Tyler Clippard's start to the season was about as unceremonious and odious as they come: Through 6 2/3 innings over seven appearances through April 11, the typically steadfast Nationals reliever scuffled through two home runs, a blown save, a 5.40 ERA and a minus-1.18 RE24. This had many shaking their heads in disbelief, calling for his demotion or at least questioning whether four consecutive seasons of at least 70 innings of relief had finally caught up with the hurler.
Victims to small sample sizes and the often long memories of fans, the early-season goings of a relief pitcher are a constant battle to stay one pitch ahead of a big inning and the concomitant ERA/FIP hike that can bury you mentally and statistically for quite some time, as opportunities and innings pitched to rise above the effects of a poor outing can sometimes be fleeting and difficult to string together in a consistent fashion.
It has taken him 19 appearances over a full month, but Clippard has finally overcome some of these early season misgivings, culminating in yesterday's inning in relief of starter Tanner Roark against the Miami Marlins, which put him at 16 2/3 innings pitched without giving up an earned run. This streak started against these same Marlins on April 15 and since that two-strikeout, 1-2-3 inning, he has amassed three wins, eight holds, 10.26 K/9, a 0.00 ERA and 2.21 FIP, good for a 2.71 RE24. While it hasn't been all sunshine and roses in the past month- the streak does include a three-hit, four unearned run outing against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - the steady work in his usual spot in the eighth inning has become more and more like the Clippard of seasons past, with more shutdown than meltdown performances defining his outings.
While much of this renewed success has rode on the shoulders of Clippard's patented four-seam fastball up in zone finally getting thrown more of the corners and becoming more tantalizing, there has been a slight tweak in his secondary pitches that's been made apparently for the better. During his shaky start to the year, the right-hander was using his fastball about 52 percent of the time to go along with 32 percent changeups, 10 percent curveballs and a little under 7 percent split-finger fastballs, a pitch he began to showcase late last season; the fastball in particular was getting hit hard, with hitters slugging .909 against the pitch, in spite of it averaging 93.7 mph.
During this shutdown streak, Clippard has used fewer fastballs and instead has gone to more changeups and splits, throwing fastballs at a reduced 48.3 percent clip, with 35.5 percent changeups and 8 percent each of splits and curveballs making up the rest of his repertoire. Making this adjustment has hitters less comfortable against his fastball, with them now slugging at a .143 clip to go along with eight strikeouts during the streak. The split, while still used sparingly, has been a lights-out pitch for Clippard, who has notched four strikeouts with the pitch during the streak, providing him a weapon to go along with his well-established four-seamer/changeup combination. The split has been effective not only as a swing-and-miss pitch, with hitters amassing a 19.1 percent whiff rate against it, but also as one that changes the eye level of hitter compared to his fastball, making the heater even more difficult to identify and put a good swing on. This disparate quality of the split has in many ways made his fastball a better pitch and one that is hard to put a good swing on, as his ever-rising strikeout rate can attest.
The rough start out of the gate is part and parcel of Clippard, as unnerving as this quality can be. The added consternation arising from the difficulties of a reliever being able to quickly recover from a slow start to the year only makes the situation mentally and statistically damning. However, with perseverance and some slight retooling of the repertoire, the eighth inning has become a more familiar scene for Clippard and the Nationals - a clean inning.
Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here 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.