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Greenhill, Burns lead loaded field of candidates for Mr. Baseball

Take a look at Baseball America’s list of the Top 100 prospects for this month’s MLB Amateur Draft, and you’ll see five high school players from Alabama: McGill-Toolen outfielder Bubba Thompson at No. 23, Decatur shortstop/pitcher Tanner Burns at No. 37, Cullman left-hander Jacob Heatherly at No. 55, Vestavia Hills right-hander Caden Lemons at No. 96 and James Clemens outfielder Jordan Anderson at No. 98.

Those are just a handful of the players with next-level talent who highlight a star-studded in-state Class of 2017, a group that also includes Cullman outfielder Owen Lovell, Helena catcher Sam Praytor, UMS-Wright infielder/outfielder Tanner Allen, Rehobeth pitcher/first baseman Jack Knight and a pair of Russellville Golden Tigers, outfielder Judd Ward and pitcher/infielder Cody Greenhill. Factor in standout underclassmen like St. Luke’s outfielder Jeremiah Jackson, T.R. Miller first baseman Drew Williamson and Rehobeth slugger Blaine Murkerson, and this year’s race to be named Mr. Baseball by the Alabama Sports Writers Association is a fascinating one.

The ASWA is set to announce its choice for Mr. Baseball, along with the rest of its Super All-State selections (the top 10 players in the state, regardless of classification) and its All-State teams for classes 1A-7A, this weekend. With that in mind, our purpose here is two-fold: Firstly, to examine a loaded field of Mr. Baseball candidates a bit more thoroughly; and, secondly, to make the case for Russellville’s Greenhill, an Auburn signee who led the Golden Tigers to their third consecutive Class 5A state championship, as the most deserving choice. Let’s get to it.

The ASWA first started awarding the title of Mr. Baseball in 1999, and in 18 years there has never been a repeat winner. That doesn’t figure to change in 2017. Cullman’s Lovell, a 6’4, 225-pound specimen of a centerfielder, won the award last season after posting eye-popping numbers both at the plate (.392 average with 15 home runs, 64 RBIs, 39 walks and a .516 OBP) and on the mound (7-1 record with a 1.51 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 51 innings pitched).

It’s not as though Lovell, a Mississippi State signee, had a bad year in 2017; on the contrary, he ranked fourth in the state with 56 hits and tied for third with 17 doubles while batting .427 with seven homers, 44 RBIs and 40 runs scored for the Bearcats, who went 38-9 and finished as state runners-up to Helena in Class 6A. But Lovell was arguably better at the plate as a junior than he was as a senior, and Cullman’s absurdly deep pitching staff basically rendered him a non-factor this season on the mound, where he made only five appearances and compiled a record of 1-3 in 15.2 innings.

Lovell isn’t likely to become the first two-time Mr. Baseball winner, but his teammate, Heatherly, has a shot to keep the award in-house. [Incidentally, Cullman is the only school to produce multiple Mr. Baseball winners; Lovell joined former Bearcat Keegan Thompson, who took home the award in 2013.] The 6’3, 200-pound Heatherly, an Alabama signee whom many expect to be an early-round selection in this month’s draft, had an outstanding 2017 season on the mound. Greenhill, however, was better, as the numbers below indicate:

J. Heatherly: 10-1 record, 69.2 innings, 11 ER (1.10 ERA), 24 hits allowed, 116 Ks, 39 BB, 6 CG

C. Greenhill: 12-2 record, 95 innings, 12 ER (0.88 ERA), 57 hits allowed, 144 Ks, 17 BB, 8 CG

Both pitchers were darn near perfect in the postseason, where they each made five starts and posted remarkably similar numbers:

J. Heatherly: 5-0 record, 32 innings, 2 ER (0.44 ERA), 12 hits allowed, 46 Ks, 18 BB, 4 CG

C. Greenhill: 5-0 record, 31 innings, 0 ER (0.00 ERA), 15 hits allowed, 44 Ks, 9 BB, 3 CG

The two are difficult to separate based on pitching alone, though (for what it’s worth) Greenhill did beat Heatherly 6-3 in a head-to-head showdown when both were juniors in 2016. Much more pertinent, however, is a comparison of their respective performances at the plate this season. Heatherly was very good, batting .306 with three home runs, eight doubles, 43 RBIs, 23 walks and just 24 strikeouts. Greenhill, on the other hand, was an absolute monster, setting a new school record with 16 home runs and leading the state by a wide margin with 65 RBIs while batting .338 with 21 walks and only 19 strikeouts.

Greenhill’s superior command [he walked only 1.3 batters per seven innings, compared to 3.9 by Heatherly] gives him a slight leg up as a pitcher; his record-setting production at the plate gives him a clear edge on his Cullman counterpart in the race for Mr. Baseball.

Which brings us to our next deserving candidate, Helena’s Praytor, who was a Super All-State selection by the ASWA last season as a junior. Praytor, an Alabama signee, was an offensive force in 2017, ranking fifth in the state with 55 hits and sixth with nine home runs. He batted .458 with 13 doubles, 40 RBIs, a .586 OBP and a walk-to-strikeout ratio (37 to nine) that boggles the mind. Further bolstering his case, Praytor was at his best when it counted most, going 17-for-29 in the playoffs with four homers, five doubles, nine RBIs, 10 walks and only one strikeout while leading the Huskies to their first-ever state title.

Greenhill had a big postseason as well, batting .333 and driving in 16 runs in 12 games, but let’s not quibble here—Praytor is the better hitter, and he had the better season overall at the plate. He’s also an outstanding defensive catcher with a rocket right arm, but Praytor’s work behind the plate—stellar though it may have been—can’t compare with the impact Greenhill made on the mound.

