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Finding a breaking ball that works for Chad Green

He’s toyed with a slider, curveball, and most recently a whirly, but has never found one that he can trust.

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New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

When Aaron Boone called upon Chad Green to get the final three outs of the Yankees’ 3-2 victory over the Blue Jays on Monday, I reckon many of you had the same reaction as myself. That is, to wonder what the heck Boonie was doing. Why was he trusting maybe the least dependable reliever in his bullpen with arguably the highest leverage situation of the young season?

This consternation was not without its merits. Green cost the Yankees no fewer than six wins last season via meltdown performance, and already his 2022 campaign was off to a shaky start, having given up two runs in back-to-back appearances causing the Yankees to fall behind on both occasions. Two weeks ago, Andrés investigated why Green struggled to find his elite fastball across his first six outings this season. The loss of velocity, spin rate, rise, and command of essentially the only pitch he can throw with any consistency had seemingly reduced Green to a liability.

We all know how important Green has been to the Yankees. Since his first full season in 2017, he grades out as the fifth-most valuable reliever in baseball at seven fWAR. However, the Yankees shouldn’t feel compelled to keep him near the top of the reliever pecking order just because of his past performance. If anything, they’ve shown the ability to develop high-leverage arms on the fly, rendering any one guy all the more fungible. There’s no reason to remain beholden to inflexible roles for certain relievers.

That being said, the Yankees shouldn’t just kick Green to the curb. There’s still a role for him to play on this team, and they should be looking for ways to maximize his contributions. One way I propose for them to do that is to iron out his breaking ball.

It seems like Green has been searching for a reliable secondary pitch since the moment he broke out as a top-end reliever. Up until this season, it’s never been an existential concern but rather a way to make a good reliever even better. However, given the issues with the fastball that Andrés detailed, I think it’s past time that Green find another pitch he can trust. Back in 2020, just before the shortened season got underway, I wrote about the new curveball that Green was showcasing in spring training 2.0. Whereas in previous years he had tinkered with a short, sideways-breaking slider, that summer he was throwing a cross-seam spike curveball with tremendous up-and-down movement.

Pre-2020 breaking ball:

2020 breaking ball:

Then when the whirly revolution swept through the Yankees pitching room, Green found himself pulled in the undertow.

In his first nine outings of the season, Green used a breaking ball that Statcast has classified as a curveball, but at times behaves much more like a slider and at others resembles the sweepers learned by other pitchers on staff.

But then something funny happened in that ninth inning appearance against Toronto. His curveball was back to looking like the spike version from 2020.

The raw data backs this up, with the pitch exhibiting roughly three inches less horizontal movement than his curveballs from earlier appearances. Seeing him revert to this older version of the pitch gave me an idea. Instead of limiting himself to just one version of the pitch — the up-and-down curve from 2020 versus the sweepy curve from this season — why not incorporate both into his arsenal?

Clay Holmes has done a similar thing with his breaking ball. Holmes throws two distinct sliders, one with virtually no horizontal movement — more of a spike slider — and one with over a foot of horizontal movement — your prototypical sweeper.

Throwing the same pitch with two different movement profiles creates a ton more uncertainty for the hitter. Even if he is able to identify breaking ball out of the hand, he is now no longer able to reasonably assess what location the pitch is going to break to if one version breaks vertically on one plane while the other dives sideways away from the bat.

Incorporating essentially another pitch to the repertoire — even if it’s really just two different versions of a curveball — also would give Green additional margin for error. If he loses the feel for one version of the curveball, the hitter can no longer just sit dead red. Conversely, if the fastball isn’t working, the hitter cannot isolate the location of the curveball if Green is able to throw two versions with significantly divergent movement profiles.

Look, I get it if you’re not a Chad Green fan — I feel a pang of anxiety in the pit of my stomach every time I see him jog out of the bullpen. His propensity for surrendering crooked numbers in close games should disqualify him from the fireman role that Aaron Boone has loved to deploy him in the last few years.

But Michael Kay made an astute point on the YES broadcast following Monday night’s 3-2 win over the Blue Jays in which Green secured the save. Green is probably the Yankees’ plan D or E in high leverage spots — quite a luxury considering not many teams have a reliever with Green’s track record as their fourth or fifth option. Rather than write him off as a lost cause in those spots, the Yankees should be doing everything to maximize whatever’s left in the tank, and I believe diversification of his secondary offerings is the first step.