Many of the Ways that Tyler Clippard Is Unusual

I’m going to let you in on a little secret that might not actually really be much of a secret. The most difficult part of this job isn’t the writing or the analysis. At least, as far as I’m concerned, the most difficult part of this job is finding ideas, and finding them consistently. Once you have an idea, everything else can follow, but the thing about ideas is you’d like them to be original and, if you’re lucky, good. And interesting! Interesting is a big one. Maybe interesting and good ought to be categorized together.

For a while, I’ve personally been interested in Tyler Clippard. I’ve considered on several occasions writing about him, and about him specifically, but on every one of those occasions, I’ve talked myself out of it, because it just never seemed relevant enough. Generally, people haven’t woken up and thought, today I’d like to read in depth about Tyler Clippard. So I’ve had this idea on the back-burner for ages. But now? Now is the time to strike, since Clippard just got dealt from the Nationals to the A’s for Yunel Escobar. Tyler Clippard, to me, has always been interesting, but now he’s both interesting and topical, so, here goes nothing. Let me try to explain to you why Clippard is such a weird reliever.

(1) High fastballs. You already know about the goggles. You probably already know about the throwing motion, to some extent. Hell, if you’ve been watching Clippard closely, you even already know about the high fastballs. But maybe you don’t appreciate the full magnitude of his tendency. Let’s create a line, two and a half feet above the front of home plate. This represents, basically, the vertical middle of the strike zone, and now let’s define high fastballs as any fastballs at least two and a half feet up. So, last season: which pitchers threw the highest rates of their fastballs up? So, this is high fastballs / fastballs, not high fastballs / all pitches. With help from Baseball Savant:

  1. Tyler Clippard, 75.7%
  2. Michael Kohn, 70.9%
  3. Jake Odorizzi, 70.8%
  4. Madison Bumgarner, 69.5%
  5. Todd Redmond, 68.8%

It’s Clippard by a relative landslide. Clippard threw three-quarters of his fastballs above the middle of the strike zone, and second place was five percentage points behind. A heat map of said fastballs:

clippardfastballs2014

Of course, this isn’t just a one-year thing. Clippard didn’t only recently decide to start climbing the ladder. Over the whole PITCHf/x era — setting a minimum of 500 fastballs — Clippard shows up with the highest high fastball rate. That leaderboard:

  1. Tyler Clippard, 73.7%
  2. Joaquin Benoit, 71.4%
  3. Daniel Bard, 70.9%
  4. Jake Odorizzi, 70.6%
  5. Heath Bell, 70.0%

Clippard throws almost all his fastballs upstairs. When a fastball isn’t located upstairs, my guess is it’s probably a mistake. As a consequence of all those high fastballs, Clippard generates —

(2) Tons of fly balls. This is one of those baseball fundamentals: the higher a pitch is, the more likely it is to be hit in the air, should contact be made. Clippard hasn’t thrown exclusively fastballs, but he’s worked off of the pitch, and, well, we’ve got ball-in-play data going back to 2002. Since 2002, Clippard has posted baseball’s second-highest fly-ball rate, at 56%. The only guy with a higher number: Troy Percival, at 57%. Clippard generates fly balls like Chris Young, which is to say, he generates fly balls to an extreme degree. And Clippard doesn’t just give up fly balls that reach the outfield. He also generates —

(3) Tons of pop-ups. During the summer, Chris Young talked to Eno about the merits of pitching up in the zone. While pitchers have been cautioned against being too aggressive up, because of the dinger risk, those are also difficult pitches to catch up to, and they frequently generate poor contact if thrown just right. We here at FanGraphs use the Baseball Info Solutions definition of an infield fly, which requires that a ball end up within 140 feet of home plate. Since 2002, 861 different pitchers have allowed at least 500 balls in play. Clippard has posted the very highest rate of infield flies per ball in play, at 9.0%. The average has been under 4%. And, as you know, Clippard has done that mostly as a National. Now consider that he’s going to Oakland. From Clem’s, a ballpark comparison:

NatsAsBallparks

More space there for easy outs, instead of foul-ball strikes. And in our 13 years of data, the highest single-season infield-fly rate is 11.5%, posted by Louis Coleman in 2011. Clippard, that same year, finished at 11.4%. Perhaps this season we’ll see a new high. The ballpark certainly ought to help.

