The Nationals added depth to their bullpen Wednesday with the signing of free agent Sam Clay. The left-hander has spent his entire career with the Twins organization, even reached the 60-man player pool this past season, but has yet to appear in a major league game.
Clay was drafted out of Georgia Tech in the fourth round of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft. The 27-year-old made it to Triple-A Rochester for 14 games in 2019. After all the time and work in the minors, Clay was excited and relieved to get the call from his agent this week that the Nats wanted to sign him to a major league contract.
"Obviously, it's my first time going through free agency, and with this year being what it was, what it is, COVID and everything in the shortened season, we didn't know what the free agent market was going to look like," Clay said during a Zoom call. "No, I didn't expect a major league contract. I expected a regular minor league contract and luckily, the Nationals wanted me and were willing to put that up, and I'm very, very excited to be here."
Clay induces ground balls when he pitches. A lot of them. More importantly, he does not give up home runs: just six long balls allowed in more than 405 innings of work. In the home-run happy major leagues, Clay knows this ability to not allow the ball to leave the yard is a coveted commodity.
"I think it's immensely valuable, especially with how baseball is now," Clay said. "I think there has been 1,200 more home runs in 2019 as opposed to 2018. I think being able to keep the ball on the ground and being able to having the opportunity to get an out is huge for baseball. You can't get an out if they hit it over the fence.
"When someone told me I had not given up a home run or given up one home run the past three seasons it was kind of a surprise, but then I looked back to my numbers all the way back to college, and if you don't count the stint where I was a starter in professional baseball, I had given up, I think, one home run as a reliever since 2013. It's not something I focus on. It's just a byproduct of how I pitch."
It stands to reason that Clay is a sinkerball pitcher. He says he can throw strikes in any count as well.
"I throw it down in the zone very well and I get a lot of ground balls," Clay said. "In 2019, I had the third-highest groundball percentage in all of baseball. It's something I do very well. I got a sinker, slider, changeup. I use those pitches at any point and in any count against anybody. It's one of my biggest tools. I can throw all of my pitches for strikes."
Asked why the Twins never called him up - especially this season, when he was available on the player pool - the former Georgia Tech star said he thought he was close to getting his shot this season.
"It's a little disappointing, obviously," Clay said. "I went on the 60-man roster for the Twins. I was up in St. Paul working there and then went on a taxi squad for them for a long road trip. I thought it might happen at some point during that road trip and it just wasn't in the cards. So it was disappointing, but my entire career has been filled with stuff like that where I thought I'd get a shot and I didn't or I thought I'd get moved up. It's not something that discourages me. It's something that makes me want to work harder."
Clay pitched as a starter early in his minor league career, including 24 starts in 2016 at the Single-A level. But since 2017, Clay has made more than 120 appearances but just one start, making the full transition to the bullpen. The left-hander says he can get batters out in several different game scenarios.
"I've done pretty much everything you can do in the pitching world," Clay said. "I've never really been like a left-handed specialist. I've always come in and I've thrown lefties, righties, switch-hitters. Anybody and everybody in any situation. I've always been the guy that has pitched in high-leverage situations. A lot of seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning (work). I've closed a lot of games, I've gotten a lot of saves. I've got a lot of wins when we are tied in the ninth, 10th, 11th inning. I've pitched extra innings, started multiple innings, dirty innings, clean innings."
Clay said he is friends with Nats right-hander Ryne Harper dating back to when they were teammates in the Twins system. He also said the last time he was in D.C. was on a vacation when he was 8 years old.
"Seeing the Washington Monument, the Lincoln (memorial) was so much fun even as an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old. It was a very, very cool experience. The history and culture of D.C. has always fascinated me for a very long time, so I'm very excited to be able to live in that city and be able to explore even more."