Chad Green arrived at Yankee Stadium for the 2017 American League Wild Card Game anticipating his first taste of postseason baseball as a Major Leaguer. As always, he expected to pitch that evening. Green was the Yankees' top reliever last season, a multi-inning threat boasting a 5-0 record with a 1.83 ERA and a 6.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio that could be described as Mariano-esque. He just didn't expect to pitch in the first inning.
From his seat in the bullpen, Green absorbed the atmosphere synonymous with October baseball in the Bronx -- the pageantry, the tradition, the fervent, sold-out crowd. A kid from Central Illinois on the biggest stage in baseball, Green was living a dream. With Yankees ace Luis Severino on the mound, he thought he had at least five, maybe six innings to settle in and just enjoy the scene. But Severino got knocked around early. A leadoff home run put Minnesota ahead. Pop out. Walk. Another home run. 3-0 Twins. "It's Sevy," Green said to himself. "He'll get out of it."
Severino then allowed another base hit. The bullpen phone rang. "My heart jumped," Green says months later, reliving the moment. "I thought it could be me. Then I heard my name." A double made it second and third with one out, ending Severino's night and jolting Green into duty.
Green says he threw 10 pitches in the bullpen -- the quickest he had warmed up all season -- but somehow he was ready. With the lights flashing and the crowd roaring, Green struck out Byron Buxton swinging on a 97 mph fastball. He ended the threat one batter later, getting Jason Castro to whiff at a fastball over the outside corner. "I was kind of out there just throwing," Green says. "I knew what was going on -- the magnitude of the situation -- but I didn't understand it until after the game. It all happened so fast."
And yet, with the Yankees' season hanging in the balance, Green was able to slow the game down. He was cool, almost detached. "It kind of felt like an out-of-body experience," he says. He never lost control of the situation. He was poised and prepared. He merely kept calm and threw strikes.
Though the bullpen is sometimes labeled a destination for failed starters, not every pitcher can make the transition. It requires a unique mindset to enter a close game in the late innings -- or sometimes in the first inning -- and extinguish a fire. Sure, possessing a fastball in the upper 90s helps. But the ability to maintain your composure is also a vital trait. Chad Green just so happens to possess both characteristics.
"One of Chad's biggest assets is his low heartbeat," says Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey. "He rarely gets overly excited or overly down, and that allows him to be a really effective reliever. You can have a bad day one day, but you have to deal with the next day. He has a really good temperament for the job."
Green wasn't always so levelheaded. In high school, his twin brother, Chase, the team's starting shortstop, would sometimes heckle Chad when he was on the mound. More often than not, Green would mutter something under his breath, but there were the occasional outbursts. "One time I told him to throw strikes," Chase remembers, "and he stepped off the mound and said, 'What do you think I'm trying to do?' I will say that I'm probably one of the few people able to get under his skin."
Chad is three minutes older and over half a foot taller than Chase. Growing up in Effingham, Illinois, a welcoming Midwestern town nestled between St. Louis and Indianapolis, their lives revolved around sports. Hoops. Baseball. Didn't matter as long as the twins could compete against each other. They would turn a game of catch into a death match. But there were benefits to their sibling rivalry: The Green twins pushed each other to strive for greatness. Both Chad and Chase played four years of basketball and baseball at Effingham High School. Both were promoted to varsity baseball as sophomores. Steel sharpens steel, as the saying goes.
Effingham High School baseball coach Chris Fleener lived directly across the street from "The Boys," as he called Chad and Chase. Fleener held some basic tenets about the game. No throwing helmets. Don't hang your head. No pouting. Stay humble. Don't give opponents any bulletin board material. Chad fit right in.
Fleener remembers the scouts first descending upon Effingham toward the end of Chad's junior season. They were soon a regular presence at Green's starts. "One time his senior year there were 12 scouts watching him in the bullpen, and one scout put the radar gun right on him," Fleener says. "They were standing behind him, beside him, watching everything he was doing, and it never bothered him one bit. He kept his composure and never let that get to his head. He just stayed confident and poised with his body."
Green went 9-2 with a 2.33 ERA as a junior and led Effingham to a regional title. The following year, he led the Flaming Hearts to another regional title with an identical 9-2 record and a 1.62 ERA. He was also a threat with the stick, batting .455 with nine homers and 46 RBI as a senior. Chase remembers a rivalry game during their junior year against Teutopolis where Chad, a left-handed batter, hit a walk-off grand slam off Derek Thompson, a southpaw hurler drafted by the Rangers in 2013. "It was like no big deal to him," Chase says. "Chad had that quiet confidence about him. You would never know it, but I think he knew that he could be special, and it showed."
The Toronto Blue Jays selected Green in the 37th round of the 2010 MLB draft, but he opted to enroll at the University of Louisville. Around this time, he realized that he could have a future as a professional ballplayer. He transformed his body during a grueling six-week training program the summer prior to his freshman year that Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell dubbed "The Combine." Green worked his way up from being a spot starter and reliever as a freshman to a Friday night starter during his junior year when he went 10-4 with a 2.42 ERA in 1041/3 innings pitched.