Combine regular fly balls with infield fly balls and you get —

(4) Hit prevention. Fly balls go for hits less often than groundballs or line drives. Infield fly balls go for hits virtually never. So, let’s go all the way back to 1969, when the mound was lowered. We’ll set a minimum of 400 innings thrown. Here are the lowest BABIPs:

  1. Troy Percival, .230
  2. Tyler Clippard, .236
  3. Catfish Hunter, .239
  4. Andy Messersmith, .241
  5. Roger Nelson, .245

You know what happens when you run a super low BABIP? You out-perform your peripherals-based run estimators. Troy Percival’s career ERA- beat his career FIP- by 17 points. Clippard, so far in his career, has a difference of 20 points. And his FIP- is another seven points lower than his xFIP-, because he also has managed to limit home runs. Clippard has a career xFIP- of 99. More or less league-average. Not special. His career ERA- is 72. Randy Johnson‘s career ERA- is 75. WAR doesn’t give Clippard proper credit, because his peripherals don’t totally capture what he really is.

And this is separate from the previous points, but —

(5) New splitter. Clippard’s always had the fastball and a good changeup. He’s mixed in a curveball in the mid-70s. He’s long thrown a splitter on the side, but it wasn’t until late in 2013 that he decided to bring it into games. Last year, he threw it about 10% of the time, subtracting from his fastball usage. As such, last year, Clippard was the only pitcher in major-league baseball to throw at least 10% splitters and 10% changeups. It makes for an unusual repertoire, but Clippard likes the different look that the splitter provides. The fastball’s always up. The changeup doesn’t have a lot of sink. The splitter? It sinks. It’s a putaway pitch, for Clippard to use when he wants a whiff or a grounder. 37% of swings against the splitter last year missed. The changeup’s rate was 39%.

And while Clippard threw the splitter about 10% of the time overall, he threw it 28% of the time with two strikes. He threw it almost exclusively with two strikes. For the most part, it worked, when thrown well:

ClippardSplitter1

And, for the most part, it worked, when thrown less well:

ClippardSplitter2

Clippard now is a reliever with four pitches. When he had a previous rough stretch, he blamed it on losing his curveball. Figured he couldn’t get by on fastball and changeup alone, and the curveball is a tricky pitch to have control of consistently. He thinks the splitter is easier, with a bigger margin of error, and by diversifying his repertoire, Clippard might avoid going the way of Ernesto Frieri, a once-effective high fastball thrower who’s now coming off an ERA over 7. Frieri’s had the strikeouts, but he hasn’t been as good at limiting quality contact. It’s one of Clippard’s strengths, and the splitter should help every pitch that he throws.

All together, Tyler Clippard is one of the more unusual pitchers in the game today. He’s certainly extreme, in a variety of ways, and now that he’s going to Oakland, his pop-up tendency should only get a boost. There’s nothing at all wrong with the move the Nationals made. Clippard’s entering his walk year, and the team needed some middle-infield depth. But now the Nationals will be exactly this much less interesting. That doesn’t matter even a little bit to them, but they and I have different perspectives, out of necessity.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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dtpollitt
Member
Member
dtpollitt
1 year 4 months ago

“… the most difficult part of this job is finding ideas, and finding them consistently.”

Just wanted to say that you do a great job Jeff and I love reading your ideas.

whoa_now
Guest
whoa_now
1 year 4 months ago

best of all he is an awesome human being and Nats and now A’s are better for having him. Easy guy to cheer for. Thanks Tyler.

Belavon
Member
Belavon
1 year 4 months ago

What is the difference between a pop-up and his IFFB%? When I look at Clippard’s 2014, he had a 19.3% IFFB% but you state his infield flies per ball in play averages around 9%. Thanks for your time.

Dave Cameron
Admin
Member
1 year 4 months ago

IFFBs are infield flies per fly ball, while what Jeff is quoting is infield flies per ball in play. Clippard has both extreme IFFBs and FBs, so his popup rate is higher than someone with the same IFFB% but a lower FB%.

Gob
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Gob
1 year 4 months ago

I thought Sean Doolittle was king of the high fastball. Did he just miss the cut for top 5?

