Dave Nichols: Is there reason to be concerned about Tyler Clippard’s performance?

So far this season, a lot of things have gone right for the Nationals. The starting pitching has been phenomenal. The relievers, for the most part, have been very strong, as well, despite missing their two best closer options to injury most of the season. And the hitting - well, it looks like it might be coming around. Actually, they’ve been pretty good all season getting runners on base; it’s been getting ‘em in that’s been the problem most nights. As the weather starts to heat up though, we’re seeing more balls leave the yard, which is a very good sign. Insert Michael Morse, get Ryan Zimmerman going at the plate and you might actually have something there.

But one player of concern for the Nats has to be their 2011 All-Star, Tyler Clippard.

Thus far, Clippard has been - how shall we say? - inconsistent? He’s pitched 17 innings, including a one-run inning in last night’s 7-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. To date, he’s the owner of a 3.72 ERA and an xFIP of 4.07. He hasn’t given up a home run this season, which is kind of unusual for him since he’s a fly ball pitcher. But a look at the underlying data suggests that Clippard is not the same pitcher as he has been in the past.

First, the good news: He’s still striking out batters at the same rate as he always has. Also, his velocity is the same, which should come as a relief since a dip in velocity is usually a good indication of injury. So that’s all good.

Here’s where things get a little weird. He’s throwing his fastball a little less, 54.3 percent compared to 58.1 percent last season. He’s throwing his slider 13.2 percent, a full five percent higher than last year. He’s practically abandoned his curveball, throwing just 3.9 percent (down from 6.3 percent in 2011). The changeup is up a tick (1.1 percent) at 28.6 percent. So it looks like he might not have the full confidence in that high fastball he used so well the last two years to strike batters out and he’s using the subterfuge of breaking balls and off-speed pitches. But the most disturbing part is he’s walking 5.06 per nine innings, almost double what he allowed last season.

So what’s the result?

First off, according to PITCHf/x data, batters are making more contact on Clippard this season than at any time in his major league career. At a 75.8 percent overall clip, that’s 5.5 percent higher than his career average and a whopping 9.2 percent higher than last season. Where is all that contact coming from? From inside the strike zone. That seems like an obvious point, but this season batters are swinging at fewer balls in the strike zone against Clippard, a five percent drop actually, but making much more contact when they do swing. How much? Try an almost impossible to believe 84.1 percent, a jump of almost 30 percent from last season.

There’s one last thing to worry about. Clippard is generating fewer swinging strikes, as if the above data couldn’t have led you to that conclusion. Last year he generated 16.1 percent swinging strikes. This season, that number’s down to 11.8 percent.

If you’re still with me, here it is in simple terms: Batters are swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone, but making much more contact when they do, and he’s walking batters at twice his established rate. It’s a potential recipe for disaster. Factor in that, as a fly ball pitcher, Clippard will not go all season without allowing a home run as he has thus far. If he can’t figure out why batters are making 30 percent better contact on balls in the strike zone, his ERA could balloon as the season wears on.

Note: All data from the indispensable Fangraphs.com.

Dave Nichols covers the Nationals for District Sports Page. Read Nichols’ Nationals observations as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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