The Curious Case of Tyler Clippard

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I know this is probably the last player you want to hear about, but I don’t care. Tyler Clippard has quietly been one of the most interesting pitchers in baseball the past few years. Tyler Clippard feels like he should be decades old at this point. The Yankees drafted him in the 9th round out of high school in 2003, where he began his career as a starting pitcher. He was traded to the Nationals, and converted to a reliever in 2009. He owns a 3.11 career ERA, which is respectable, but a 3.84 FIP to go along with a 4.15 xFIP.

Shockingly, Clippard is only semi-aware of this¬†as indicated by this article from Fangraphs last year. Clippard has a stunning¬†career BABIP of .239, and is one of the kings of inducing soft contact and should be considered the poster boy for beating ERA estimators. For his career, 50.2% of balls in play have been considered medium contact. Since 2007, Clippard ranks 24th in inducing soft contact. At this point, you’re starting to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Tyler Clippard is able to induce soft ground balls and keep the ball out of the air, which seems like a successful enough formula. Until you realize, for his career, Clippard has a 28.6% ground ball rate.

If you look at the pitchers this year who induced ground balls, and place Clippard’s career numbers in their company, he would rank 8th to last, in between A.J. Griffin and Andrew Moore respectively. There aren’t a lot of good pitchers keeping Clippard company here, yet he’s been able to consistently produce quality seasons. Since his average fastball velocity peaked in 2012 at an explosive 92.8 MPH, his fastball usage and velocity have pretty much declined in every season since.

We’re almost starting to get to why Clippard is interesting. Yes, we haven’t gotten there yet. In the previously linked Fangraphs article, there are actually some pretty cool pitching anecdotes. The one that sticks out to me the most is right near the end where he says “I’m a feel pitcher”, and throughout the article you get the sense Clippard really doesn’t use advanced analytics, except he’s a much smarter pitcher than analytics can capture. His fastball got crushed this past year, which is why we see the 6.9% decline in usage.

In the article you also see Clippard constantly referencing “plane” and how he leverages that against opposing hitters. In 2014, Clippard was straight dominant. Here’s what his breakdown of the location of pitches looked like.

Lots of pitches up, and especially pitches that are up and in on right-handed batters. A few years back when offense was scarce, people started to take a look at what is bringing about this change, and one of the conclusions was elevated fastballs. When you’re talking about plane, consider this. A batter is expecting a pitch low in the zone because he thinks the pitcher wants to induce ground balls. For years, batters were trained to swing down on the ball for some reason. So Clippard elevated his pitches.

Sure enough it worked; you can clearly see the top part of the zone and middle/low are different, and Clippard became even better out of the strike zone, getting batters to chase and induce poor contact. And not many hitters will/can swing down on a high pitch, so they have no choice but to elevate and create mediocre content. In 2014, and some of 2015, this type of swinging was reactionary.

But, baseball changes. Soon after this, batters started to elevate everything¬†and we’re still obviously seeing that today as we’re in the midst of a fly-ball revolution. Clippard talks about teams preferring higher velocity now, or opt towards stuff over performance, but at this point, Clippard may not be able to survive in this current environment, or at least with his fastball. But we’ve seen his usage for the fastball drop precipitously, so he’s obviously trying to make some sort of change. Another way to phrase this is, where did the rest of the percentage of his pitches go?

My first day at Inside Edge, I was put on a practice game. Lo and behold, the first game I had was Ariel Miranda who throws a bevy of pitches, none of which are especially good or distinguishable. But one of the things that fascinated me about Miranda is that he throws both a splitter and a change-up. I had always assumed that it was splitting hairs, but there are actual differences between these two pitches.

Finding a pitcher who throws both pitches is pretty rare. Looking at Fangraphs’ pitch usage (40 inning minimum), we see Ariel Miranda, Jose Leclerc, Mark Leiter, and of course, Tyler Clippard. Clippard hasn’t always thrown these two pitches, but started doing so in 2014. Ever since then, his usage has gone up, topping out at 16.4% this year. Both his change-up and his splitter rated very positively this year, while his slider and fastball have been ruthlessly ineffective. If you wanna see something cool, one of our guys figured this out at the office.

The picture above is Clippard throwing a change-up.

This next picture is Tyler Clippard throwing a splitter. Now, if you look closely enough, stop doing what you’re doing. You’re not going to be able to see the grip or the spin, the image isn’t high enough quality. But look at where he falls off. Every time he throws a change-up he falls off to the third base side of the mound, and every other pitch (splitter included), he falls off to the first base side. Not a lot to analyze here, but kinda cool. He really does generate a lot of movement from different arm slots and how he contorts his body.

And both pitches are very, very good. The splitter spin looks like a fastball from the outset, but just dies. This is what he means by changing the plane of the pitch. The human eye can only tell velocity apart by so much, so while this pitch looks like a fastball out of the hand, it ends up in the dirt. A lot of that has to do with spin rate and perceived velocity, but that’s another article for another time. Clippard’s change-up really needs no further introduction; it’s a filthy pitch that he should lean on more to help prop up his poor fastball, as well as a slider that has so little movement, f/x calls it a cutter.

I’m not saying Tyler Clippard is a great pitcher by any means, but he’s had a ten year career. You don’t get there by accident. He’s only 32, somehow, and has adapted before. But he can’t continue to be the type of pitcher he used to be in this new era of increased offense, much of it led by a change in swing philosophy. The reason teams are opting for guys with power stuff now is because that seems to be the only way to beat this new age of hitters. But if Clippard can throw that change-up and splitter more, he may be able to figure something out. There is a lot of vertical and horizontal movement with the combination of the two, creating less of a plane and more of a dimension. He may never be the most dominant, and his time in the majors may be dwindling, but Tyler Clippard is one of the smartest pitchers in baseball, and for my money, one of the most interesting.

 

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