Yankees Magazine: The evolution of Chad Green

In a year that's seen much change, a pitching prospect is committed to making the permanent jump to the Bigs

July 12th, 2016
When RailRiders pitching coach Tommy Phelps began working with Chad Green this year, one of the first things he showed the pitcher was a new grip on his slider. The adjustment helped Green have success at the Triple-A level. (New York Yankees)

Here's the bottom line: It's hard to get a Major League hitter out.

Chad Green knows this, but he's not scared.

Since Green was drafted in 2013, he has been working toward earning a job that has him facing off against the best in the game. At each step along the way -- and there are many in the life of a professional baseball player -- he has gone through changes, both personally and professionally.

In those three years, Green has gotten married and seen teammates come and go; he has shuttled from one city to another while fine-tuning his particular set of skills.

There have been some bumps in the road, but now, after a few adjustments, Green has been cruising for the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate. But there's one overarching change he thinks he needs to make to have success at the next stop: He has got to slow the game down, both figuratively and literally.

On the Move

When Green heard Brian Cashman's voice on the other end of the phone, it had been just 11 days since the wedding. The young pitcher had barely any time to adjust to married life before the Yankees' general manager told him that some more big changes were coming his way.

It was Dec. 9, 2015, and Green -- along with fellow pitcher Luis Cessa -- had just been traded from Detroit to the Yankees in exchange for Justin Wilson.

"He just told me, 'Welcome, and see you in Spring Training,'" Green recalls.

Green was acquired by the Yankees after having spent his first three professional seasons in the Tigers' system, where he made it as high as Double-A. His steady rise stalled when he went 5-14 with a 3.93 ERA in 2015 during his first year at that level. His fastball was solid, but something was holding him back.

It's no secret that a starting pitcher needs more than just a plus fastball to be successful. Green has always thrown a slider and a change-up in addition to the fastball, and for a while, they were sufficient. But as he progressed, and especially when Green went to his first Big League Spring Training this February with the Yankees, he had quite the rude awakening. In three exhibition games, the right-hander posted a 16.68 ERA as opponents batted .417 against him.

Green was shipped off to Minor League Spring Training on March 13, and when camp broke, he was assigned to Triple-A.

"I could tell he had a good fastball, but his secondary pitches needed a little more work and a little more consistency to be able to get Major League hitters out," said Tommy Phelps, Green's pitching coach this year with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

On day one, Phelps had some modifications that he wanted Green to incorporate. First and foremost, Phelps showed Green a new grip for his slider. And while perhaps not as life-changing as marriage or a major trade, the adjustment has had some impressive results.

In his first seven starts with the RailRiders, Green went 2-3 with a 1.22 ERA. He was locating his fastball, he was throwing the slider effectively, and he was mixing in his change-up to make the Triple-A hitters uncomfortable.

"Each outing he's had here, you can tell he has more confidence," said RailRiders Manager Al Pedrique. "He's throwing the slider for a strike, he's got better command, and we're very pleased with the progress he has shown."

So, too, were the Yankees. On May 14, Green's next move came when he was called up to the Bronx after a roster spot opened up when pitcher Luis Severino headed to the disabled list.

"Being able to put on the pinstripes at home, that was pretty cool because so many guys have worn the jersey before and it's never going to change," he said. "So just being able to put on the pinstripes around guys like [Carlos] Beltran and A-Rod, it was awesome."

Green was originally assigned to the bullpen, but after two days without entering a game, Manager Joe Girardi told him his role was about to change -- he would be starting the next day in Arizona.

In the whirlwind of it all, Green could hardly believe what was happening. Before he knew it, he was on the mound at Chase Field making his Major League debut in front of more than 32,000 fans. He had just seven games of Triple-A experience to his name and some not-great memories of the last time he faced Major League hitters in his head. You can forgive him for maybe being a little bit nervous.

His first Big League start was, plainly, not his best. He went four-plus innings and gave up six runs, four earned, and the Yankees lost to the Diamondbacks, 12-2.

Girardi said Green did a "decent job." Green himself admitted that he made some mistakes and that he was "not happy with it."

The next day, he was sent back down to the RailRiders. A couple of weeks later, he was able to reflect a little more on the start.

"I learned a lot from that one outing I had," he said from the bullpen at PNC Field. "It's about slowing the game down. I think in time, if I get another chance -- hopefully, I do -- I'm just going to try to slow the game down a little bit because it can speed up pretty quick. It's also knowing that you've got to be able to throw any pitch in any count."

And the key to throwing any pitch in any count is having confidence in each and every one of them. So back at Triple-A, Green got back to work.

