Hunter Greene deserves your attention ESPN

 In 01, Before I was drafted


WATCHING HUNTER GREENE throw a baseball is an experience.

You’re surrounded by crowds, the type you don’t typically see at high school games. Usually, it’s mom and dad, maybe grandma, and if the kid’s really good, 50 or 70 or maybe even a 100 people who look as if they stepped out of the Scouts-R-Us catalog, carrying the same make and model of radar gun.

For Greene, it’s all of that, plus an autograph line of dozens of fans.

The 17-year-old who hit 102 miles per hour in a short outing in February is going to show you the easiest mid-90s fastball you’ve ever seen, from a body that scouts compare to a young Doc Gooden’s. And oh, by the way, he plays a mean shortstop that would fit well on a big league diamond right now.

On the mound, though, he’s pretty damn fun to watch. In early April, in what turned out to be his last game of the spring, his fastball ranged from 94 to 98 mph over the full seven innings of work. Greene’s delivery shocks you with how effortless it is. No one, let alone a 17-year-old, should be able to throw 98 mph with this little evidence of physical exertion. Shouldn’t he be grunting? Or maybe there should be some “head violence,” the way a hard-throwing pitcher’s head involuntarily snaps or jerks to one side when he uncorks a pitch? He could get his throwing hand a little farther along when his front foot lands, but he generates so much torque with his hips — and thus so much arm speed — that it seems foolish to try to alter anything here. It’s a beautiful fastball. And when a kid throws with this kind of arm speed and has this kind of looseness in his arm, it’s hard to believe he won’t eventually have a hard, biting slider to go with it, too.

Like a lot of young pitchers, he loves throwing the curveball, but I’d put money on his slider ending up the superior pitch. I think it will advance once he stops throwing both pitches; they bleed into each other at this point. He also threw a pair of changeups, one of which you’d like to bottle and stick in the 3-D printer to copy a whole bunch to use in the future. But hitters do get to his fastball more than you’d expect, and neither breaking ball is really a finished product today.

It’s an outing of unlimited potential, of what might be rather than what is, a player who gives you so much to dream about that I’d call him the Sandman if that weren’t already taken.

Greene sits atop the draft rankings on, Baseball America and here on ESPN, and has already been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as baseball’s future savior, all before graduating from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California — Giancarlo Stanton’s alma mater — or turning 18.

He’s the best prospect in the draft class and one of the most gifted teenage players I’ve ever seen. But even I think the weight of these expectations is unreasonable. It’s hard enough to be a big leaguer; it’s harder still to play as both a position player and a pitcher, which is something Greene wants to continue doing. On top of that will come the added pressure of being a high-profile African-American prospect in a sport that faces ongoing questions about whether it’s doing enough to attract young Americans of color to the playing fields.

Greene thinks he’s up to the challenge.

GROWING UP IN Valencia, California, Greene was accustomed to being the only black kid on the field. But when he turned 7, his father started driving him an hour away so he could work out and play at MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, where one in three residents is African-American.

“I was so used to just playing with white kids all the time, not being able to see a diverse group of players on the field, so to be able to go down to Compton, to see more African-American players and be able to play with them, it was huge for me,” Greene says. “It’s all about opportunities.

“If African-American kids, or kids of color, were able to get the opportunity that I got playing at the Urban Youth Academy, to be able to play with awesome players and more diverse kids, I think that will help everybody succeed.”

Not every kid, he says, regardless of race, will have this kind of support network. He acknowledges that he was “privileged” to receive the opportunity and the coaching.

“At the UYA, I was also playing three or four years up, so gaining that exposure, playing on the 60/90 field [the full-sized diamond] when I was like 11 or 12 prepared me for this.”

By the time he was a high school freshman, Greene was ready to play on the varsity team.

IF YOU SEE Greene or ask any scout why he’s a special talent, what sets him apart is his athleticism.

“I met with Don Newcombe, and his thing was, ‘Sprint, man. Always run. Run as much as you can,'” Greene says. “Training like an athlete, like a sprinter, that’s one of the biggest things … [to] be able to go on the mound and have that explosion. My windup is pretty quick and easy because of the training that I do with explosive work, footwork, agility, plyometrics, all that stuff.”

He credits this approach to training with his ability to pitch once a week (Fridays) and play shortstop in his other games (Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Greene says — as every two-way player seems to say — that he’d like to continue doing both. His quest makes for a loaded schedule.

“Monday is a break day,” Greene says. “I get to do a little light stuff. I just go out there and field some ground balls, so I’m ready for Tuesday.”