There have been exceptions, but the ASWA typically bestows the title of Mr. Baseball upon players who excel as hitters and pitchers—Lovell last year, Florence’s Brax Garrett in 2015, Cullman’s Thompson in 2013, Spain Park’s Mikey White in 2012, Hartselle’s Luke Bole in 2009, etc. Greenhill fits that two-way mold, while Praytor does not.

Nor, for that matter, do a few of the other leading candidates for Mr. Baseball, including Russellville’s Ward. The senior centerfielder and Auburn signee tied for second in the state with 59 hits this season and also ranked second with 58 runs scored. He batted .410 with four home runs, five triples, 10 doubles, 24 RBIs, 29 walks and only 12 strikeouts, reaching base at a .521 clip. Ward was terrific in the playoffs, collecting 20 hits (10 of which went for extra bases) and scoring 19 runs in 12 games, but his overall season numbers weren’t quite as good as those he put up in 2015 (when he was first-team All-State as a sophomore) or 2016 (when he was the Class 5A Player of the Year and a Super All-State selection).

Ward is again deserving of first-team All-State honors, as are UMS-Wright’s Allen, a Mississippi State signee who led the state with 60 hits this season and went absolutely bonkers in the playoffs, batting .561 with four triples, six doubles and 20 runs scored in 13 games while leading the Bulldogs to a Class 4A state title; Rehobeth’s Murkerson, who finished third in the state with 15 home runs and batted .328 with 47 RBIs; and T.R. Miller’s Williamson, a 6’4, 210-pound Alabama commit who led the state with a .616 batting average (45 hits in 73 at bats), a .764 OBP and 63 runs scored while also slugging eight home runs. All of the above are outstanding players, but they lack the two-way chops to truly challenge Greenhill for the title of Mr. Baseball.

If the ASWA were to break with tradition and give the award to someone who is strictly a position player, they could do a lot worse than McGill-Toolen’s Thompson, a senior outfielder and the state’s top MLB draft prospect according to Baseball America. The fleet-footed Thompson, an Alabama signee, batted .429 this season, ranking among state leaders with 51 hits, 11 home runs, 52 runs scored and 18 stolen bases. He shined brightly in the Class 7A playoffs, going 11-for-18 with two homers, seven RBIs and seven runs scored in five games.

For what it’s worth, Greenhill and Thompson actually faced off this season when Russellville and McGill-Toolen met in Gulf Shores during a spring break tournament. Thompson went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts against Greenhill, who threw eight scoreless frames in a game the Golden Tigers would ultimately lose 1-0 in 11 innings.

Joining the likes of Greenhill and Heatherly as two-way standouts this season were Rehobeth’s Knight and St. Luke’s Jackson. The 6’3, 200-pound Knight went 7-5 with a 2.04 ERA as the Rebels’ ace pitcher, striking out 103 batters and giving up 59 hits in 71.2 innings; he also anchored the middle of the lineup with a .359 average, eight home runs and 44 RBIs. Jackson, a junior at St. Luke’s and a Mississippi State commit, tied for third in the state with 12 home runs this season while batting .485 with 10 doubles, five triples, 37 RBIs and 51 runs in 34 games; on the mound, he struck out 55 batters in 34.1 innings.

Which brings us, finally, to Greenhill’s stiffest competition for the title of Mr. Baseball—Decatur’s Burns, who helped lead the Red Raiders to a 32-5 record this season and a trip to the Class 6A quarterfinals. The 6’1, 210-pound Burns and the 6’4, 215-pound Greenhill, both Auburn signees, have much in common. Both are right-handed hitters and right-handed pitchers with big-time power, at the plate and on the mound. Both hit 16 home runs this season, tying them for the state lead. Both posted an ERA of 0.88, and both used low-to-mid-90s fastballs to rack up strikeouts in bunches [Greenhill averaged 10.6 Ks per seven innings, while Burns checked in at 12.7.]

Burns, who batted .467 with 46 RBIs while also going 10-1 with 116 strikeouts in 64 innings, was named the 2017 Gatorade Alabama Baseball Player of the Year last week. From 2008 through 2014, six players (Hokes Bluff’s Tyler Stovall, Hartselle’s Bole, Fairhope’s Daryl Norris, Spain Park’s White, Cullman’s Thompson and Ardmore’s Cody Reed) won both the Gatorade POY Award and Mr. Baseball. However, the last two Mr. Baseball winners (Lovell and Garrett) were not the Gatorade Player of the Year, so the two awards are not always in lockstep.

Clearly, there’s no sound argument against Burns winning the title of Mr. Baseball; he’s a fantastic player and a deserving choice. But here’s the argument in favor of Greenhill, in a nutshell: He led the state in wins (12), strikeouts (144), home runs (16) and RBIs (65), all while anchoring the pitching staff and batting third in the lineup for a team that won 38 games and a third consecutive Blue Map. Greenhill capped his career with an otherworldly postseason performance, winning five straight starts and striking out 44 batters without allowing an earned run in 31 innings. He dominated Faith Academy in Game 1 of the state finals, striking out 11 and allowing just two hits in a 9-1 win on his way to being named series MVP.

That victory over the Rams was the 39th win of Greenhill’s varsity career, tying him with John Herring of American Christian Academy (1992-95) for fifth in state history. His 375 career strikeouts are by far the most in school history and rank 19th on the state’s all-time list.

Greenhill, who went 13-1 with a 1.48 ERA and nine complete games in 15 career playoff starts, already owns three state championship rings; after receiving All-State honorable mention in 2015 and being named first-team All-State in 2016, he’s a good bet to bring home Class 5A Player of the Year honors this weekend. In other words, he’s not hurting for hardware. But he should be clearing space on the mantle for one final high school award.

Meet Cody Greenhill, Mr. Baseball.

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