In 2007, Jim Bowden made a mostly unnoticed move to accquire Tyler Clippard from the Yankees for reliever Jonathan Albaladejo, in what may become the best trade in his time as general manager of the Washington Nationals. The righty made two spot starts for the Nationals in 2008 before being sent back to AAA, where he would toil for the next year as he tried to find a way to make it back to the bottom dwelling Nationals. As more and more of Washington’s minor league pitchers began to rise through the system, many began to leapfrog Clippard for the chance to be featured in the Nationals starting rotation. In 2009, the Nationals made a decision to change Clippard’s role from starter to reliever, desperate for any help they could get out of their major league bullpen. The switch brought new life to Clippard’s career. So what changed for Clippard? What makes him so successful? And how does he fit into the Nat’s future?
Clippard’s last start as a major league pitcher came on Jun. 14th against the Seattle Mariners. He picked up the win in six innings pitched, letting up two runs off of two solo home runs. He struck out two batters and walked three. Despite the win, the start was a showcase of everything that was wrong with Clippard as a starter. While he made it through the first few innings with little trouble, he started to fall apart the second time through the order. Batters were picking up on his best pitch, the changeup, because he was releasing it from a different plane than fastball. He was having trouble spotting his fastball and getting it past hitters. He nibbled too much and was walking batters that he could have finished off. A switch from starter to reliever would not be enough to fix his problems. He would have to work on his mechanics and change his mentality in order to be successful, but the switch to reliever would at least help some of his problems.
Last year when Clippard switched to a reliever, his WHIP, BB/9, and HR/9 all dropped while his K/9 rose from the 7 range to 10.8 in the majors. His fastball picked up some velocity, going from the 89-90 range to the 92-93 range, allowing him to gain more confidence in the pitch. As a result, his contact% dropped by more than 10% and his swinging strike% rose by 7%. When he got ahead in the count, his fastball became his new out pitch. He began using his curveball less and started employing a slider, gaining enough confidence with the pitch so that he was able to throw it when he got behind in the count.
So what makes him so great? First of all, he is currently second among major league relievers in strikeouts with 20. His four-seam fastball rides up high in the strikezone, frequently fooling batters into swinging. While the release point on his changeup is still different than the fastball, the plane on which he releases it is much closer than it was two years ago. The delivery itself, which has been commented on by various Washington observers, is very deceptive and does not allow the batter to see the ball until the point of release. He is a reliever with four pitches that he can turn to, two of which (four-seamer, change) are out pitches. He is equally as good against left-handed batters (.135 BAA) as he is against right-handed batters (.128). And most importantly, he has the ability to effectively pitch multiple innings, which he has done six times this season. This last part has come in handy for Jim Riggleman this year, as he can confidently rely on Clippard to bridge the gap between a starter that goes seven innings and his closer.
Washington has not had a reliable group of closers to finish off close games since 2007 when Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera, and Chad Cordero were getting the job done. Now, in Clippard and Capps, the team has a electric duo that has yet to miss a beat. Clippard has been so good that there has been talk of moving him back to the rotation, but it seems like he has found a niche in the set-up role and that is where he will be staying for the foreseeable future. Riggleman is going to have to find some other relievers that he can rely on in high leverage situations or they may risk wearing out the arms of Capps and Clippard. The one thing that is certain, though, Tyler Clippard has found a sweet tune to sing as a reliever.