"You knew what you were getting when you flipped that guy the ball," McDonnell says of Green. "He's one of those guys I call 'Punch the Clock.' There are a lot of people who work hard, and they don't get paid unless they punch the clock. They punch in, they do their work, and they punch out. This dude punched the clock every day. Three years of no issues off the field, no drama, nothing. He just showed up, did his work, and did it right. That was Chad Green."
The Detroit Tigers selected Green in the 11th round of the 2013 MLB draft. He made 23 starts in Single-A in 2014 and 27 starts at Double-A the following season before a December 2015 trade to the Yankees altered his career. He began 2016 as a starter with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, posting a sparkling 1.22 ERA that earned him a promotion to the Bronx. But he was knocked around in eight big-league starts, going 2-4 with a 5.94 ERA. Entering Spring Training in 2017, Green was a long shot for the Yankees' rotation. His name was often mentioned as part of the team's "organizational depth" at the position, and once again he found himself relegated to the Minors when the Yankees broke camp.
Just like in 2016, he was promoted early on, but this time he thrived -- albeit in a different role. In his first seven appearances pitching out of the Yankees' bullpen, Green allowed three earned runs in 162⁄3 innings. Initially a long reliever, Green soon developed into a weapon who could be deployed in any situation and at any point in a game -- even in the first inning of an elimination game.
So what changed?
Moving to the bullpen allowed Green to phase out his secondary pitches and focus on this strength: his four-seam fastball. Launched in the high 90s with late life, Green can locate the pitch anywhere in the strike zone. Analytics point to his high spin rate -- last season Green placed 26th out of the 498 pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs, according to BaseballSavant -- for his ability to produce so many swings and misses; a fastball with high spin rate stays up in the zone longer than a hitter expects. In the past this was called a "rising fastball" even though the ball does not defy gravity. Now it's referred to as having "good fastball characteristics." Green, however, credits his mental approach for his breakout 2017.
"Last year was just being more comfortable up here," he says. "When I pitched in 2016, it was like, 'Oh man, if I throw two or three innings, that probably means I'm going down to Triple-A.' To be able to get more comfortable, have more confidence, I think played a role. I think them having more faith in me, just the mental aspect I think played a bigger role than the [mechanical] part."
Green punctuated his breakout season with his performance in the Wild Card Game, yet there were questions about his role entering Spring Training this year. Yankees management told Green to prepare to start, which didn't alter Green's preparation much since he had always gone into Spring Training with that mentality. Yet after watching him closely, new manager Aaron Boone believed that Green's talents remained best utilized out of the 'pen. "I think it became evident just how dynamic he's become as a bullpen guy," Boone says. "And with our starters doing what they were supposed to be doing, I think that made it an easy decision for us."
When asked if there was anything Green could have done in Spring Training to earn a spot in the rotation, Boone replies, "I don't know."
Whether Green considers himself a starter or a reliever is a bit more complicated.
"I think that everyone that's been a starter thinks …" he begins to say before trailing off. He pauses before continuing. "I like being in the bullpen. I like where I'm at. I like the role I'm being used in right now. But I like the aspect of pitching every fifth day and getting those four days off to recover, to throw bullpens knowing exactly when you are pitching. But as a bullpen guy, I like showing up to the ballpark every day knowing I have a chance to pitch that day. So there's things with both I like and things I dislike."
The big topic of conversation amongst relievers in late May was the Tampa Bay Rays' use of veteran closer Sergio Romo as a starter in back-to-back games against the Los Angeles Angels and then, a week later, in two games against the Baltimore Orioles. Green understands the strategy behind utilizing "an opener," as the tactic has been dubbed, but he doesn't think it would work over the course of a season. "There are reasons there are starters and relievers," he says. Green is a big believer in established roles and routine.
As for his own role in the bullpen, for now he occupies a nebulous position -- not a closer or eighth-inning guy, but not necessarily a long man. "Chad probably has the most widespread role," says Boone, who compares Green's fastball to that of former Nationals closer Chad Cordero. "There are going to be nights where we bring him in in the fifth inning looking to get multiple innings out of him where he shuts down the middle of the game. There are going to be nights where he becomes the primary set-up guy or the seventh-inning guy. Because of his ability to get both righties and lefties out, there is no matchup we really shy away from with Greeny."
No matter when Green has taken the ball this season, he has thrived, going 4-0 with a 1.95 ERA through mid-June. And as if it weren't apparent from last season's Wild Card Game, Green is comfortable in pressure situations. He has limited opponents to a .071 batting average (1-for-14) in at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position. "I think he enjoys coming in in really big situations and shutting the ballgame down," says Dellin Betances, another converted starter who has found success in the bullpen. "He's excelled at that. He's pretty nasty, I'd say."
Green still sees room for improvement. He senses hitters cheating on his fastball and knows the best counter to that is a more consistent slider. He is still a work in progress. Secondary pitches must be refined. He strives to improve his numbers in the second inning of work. In the meantime though, he will do whatever he's called upon to do, whether it's entering the game in the first, the fifth or the 15th inning. He will fling that nasty four-seamer with its high spin rate. He will get swings and misses. He will strand runners. And through it all, he will keep his cool. And who knows, maybe he ends up as a starting pitcher -- preferably a real starter, and not "an opener."