double-A and Triple-A, was the first time he started more than 20 games.

His first season was cut short by injury that led to Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2019. The next year, when he would have been emerging from rehab, COVID forced the cancellation of the entire minor league season. He spent that summer at the Reds’ alternate site.

“Especially for someone like Hunter,” says Rob Wooten, pitching coach for the Double-A Chattanooga Lookouts, “he went from being a guy that was was being watched every day to basically disappearing, because it's an industry of, ‘What can you do for me now?’ and obviously Hunter was not able to compete.”

“Most guys break at some point in their career,” says Seth Etherton, who coached Greene in rookie ball and Single-A before his surgery and again last season at Triple-A. “He had it happen at a very young age, which may be a blessing in disguise, because he needed to really learn about who he is and what he needed to do to prepare better.”

Etherton was referring to the independence pro players need to develop in their routines — how to take care of their bodies, the best throwing program for their particular skill set. But for Greene, the long journey back from surgery was also about learning who in his life he could really trust.

“A lot of people want things from you when you're doing well and you're the man,” he says. “Then when you get hurt and you're not playing, nobody really cares.”

Always insular, he narrowed his circle even more during that time. It includes his family and two friends. Really, just two. To show it’s not an exaggeration he names them: Kevin Lenik and Hunter Woods.

Everyone else? Well, he tries not to dwell on that. Greene says it’s only human nature to be opportunistic about interpersonal relationships. Says there’s no hard feelings for the people he cut out of his life. But he did make mental notes.

“Like, that person didn't care when I was out for a year. But now they're gonna want something when I do come back. No thank you.”

How Greene learned to pitch

He came out of that ordeal motivated.

“When we got to Chattanooga, you could see in his eyes how focused and determined he was,” Wooten says. “He was ready to work.”

For a unicorn who can hit 102 mph on the radar gun and look effortless doing it, the minors were all about learning secondary pitches. He added a slider. Coaches convinced him that if he could make it look like the fastball coming out of his hand, a 92- or even 90-mph changeup would stymie batters expecting heat, and would make the fireballs look even hotter. The grip on a changeup is tricky, though, all about feel because it’s the pitch with the most fingers on the ball.

“Like every kid growing up, you automatically grip a fastball. So it’s so easy and natural for a pitcher to throw a fastball,” Greene says. “Well, not to throw 100, but to throw a fastball.”

He had to learn to throw inside. When Greene throws a baseball it becomes a weapon, which will make even the guy wielding it a little nervous. But to succeed in the majors he needed to gain the confidence to throw it on the inner part of the plate, to make the opponent respect the inside pitch by brushing him back.

“And I throw 100,” he says, “so it's not comfortable when you have 100 mph coming up and in at you.”

That’s the kind of stuff most professional pitchers work on in the lowest levels. Greene just didn’t get the reps early on, and his ability to overpower hitters anyway was too great to not push him up through the system.

“I joked with him when he left here and said, ‘I want to see you in the Hall of Fame,’” Wooten says. “Because I think he has that type of talent. I really do.”

That was when he graduated from Double-A, having thrown 114 innings above high school.

“He believes it, too. And why shouldn't he? His talent is off the charts.”

Los Angeles, CA - April 15:  Hunter Greene #21 of the Cincinnati Reds and Notre Dame High School alumni with his #42 jersey and shoes in honor of Jackie Robinson prior to a MLB baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Friday, April 15, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Hunter Greene shows off his No. 42 jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson on Friday, April 15, 2022. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

More lessons to come

Greene needed all the pitching savvy he learned in the minors to navigate his first home start in Cincinnati.

“I've never really had a day like yesterday,” Greene said the day after his April 22 start against St. Louis. Not as an excuse or even a mitigating factor, merely an observation.

He had lasted just 3 1/3 innings and left with the bases loaded, ultimately charged with three earned runs. His command was shaky. And his velocity was troublingly trapped in the double digits. After averaging over 100 in his first two starts, his four-seam fastball averaged only 95.8 mph and topped out at 97.2 mph.

Reds manager David Bell insisted there wasn’t any injury concern, Greene just didn’t have his best stuff. Big-league hitters aren’t easily blown away; baseball is so often a game of failure. He fought for his team anyway.

“I was proud of myself,” Greene said with that characteristic maturity. “Yesterday was a lesson. I think I did pretty well.”

Ask Hunter Greene if he feels like always has to be perfect and suddenly he sounds 22 again.

“Yeah,” he says, before catching himself. “I mean, not now.”

He says that used to be something he struggled with, but he’s gotten better at not putting unrealistic expectations on himself lately.

“In the last week, or so.”

Baseball will humble Hunter Greene, or make him feel like a hero. Most likely it will do both. If he has a long career, a Hall of Fame-worthy one, he’ll cycle through the highs and lows so many times that the perspective he is learning now will be necessary to survive it. He will pitch enough eventually that reality will eclipse the shadow of his own hype. He’ll leave a legacy in his wake, rather than have to chase after it.

“In the minor leagues, you look up to the big leagues, and you see all these guys who you think are perfect. They do everything with ease, and it comes easy for them,” Greene says. “Being up here in this show, you realize that people make mistakes, just like you.”

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