BleacherDave
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BleacherDave
1 year 4 months ago

I was here to make same comment. What’s Doolittle’s high fastball rate? Does 2 high fastballers at the back of the pen make them both less effective?

Rob
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Rob
1 year 4 months ago

According to the Baseball Savant link that Jeff posted, Doolittle ranked 7th with a 67.7% high fastball percentage.

Only Glove, No Love
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Only Glove, No Love
1 year 4 months ago

Is this is the converse of Beane’s rumored acquisition of “upswing guys” on offense?

emdash
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emdash
1 year 4 months ago

This is maybe a boring thing, but what’s maybe most remarkable has been his durability.

Since becoming a full-time reliever he’s thrown the most innings (453 2/3, with Luke Gregerson second at 419 1/3 innings) and pitches (7521, with Grant Balfour second at 6720) of any reliever in baseball and stayed pretty consistent in his performance to boot.

Sam
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Sam
1 year 4 months ago

I think for a lot of reasons mentioned above, people are looking too closely at this trade in terms of WAR. Sure, based on projections Escobar may put up a higher WAR than Clippard, but my immediate reaction was to look at this as an opportunity lost for the Nationals. They have had a huge hole at 2b for the past two seasons, and now they’ve filled it with an average full-time position player by trading perhaps their best reliever. Yes, there are other contract and salary implications involved with the trade, but the Nats had an opportunity to fill a major hole this offseason and I think Nats fans are more upset with the lack of an upgrade at 2b as opposed to this trade itself.

Aaron (UK)
Member
Aaron (UK)
1 year 4 months ago

They have had a huge hole at 2b for the past two seasons, and now they’ve filled it with an average full-time position player

So that’s pretty clearly an upgrade, no?

On top of that, don’t discount the salary implications. Money not spent on Clippard (who would have been close to $10m) can be spent elsewhere, and may yet be.

cass
Guest
cass
1 year 4 months ago

Thank you ever so much for waiting until now to write this wonderful article. Reading this is metaphorical vinegar on the metaphorical wounds of us Nats fans.

*sigh*

Dan
Guest
Dan
1 year 4 months ago

Speak for yourself, Mr. Cass. It’s sad to see Clippard leave town, but the trade made absolute sense. If a full-time second baseman who offers better production at that position than we’ve had for the past two years isn’t any kind of balm on your wounds, you aren’t any kind of a Nats fan.

cass
Guest
cass
1 year 4 months ago

Escobar’s 0.2 WAR last year was certainly impressive.

This move was more about saving money than improving the team.

Walter
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Walter
1 year 4 months ago

As an A’s fan that hasn’t had much chance to watch Clippard, this write up has me very excited to watch him pitch. He really sounds like an ideal reliever. Excellent durability? Check. Can get opposite handed hitters out too? Check. Can pitch “conservatively” in a bases loaded <2 out situation for a weak GB or K? Check. Can blow you away a FB? Check. Can finesse you a CB/CH? Check. I mean this just sounds unfair.

It also sounds like this guy should be pitching to Trout (who the A’s obviously see a lot of) ever time he comes up in a late and close situation.

As far as the trade goes, I wasn’t very excited about Escobar. He’s got baggage, he has warning signs that what’s wrong with him won’t just “bounce back” and Semien + Sogard + Parrino (should he clear wavers), isn’t much of a step down from him, if any. Now the A’s have Clippard and Doolittle to essentially shut down the 8th and 9th innings. Now if Bob Melvin could step out of the “set-up guy” and “closer” rolls and use the LHP and RHP to maximum effectiveness as he does so well with the line up, that would amazing.

NatsLady
Guest
1 year 4 months ago

He will make you nervous, though. He walks guys because he doesn’t like to give in and throw a strike that will allow a guy to get a hit. He will get into endless foul-off battles with guys because he’s VERY patient (and competitive) but it runs up his pitch count so he’ll have a 30-pitch inning to get three outs.

OTOH, runners on base don’t frighten him at all, his or inherited. He’s not flustered if there’s an error behind him.

Tell your manager to be careful not to overuse him. The temptation to wave the arm for Clip is almost irresistable, as three Nats managers have found, but you’ll wear him out. Every other day is perfect for him, or at least a day or two off if you use him twice in a row. You are taking your chances if he goes three days’ running. I hope he will do well in cool weather.

