The 2017 Yankees bullpen is everything it’s supposed to be - a strikeout machine that makes games two or three innings shorter than the opponent would like. Name-wise it’s not quite as mighty as early last season, when Dellin Betances was third best behind Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, but the return of Chapman and the presence of Betances meant the pecking order was etched in stone. They didn’t have the third head of Cerberus like a season ago. Four months later though, and there has been… a surprising development. At this point, the best reliever in the Yankees bullpen is none other than Chad Green.
For those that don’t watch the Yankees closely, yes, Chad Green is a real person. His name is like something computer generated out of MLB The Show, and this year he’s pitching like he’s a Road to the Show creation. He was a Yankee a year ago, though to no good effect. In 45.2 innings last year, Green was worth 0.0 WAR, owned a 5.69 DRA, and gave up 49 hits including 12 home runs in his short stint in the Bronx. There was a glimmer of talent though, as he struck out 52 batters against only 15 walks. He got guys out in spectacular fashion, but allowed too many meatballs to cross the plate and gave up too many hits for the Yankees to keep him in the rotation. He needed to figure out how to stick in the majors to pursue his dreams. Green listened to Shia LaBoeuf.
Our own Ryan Romano wrote about this before the season. As he detailed, despite flashing mid-90’s heat and a very good slider, Green did not get swings and misses. It was a simple case of location, and not placing the ball where hitters can get to it. He has made an adjustment, to say the least. Here is his fastball location from last year and this against right-handed hitters:
And here’s what he’s changed when facing lefties:
There’s a lot less “middle of the plate” action for 2017, and he’s generally just keeping it away from hitters. Working the outer edge as he does allows for pitcher-friendly counts and chase-happy hitters. He’s also utilizing his fastball as his strikeout pitch, and locating it up above the zone. Check it out compared to last season:
The high fastball is fun to watch as hitters flail at it, but it’s dangerous, too. If you don’t get it high enough, it gets blasted. But due to having a considerably higher spin rate on his fastball (2478 RPM this year, 2283 is the league average according to Baseball Savant) there’s less perceived drop. It makes the ball not be where it’s supposed to be. (This is all expertly detailed in the documentary “Fastball”. Go watch it, and you’ll get a better idea of what makes Green so deadly. Also it’s just a great documentary.)
By not heaving meatballs, and by putting the fastball where it needs to be, Green has risen to have the best whiff per swing rate on fastballs among all relievers at 39.25 percent. He’s ahead of Craig Kimbrel, Carl Edwards Jr., Aroldis Chapman, everyone. He’s throwing the four-seam about 62 percent of the time this year, and has become essentially a two-pitch pitcher, as his slider is seen 24.2 percent of the time. He’s striking out 39 percent of hitters (compared to 26.2 percent a year ago) and still walking only 7 percent of hitters. It feels wrong to start making Andrew Miller comparisons; it seems hackneyed. But he’s simply a middle reliever who gets a ton of strikeouts, doesn’t walk many and does whatever the team needs. It seems familiar.
The only thing that ‘s worrying about Green, aside from his just suddenly doing this out of nowhere and whether it’s real at all, is his 48.3 percent fly ball rate. In Yankee Stadium (and Fenway Park and mostly all the AL East parks really) this can be a problem. Those places love home runs. His home run/fly ball ratio is a very normal 9.3 percent, but all the same you’d prefer relievers to not give balls a chance to get in the air. If he were forcing soft contact, that wouldn’t be an issue, but with a 32.6 percent hard hit rate, it’s a bit troubling. That’s 48th highest among relievers, but the guys around him all have considerably higher ground ball rates than his 32.1 percent, or else are considered not good. See, for an example in the first category, Dustin McGowan and his 49.7 percent ground ball rate, or in the second, Ryan Buchter and his 4.52 DRA. Green’s teammate Betances has the lowest hard hit rate among all relievers at 18.6 percent, though Betances’ other results haven’t been as starkly beautiful as Green’s. It could lead to a very bad moment in a big game if a fly ball and hard-hittedness combine at the wrong time.
Green is getting the strikeouts he was a year ago and then some, and he’s not allowing the hits. He gives Joe Girardi a certain level of freedom few other managers possess in having a nuclear option that isn’t tied to any one inning and who can come in at any point of the game. He probably isn’t quite as good as a 1.74 ERA suggests, though he does own a 2.53 DRA, better even than Chris Devenski, who was supposed to be what Green has become. It’s just one of those breakouts that’s hard to wrap your head around and trust. He did the little things, meaning commanding his fastball, and it’s placed him on the precipice of stardom. Now let’s see if he can keep it up.
Merritt Rohlfing writes about the wonder of baseball for Beyond the Box Score and Let’s Go Tribe, and podcasts on the simply scintillating Mostly Baseball Podcast. You can follow him for daily wisdoms and hummus toast at @merrittrohlfing.