Why Does Reds RHP Hunter Greene Have MLB's Most Hittable Fastball?
Hunter Greene is one of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in MLB history. And so far, in his brief MLB career, he also possesses the most hittable fastball in baseball.
For some those may seem like a pair of facts that are very hard to reconcile, but they are undeniably true.
Among starting pitchers, Greene already has the fifth most 101-plus mph pitches since MLB’s pitch tracking era began in 2008. His 18 101.0-plus mph pitches trail only Justin Verlander (46), Jacob deGrom (31), Yordano Ventura (27) and Noah Syndergaard (26). The difference is that while Verlander’s 46 pitchers are .1% of his 42,761 pitches tracked, Greene’s 18 have come in just 409 pitches over five starts. Fully, 4.4% of his pitches so far as a major leaguer have been 101.0 or above. When you just look at fastballs, it’s 7.4% of the 242 fastballs he’s thrown.
That’s incredibly impressive in terms of pure velocity, but it’s led to some equally unimpressive results so far. Greene has given up nine home runs off his fastball, meaning that 3.7% of his fastballs have resulted in homers.
Overall, hitters are hitting .456/.523/1.000 against Greene’s fastball. Yes, there are small sample size caveats, but Greene’s fastball is playing as the worst fastball in the majors so far by a massive margin. According to Fangraph’s pitch value metrics, the Rockies’ German Marquez has the second-least valuable fastball in the majors this year. Hitters are hitting .435/.455/.677 against it. Jake Arrieta possessed the worst fastball in 2021. Hitters hit .366/.450/.612 against his heater.
So what gives? How does a pitcher with top-of-the-scale velocity serve up home runs at a break-the-scale rate?
In part, this is part of a long-term issue Greene has had. It’s been written into his scouting reports going back to high school. Greene has exceptional velocity, but his very clean delivery, the angle he generates on his fastball and its very typical movement patterns mean hitters can catch up to velocity and square him up.
Ideally, pitchers want to be unusual. Hitters have to extrapolate where a pitch will end up even though they are making their swing decisions and tracking the ball well before it reaches the plate. If a fastball doesn’t drop as much as a hitter expects (known as carry or hop), or drops way more than expected (sink) or has significant horizontal arm-side movement (run) it will mean that hitters will more often fail to square it up.
But if a pitch does what the hitter expects, and does it from an angle that hitters regularly see, that’s a pitch that more often ends up on a bat’s sweet spot.
Greene’s fastball is very typical in its movement patterns and the angle from which he throws it. And his delivery does not add deception that makes it difficult for hitters to pick the ball up out of his hand.
What’s unusual about it is its velocity. That’s still important, as a faster pitch gives hitters less time to make decisions, and a hitter with a slow bat can struggle to simply catch up to velocity without “cheating” to do so.
But in 2022, it’s very hard to find hitters in the majors who can’t catch up to velocity, as those who can’t were generally weeded out as they climbed through the minors. When Greene’s throwing 102 mph, it’s quite unusual.
But nowadays MLB hitters have become accustomed to seeing 97-99. A decade ago, only 0.5% of all MLB pitches were 97 mph or harder. This year, that number is 1.4%. Hitters are hitting .235/.310/.453 against 97-99 mph fastballs this year. They are only hitting .176/.243/.265 against 100-plus mph.
This isn’t a new concern with Greene. In his first pro draft report in 2018, when he ranked as the Reds No. 2 prospect, Baseball America’s report noted: “He commands his fastball well, even when nearing the century mark, although scouts looking for nits to pick note that hitters seem to see the ball well coming out of Greene's hand, which helps explain why he gave up a .400 average against in Billings in his brief debut.”
The next year, Greene touched 103 mph in the Futures Game, but also continued to get squared up. That offseason’s BA scouting report said: “ Evaluators have worried that Greene’s clean delivery and straight fastball make it too easy for opponents to pick up the ball out of his hand.”
Greene missed the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but the Baseball America report coming out of his 2020 stint at the alternate training site raised the same issues: “Greene showed his velocity was back to its pre-injury levels at the alternate site. He sat 96-97 mph and touched 102, though his stuff played well below its velocity. His four-seamer lacks vertical movement to help miss bats and his sinker is relatively straight.”
And again this offseason, the report noted his exceptional velocity and the reasons his fastball doesn’t play as well as the radar gun readings: ”For as hard as Greene throws, his plus-plus fastball is hittable because it has relatively modest life and carry. If a hitter can time it, he can square it up. Nine of the 11 home runs Greene gave up after his promotion to Triple-A came against his fastball, usually when he pitched up in the zone. Greene’s combination of a very smooth, fluid delivery and easy-to-pick-up release point means his fastball often doesn’t play to its velocity.”
The Reds Are On Pace To Be Historically Bad
While there is still a lot of season left to be played, the Reds are tracking to be every bit as bad as the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets, the two worst teams since integration.
So this is a continual concern with Greene’s fastball that is now playing out at the highest level of the game.
But there’s also another aspect to Greene’s fastball issues. As hard as he throws, no starter can throw 101-plus mph pitch after pitch. And when Greene’s fastball sits on the lower side of his 96-103 mph velocity range, that’s when it really gets punished.
Greene has thrown 154 of his 241 fastballs at 99.4 mph or slower this year. On those fastballs, hitters are hitting .576/.641/1.303.
Let’s stop for a moment and acknowledge that Greene has to be a victim of bad luck. If MLB hitters played tee ball, it would be hard for them to post a 1.944 OPS. Position players pitching don’t give up those type of numbers (hitters hit .328/.386/.613 against position players pitching in 2021 according to Baseball Savant).
Hitters have put 25 balls in play against Greene among those 154 fastballs and 19 of them have resulted in hits, 10 of which have gone for extra bases.
But luck or no luck, when he’s not tickling the upper range of his velocity, Greene’s fastball gets teed up. On those mid-to-high-90s fastballs, hitters swing and miss 21% of the time.
When he’s throwing 99.5 mph or harder (83 of his 241 fastballs), hitters are hitting .292/.346/.583 against him this year. That’s still not great, but it’s much better. At 100.5 mph or harder (36 of his fastballs), they hit .214/.214/.429. On Greene’s 99.5-plus mph fastballs, hitters swing and miss 38% of the time.
So if Greene can sit 100 mph or harder, the issues with his fastball movement start to fade away. The unusual nature of his velocity overcomes the usual nature of his fastball movement.
But no pitcher has yet proven capable of sitting at 100 mph as a starter, not even Greene. And when he is pitching at 95-99 (a range that still makes him one of the harder throwing starters in the game), hitters are getting way too many good swings against him.
Greene’s slider has been very good so far this year. Hitters are only hitting .065/.167/.194 against it and his changeup is a useful third pitch. As odd as it may seem for a pitcher with a 100-plus mph fastball, Greene seems to be at his most effective when he adopts a slider-heavy approach. After all, hitters are always aware that at any moment, they could be facing a 100-plus mph fastball, so they gear up for that anticipated velocity.
But the conundrum that Greene has always faced remains true. He has to figure out a way to generate more movement on his fastball or add some deception.
The other alternative is he needs to figure out a way to sit at 100 mph or harder. That may be doable as a reliever, but so far that’s been impossible for any starting pitcher.