Andrew R
Guest
Andrew R
1 year 4 months ago

Couldn’t agree more NL. Clip does nothing particularly special or exciting, but he was very consistent. I take my 6 year old to a lot of games and we watch the difference in the speed between each of Clip’s pitches and try to guess what the next speed will be – he changes speeds very well. He fools the heck out of hitters who can’t guess speed either.

In the end, I like the trade. Clip has pitched so many innings and has been so consistent, that it seems like he’s going to have regression. Further, $9MM is a lot of money for a set-up guy. Further, Danny Espinosa has been miserable for years – he’s the opposite of Clip (you keep expecting Clip to fail and Danny to figure things out) and I’m ready to give up on him. Escobar seems like league average, which is a vast improvement over Clip with a savings of $4MM this year (maybe that can get another of our pending FA signed).

Well Bearded Vogon
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Well Bearded Vogon
1 year 4 months ago

Regardless of result, I disagree that he does “nothing particularly special or exciting.” As the article points out, he’s one of the strangest outliers in baseball history, with the second lowest recorded BABIP, the highest rate of infield fly balls in at least 13 years, and the highest rate of high fastballs since PITCHf/x came into being. All of those things are absurdly special and exciting, especially since they have given him an elite and seemingly stable ERA- for many years.

Jon
Guest
Jon
1 year 4 months ago

As an A’s fan i too wasn’t thrilled with Escobar the man or player he’s become. So while i hear the points about SSs being more valuable than middle relievers (of course in a vacuum) and YE is cheaper longer, i just don’t mind this trade at all and think, if healthy, Clippard is a good get.

I also think if the A’s aren’t in it come trade deadline, TC is likely to go, which would be fine, probably bring something nice back.

And while i hear you in theory that it’d be nice if Bob Melvin used Doo/Clipp according to L/R coming up in 8/9th innings, it won’t happen other than here and there.

And the reason for that isn’t the industry being blind to it (many are completely of the mind a “closer” has a special something for the pressure, just not all.) It’s because players are profession people in an industry. They are all striving to win and moreso to make a living (and that moreso thing’s not a bad thing as long as they also want to win badly too.) The “Closer” role gets paid more than setup men. When guys get that designation a manager is responsible to not F with his career/money.

But i agree, in a perfect world where some teams had selfless guys who a certain amount of millions of dollars was enough for, maybe some teams could maximize their bullpens more. Won’t happen, managers will always be cognizant of which of his guys deserves and has earned (again, in the industries minds, not full maximization of bullpen) the role of closer which gets paid.

John Y
Guest
John Y
1 year 4 months ago

Man, the A’s got a fantastic pitcher and a fan favorite in Washington. What always struck me about Clippard was his intelligence on the mound. Every pitch he threw felt deliberate, as if he was already setting up the next pitch, and the one after that. The extra space in foul territory will help him out tremendously…I remember a lot of foul balls landing in those first few rows.

Slow slow pace on the mound, but always fun to watch.

dcrl
Guest
dcrl
1 year 4 months ago

Couldnt agree more. Great competitor, doesnt give in, gets the most out of every ounce of his talent and intelligence, and even though he pitches in a way that can make the fans nervous – he stalls, he paces off the mound to lick his fingers, he runs up long count after long count – I never felt that Clip himself was nervous.

My head says this was a reasonable deal for the Nats, but my heart is heavy. I will miss him greatly.

herb smith
Guest
herb smith
1 year 4 months ago

It’ll be interesting to see how the new “speed-up-the-time-between-pitches” rules will affect guys like Clippard. MLB might not have a drastic difference in that area THIS year, but it’s coming; the high minors will be using an actual pitch-clock this year.

Guys like Clip, who dawdle, ponder, breathe two or three big sighs, shake off a pitch or two, and just generally take their sweet time are going to be forced out of their comfort zones. To me, this is a wonderful and long-needed development, but a lot of pitchers (especially relievers) are going to have to adapt or fail.

Clip seems like the adaptable sort, so I hope he continues to dominate.

Fletch
Guest
Fletch
1 year 4 months ago

I like Clippard and I hope he does well in Oakland. My favorite moment involving him was his reaction to a super effortless home run Chris Davis hits off of him.

The home run swing:

Clippard’s reaction:

“No fucking way, man”

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