Tuesday brings just a touch of long toss. “Not too much and not too heavy.”

Wednesday is the real thing. “I come in and do the pulldowns, come and throw down really hard a short distance,” he says. “The closer and closer my partner gets, I throw harder on a line.”

Thursdays are “rest days.” “I just get to relax, go on the field, take ground balls, toss it to another player for him to throw back, so that helps for Friday. Then Friday I can go out there, compete around the zone and on the mound.”

The challenge of fatigue, especially when any amateur pitcher moves from pitching every seventh day to every fifth, is especially problematic for two-way players, but through age 17, Greene says it hasn’t really affected him.

“The day after [pitching] I’m a little sore,” he says. “I don’t take a day off, I’ll go throw a little bit, real light, do my sprint work to get the blood flowing, get the lactic acid out of the muscles. By the time I throw Monday I feel great again.”

But he hasn’t had to work on short rest and specifically mentioned how the summer schedule was more favorable to him because there was so much time between events, citing the change that separated the showcase games from Baseball Factory and Perfect Game as a benefit to all prep pitchers.

That’s the optimism of youth — and a player so athletically gifted that he has been able to do both — but it’s likely he’ll eventually be asked to specialize, probably on the mound, despite his ability in the field and desire to continue playing both ways.

Given the innings limits on young pitchers like Greene, it wouldn’t shock me to see him spend the summer of 2017 at shortstop and return to pitching next spring — similar to what I think teams will do with University of Louisville first baseman and left-handed starter Brendan McKay, who is scuffling on the mound (but not at the plate) at the end of a very long season as a two-way star.

Greene is aware of it all, but his interviews with scouts and team executives so far have indicated that “a lot of teams want to just get me on the bus and have me figure it out,” he says. “I’m 17, and I think it’s too early to give up the bat. I haven’t fully matured yet.”

GROWING UP, GREENE’S favorite player was Rafael Furcal. At Dodgers games, Greene would sit on the third-base side and watch as Furcal would go in the 5-6 hole, come up and throw to first. “That’s when I realized how important it is to be an entertainer,” Greene says. “To see that, and get that understanding of the game and being a professional was cool.” It only got cooler that Furcal came through the Urban Youth Academy. So did Aaron Hicks, Anthony Gose, Dom Smith, Juan Pierre and Mookie Betts, as well as Orioles star and all-around Good Human Adam Jones, who threw some Twitter praise at Greene back in March.

“It’s special to have a guy like that to look up to,” Greene says of Jones. “He’s doing great, just won a gold medal for his country, and to be able to have that support from someone who recognizes me and is rooting for me is really cool. I’m going to need the connections, the friendships, when I get into pro ball.”

As much as MLB has taken criticism for its efforts to reach more African-American youth players, Greene is an ideal example for the league to show what it’s doing through the Urban Youth Academy — connecting current players of color to the next generation. Becoming the next link in that chain is part of Greene’s long-term goal. He already spends time talking to youth players from Little League on up about what he has learned through age 17.

“If African-American kids, or kids of color, were able to get the opportunity that I got playing at the Urban Youth Academy, to be able to play with awesome players and more diverse kids, I think that will help everybody succeed.”

Hunter Greene on his youth baseball experience in Compton, California.

“I spoke about the importance of working hard, just enjoying it, building a passion for the game, that’s one of the most important things,” Greene says, “just competing and having a great time.”

Greene is aware of the impact he might have on younger players and fans, perhaps the result of his own fame at such a young age, getting the kind of hype we haven’t seen around a high school prospect since Bryce Harper emerged as a 15-year-old wunderkind in 2008.

As much media attention as he has received, however, Greene is focused on becoming a big leaguer. He’s thoughtful and optimistic, understanding he’ll go play in a system where he’ll be asked to do new things — or, in his case, perhaps fewer things — both for his own development and for the best interests of the team. He’s fully aware of what people will expect from him off the field and how the extent of the media coverage to date only presages more if he’s successful in the pros. (Whether he understands the baseball world’s unfortunate tendency to eat its young is another matter.) Throughout our conversation, Greene kept coming back to the goal of reaching the majors and how being a good teammate was a big part of that.

He also has a small dream that lines up perfectly with both of his objectives.

“I know it sounds weird,” he says. “But one of my goals is to be able to have, you know, the Champagne parties like after the playoff games. I want to have the Martinelli’s apple cider instead. I think Julio Urias did that.

“To be that young and have the Champagne party, to get there that fast, that’s a huge goal for me.”

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