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The Yankees and Rays’ relievers pack a powerful one-two punch

Despite playing different roles within their respective staffs, Nick Anderson and Chad Green’s fastball-curveball combinations are two of the best in the Major Leagues.

American League Wild Card Game 2: Toronto Blue Jays v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Over the course of this season, the formerly formidable Yankee bullpen regressed to merely average, while their ALDS opponent’s has ascended to the top of the league. In 2020, the Rays had the third best reliever ERA in the Major Leagues (3.37) while the Yankees had just the 16th (4.51). Buoyed by Kevin Cash’s “stable of guys who throw 98,” the Rays relievers fWAR paced all of baseball, while the Yankees finished 21st.

However, each pen has one pitcher whose stood above the rest of their teammates, dominating opposing batters all year long. The Rays’ Nick Anderson, of no relation to the former Orlando Magic star, was virtually un-hittable, striking out batters 44.8% of the time this year while limiting them to a .141 wOBA. He also posted a minuscule ERA of 0.55, and a 0.49 WHIP.

In contrast to Tommy Kahnle’s season-ending surgery, Adam Ottavino’s struggles, and Aroldis Chapman’s slow start, Chad Green had a quietly resurgent season, helping balance out the team’s mix of uneven performances from the pen. Though his ERA of 3.51 is solid, it belies some bad luck, as Green’s expected stats were simply stunning. Opposing hitters’ xwOBA of 0.221 and Green’s xERA of 2.22 were both the sixth best in baseball.

In a pinch, each team’s manager will surely lean on their most underrated studs, Anderson and Green.

The most glaring difference between the two is the way in which their respective managers deploy them. Nick Anderson averages less than an inning per outing in his most frequent role as a set-up man. Cash likes to save Anderson for the game’s most pressing moments, as he’s been deployed in almost exclusively high or medium leverage situations, and never before the seventh inning. So far in the playoffs, Cash has upped Anderson’s workload, asking him to record five outs between the seventh and eighth innings of Game One, and then again coming in to pitch the final frame of Game Two.

Alternatively, Boone likes to deploy Green earlier in the game, pitching the sixth or seventh most often, and for longer stretches, as he averages over an inning per appearance. Also, Green has pitched in nearly as many low-leverage innings as he has medium or high leverage ones. Green occasionally eats up early innings if a starter receives an early hook, or provides a bridge between the starter and Aroldis Chapman’s ninth inning. In the ALDS, Cash likely won’t use Anderson early in a game or while trailing, whereas Green could easily be used in that exact spot. In Game Two of the Yankees’ Wild Card series, Green entered in the bottom of the fifth relieving Masahiro Tanaka and stayed to record four outs.

Despite their varied usage, the two RHPs attack hitters almost identically, primarily relying on their fastball, putting hitters away with a curve, and mixing in a sinker once in a blue moon. Anderson’s underrated arsenal features a mid-90s fastball that he throws 64.1% of the time and a soft hook that he throws 35% of the time, rated as the 15th and sixth best individual pitches on a per 100 basis in all of baseball according to Baseball Savant’s Pitch Arsenal Stats Leaderboard. Though his heater generally hovers around 95 mph, Anderson’s is so effective because it has the 34th most rise in the MLB (one slot above Gerrit Cole).

The pitch’s elite spin causes it to cross the plate a few inches above where the batter’s eyes expect it to, causing regular swings and misses (29.9% whiff rate on the fastball) and weak flyouts (44.8% fly ball rate overall). Anderson’s ability to throw his fastball and curveball with the same arm slot and speed makes it impossible for the hitter to read which pitch is coming until it’s too late.

Even with below average break on both the horizontal and vertical planes, Anderson’s so-so breaker becomes effectively elite when paired with his sizzling heater.

Before this season, Green had allowed some of the hardest contact in the MLB over the previous three years, finishing each season with an exit velocity in the bottom one percent of the league all over 90 mph. This year, however, Green improved to allow an average exit velocity of just 87.7 mph, jumping to the 61st percentile in the majors. Much of this improvement had to with an adjustment to Green’s breaking ball as detailed in a piece by Peter Brody in the offseason. Green had even admitted to relying too heavily on the fastball, and not throwing a competitive enough breaker, allowing hitters to sit dead-red.

This year, however, Green added so much depth to his slider, Statcast began tracking it as a curveball. Though it was the lesser of his two primary pitches, hitters had to respect it, reviving the value of his epic fastball that had been battered so badly last season. In 2020, hitters slugged .151 less than they had in 2019 against Green’s fastball that still consistently clears 96 mph. This dramatic improvement to the fastball’s success had more to do with the development of the vertical break on Green’s curve than any significant change to the heater. In fact, the change to a different pitch unlocked Chad Green’s potential, allowing his fastball to become the third best in the Majors this season according to FanGraphs’ pitch weights.

Though they’re used in different spots, Anderson and Green’s potent fastball-curveball combinations produced some of 2020’s best relief pitching, and each have the capability of making a significant impact on the Yankees-Rays ALDS matchup.