Tyler Clippard has dealt with some inconsistency early this season with no example more clear than his outing in Atlanta on Monday where he allowed two base runners and gave up the losing run. When his stuff has been on, which it has been quite a bit this season, it's been electric and dominant, but Clippard has always had a tendency to leave pitches up in the zone. He can usually get by on changing speeds effectively with his great changeup, but he's had less success pitching up in the zone early on this year.
For some historical context, let's look at the breakdown of the kind of numbers that batters have put up against Clippard in Aprils since 2010:
He was able to have significant success both in April 2010 and 2011, his All-Star season. He faced a whole lot of batters over a lot of innings, mostly because he was the most reliable bullpen arm in what were a couple of very lean pitching years for the Nats. He managed to keep opponents off base almost three-quarters of the time in April of those seasons, and he generated a whole lot of swings and misses.
Last season, he struggled out of the gate really for the first time in his career. Clippard and Davey Johnson put his early woes on shoulder trouble, as Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball wrote last April. Clippard's numbers fluctuated throughout the season, having great months and not so great ones. If his April 2012 struggles were an anomaly, we could easily put it on those lingering shoulder issues from spring. After all, it was the worst first month for him of any season with the Nationals.
In April 2013, Clippard's inconsistency has reappeared. He's not as dominant as he was in early 2010 or 2011, but he's also not as bad as he was for just about all of April 2012. He's not giving up many hits at all, evidenced by his .147 batting average against, but that low average makes an otherwise decent 1.258 WHIP more alarming. Dig a little deeper, and you'll see that Clippard's strikeout numbers have gone down while his walks have gone way up: 7.8 K/9 compared to 6.97 BB/9, making for a disappointing K/BB ratio.
It is possible that wear and tear after throwing 262.1 innings in the past three seasons plus a month have just taken a toll on his body in a way that won't let him pitch in the way to which we've be come accustomed. It's also entirely possible that it's the same early season issues he had early in 2012, and he'll rebound to become the same kind of pitcher that helped him save 32 games in 2012. It's too early to know for sure, but that doesn't mean it's not worth looking at past April performances to see if this is consistent with anything he's done before.
To me, the biggest concern for Clippard is pitch location, and that issue is two-fold. The first, he consistently leaves pitches up in the zone and giving batters a much better chance to make contact. If his changeup doesn't do an effective job getting the timing for those hitters off, he's going to have trouble. The second, averaging almost seven walks per nine innings early is a small sample size, but it's more than he's given up in any previous April in his career.
Once Clippard makes an adjustment to fix one of those two location-related issues, and I think he will, the other one may be resolved by default. He's going to have to make some sort of adjustment and start throwing better pitches, though, or these numbers aren't just going to be an April anomaly.