Amid a bullpen crisis, the Yankees thought they could turn to one of their most reliable relievers of the last four years. They were wrong.
Since getting called up from the minors in 2016, Chad Green has cemented himself as a bullpen staple for the Yankees. Many a time have the Yankees called on Green to pitch in long, high-leverage positions, and for the most part, he has excelled at it. In the 2017 AL Wild Card game, Luis Severino exited the game after allowing 3 runs and only recording a single out. With one out and runners on second and third, the season hung in the balance. In came Green, who promptly struck out the first two batters he faced ending the inning. He then retired the side in order, leaving the game and saving the Yankees season. It seemed like no matter what situation he was in, Chad Green could get out of it. If there was one man you could always rely on, it would be him. This season, however, has been a completely different story. Green’s performance this season leaves you wondering if he will ever be the same pitcher again.
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When you take a glance at Green’s numbers, they don’t look too bad. Green sports a 7-7 record with a 3.46 ERA, his K%, and BB% (31.3 and 5.3), are top 10% in the league. Sure his ERA is higher than previous years but that’s not usually a big deal. Many of his peripherals have stayed the same, and his velocity has even increased. But for Green, it’s not just about the numbers, it’s about the moments and situations that he’s had an impact on.
May 6th, the Yankees lead the Astros 3-2 in the 8th. Green gives up a 3-run home run to Jose Altuve, which ultimately is the game-winner. June 5th, the Yankees are tied with the Red Sox 3-3 in the 8th. Green gives up 4 runs on 4 hits losing the game. July 11th, the Yankees lead the Astros 7-2 in the 9th inning. Green proceeds to give up 6 runs, including another 3-run home run to Jose Altuve, this one being a walk-off. It was more of the same after the All-Star break. August 29th in Oakland, Green enters the eighth inning of a tie ballgame. 3 batters later and the A’s are up 3-1 thanks to a Tony Kemp two-run homer. And of course this past week against Baltimore. Surely the Yankees could protect a one-run lead against the worst team in baseball? No, they couldn’t as Green gave up a two-run home run to Austin Hays putting the O’s in front. Luckily for Green, the Yankees offense bailed him out, preventing another loss on his stat line.
The unbelievable part is that there are plenty of other situations similar to the ones described above. Green’s lack of “clutch” performances is alarming. Even regular appearances have become a struggle. It’s incredibly resemblant to Aroldis Chapman’s cold streak earlier in the season, the difference being Green has been struggling for pretty much the entire season. It’s hard to imagine that Green would regress this much, so let’s try and understand what went so wrong.
This season, Green has been burned by one thing, the long ball. Green has given up an inexcusable 14 home runs, the most of his career. He trails only Adam Plutko of the Orioles for the most home runs given up by a reliever. The majority of his implosions are caused by the long ball, as in his last 9 and two-thirds innings, Green has given up 5 homers, pitching to an 8.38 ERA during this stretch. This includes Fransico Lindor’s game-winning home run in the Subway Series, the Hays homerun mentioned earlier, and James McCann’s home run the night before Lindor took Green deep.
Green’s bread and butter pitch has ultimately got him into a lot of trouble this year. His usually scintillating fastball has caused him major problems this season. The three home runs mentioned above? All hit off the fastball. In 2020, batters had a BA of .111 against his fastball, this season that number is nearly .200. Contributing to this is his lack of horizontal movement. Between 2020 and 2021, Green nearly lost an inch and a half of movement on his fastball. He is now 2.5 inches below league average. This gives hitters a better chance of barrelling up the ball and producing solid contact. It’s perplexing, however, because, for the most part, Green’s pitches grade out as identical to those of last season, the break, spin, and whiff rate of last season are eerily similar despite having resulted in radically different batted ball outcomes. Could it be as simple as the fact that hitters are just growing accustomed to Green’s signature elevated fastball? Looking at his xSLG against his fastball, the numbers continue to rise each year, from .261 in 2017, .391 in 2018, and .418 this year. Couple this with the fact that Green consistently ranks near the top of the league in highest average exit velocity, it seems like being hit for home runs at this rapid of a pace was inevitable.
Another major possible factor is usage. Green is used a lot, his 75 and a third innings pitched is the most in baseball. He will certainly pass his career-high of 75 and two-thirds, which he threw in 2018. Manager Aaron Boone has admittedly wished he could give Green more rest between appearances, saying “he has been leaned on a lot” and that “we’ll try to get him days”. Nonetheless, that seems very unlikely. The Yankees are in a dead sprint for one of two wild-card spots, trying to elude the Red Sox and Blue Jays with a depleted bullpen rotation.
Where do we go from here?
As the Yankees set their sights on October, Green remains to be a question mark for this Yankees bullpen. While Green has produced a large number of “lowlights”, he’s had some positives as well. His immaculate inning on the 4th of July versus the Mets to close the game (in which he threw 3 no-hit innings), or his 2 and a third-inning no-hit performance against the Rays where he struck out 4 batters. The Yankees play a lot of close games, 43 have been decided by just one run. Combine this with the fact that every game carries the fate of the season, the Yankees bullpen needs to be top tier. With Jonathan Loaisiga out indefinitely and Zack Britton out for the season, the majority of the load will indeed be placed on Green. If the Yankees want to make the playoffs and assemble an October run, Chad Green will undoubtedly be a large piece. Whether we get the unpredictable, lead-blowing Chad Green of the present or the reliable, robotic Chad Green of the past, only time will tell. The Yankees better hope the latter shows up.