Small Tweaks

Through June 13, the RailRiders had one of the best pitching staffs in the International League. They were among the leaders with a 3.19 ERA and had the second-most strikeouts.

Green was pitching very well, leading the charge. His 1.61 ERA was the lowest in the league, and he had given up two earned runs or fewer in each start since being sent back down. But still, work needed to be done.

"I'd say he's 50/50 with the quality of his secondary pitches," Phelps said. "So it's just about developing them -- working it, working it and working it to make it more consistent."

Between starts, Phelps and Green spend a lot of time together. During every bullpen session the South Carolina native throws, he and Phelps work on something specific. They are, quite literally, trying to slow down the 25-year-old's game by having him focus less on his fastball and more on his off-speed pitches. If Green is going to fool anyone at the Big League level, his slider and change-up need to be well-defined and completely reliable.

Green has progressed, there's no doubt. With each start, he says he has become more comfortable getting away from the fastball and using his slider as a put-away pitch. But as his slider becomes sharper, he and Phelps know it's important not to let his other pitches fall by the wayside.

In early June, Green is in the bullpen with Phelps, working on his fastball and change-up grips. He starts out hot, and catching prospect Eddy Rodriguez can't help but laugh and exclaim with each successive pop of his mitt.

"His fastball, I can't praise it enough," Rodriguez said. "It's 94 to 96, but it plays like 97 or 98. It's amazing."

After warming up a bit, Green starts mixing his pitches. Everything looks good -- until suddenly Rodriguez stands up. He gives the pitcher a small tip, and an agreeable Phelps demonstrates a grip to Green.

When Green starts throwing again, the pop of Rodriguez' mitt is even more striking.

"There it is!" Rodriguez said through his mask.

The pitch is perfect. Green unleashes a few final throws, and Rodriguez jogs over to the mound and claps his batterymate on the shoulder.

The three men confer. They go over everything that went right -- Green had started finishing off the change-up -- and what they wanted to keep working on -- making those secondary pitches consistent. Green jogs to the showers, head down; not in disappointment, but in contemplation. This particular tune-up is complete, and there will be more.

There is little doubt within the RailRiders clubhouse that Green has what it takes to make it at the next level. With a few more tweaks and a bit more work, maybe a couple more tips from those around him, it's entirely possible for him to earn a long-term stay in the Bronx. (He received a second call-up on June 10, pitching a 1-2-3 inning in one relief appearance before being sent back down to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.)

"I think he's very close to being able to be a mainstay in our rotation up there, and so those tips and bullpens are important," Rodriguez said. "Especially for a pitcher like him, who is trying to be a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees, that's a big honor, and he needs to be as ready for it as he possibly can."

"He needs to keep doing the same things he's been doing, working on his mechanics," Pedrique said. "I know he's been working on the location with the change-up and using it in fastball counts and trusting that he can throw a strike with it in those situations. I think he's going to be fine. They got their first look at him in the Big Leagues, and if he continues pitching the way he's been pitching for us here, I don't think he'll have a problem up in New York."

Everyone -- Green included -- agrees on what work needs to be done. But those around him also agree that there is no one more capable of getting down to the nitty-gritty of that work.

"When we got him, I thought it was a good addition to the organization because we feel like he has a good arm," Pedrique said. "And he's still young, he's right-handed, and it seems like this year he has improved in a few areas.

"I give him a lot of credit because he's been working very hard since Spring Training," he continues. "His work ethic is outstanding, off the charts."

Green, like any Minor League pitcher, wants his next big move to be up to the Majors, this time for good.

After growing up a Cardinals fan and being drafted by the Tigers, Green honestly never expected that the big move he'd be aiming for would be into the Yankees rotation. Now that his target is so clear -- and since he's already had a small taste of what The Show is like -- he realizes that this is actually the ultimate dream.

"Everybody wants to play for the Yankees," he said. "When you grow up, it seems like all the greats played for the Yankees."

As it happens, Green was able to play with some of the Yankees' current greats, and he learned plenty from them.

After Green's one Major League start, Yankees catcher Brian McCann sat down with the youngster and gave him some tips. McCann told Green that pitching in the Majors was all about pitch selection and having confidence in what he's throwing. Slow it down, he told the pitcher; know that there are a lot of different ways to get Major League hitters out. He told Green not to lose sight of what he did well, but to commit to continued improvement.

Luckily, commitment is something Green is familiar with.

In the past several months, Green has committed to married life, he has committed to joining the Yankees franchise, and he has committed to becoming a better pitcher, slowly, one small -- or major -- change at a time.