Tyler Clippard on Beating BABIP and the Limits of FIP

Tyler Clippard has always been a smart pitcher. That’s evident from his erudition as well as his results. Based on my experience, the 31-year-old reliever is equally adept at discussing his craft and flummoxing opposing hitters with solid-but-unspectacular stuff.

As noted in this past Sunday’s Notes column, Clippard has recorded the lowest BABIP against (.237) of any pitcher to have thrown at least 500 innings since 2007. That’s when the righty broke into the big leagues. Pitching for the Nationals, A’s, Mets, Diamondbacks and now the Yankees, Clippard has 45 wins, 54 saves and a 2.94 ERA in 539 appearances (all but eight out of the bullpen). Augmenting his ability to induce weak contact is a better-than-you-might-expect 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s made a pair of All-Star teams.

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Clippard on his BABIP and creating plane: “Someone brought it to my attention a few years ago. I guess it didn’t surprise me when I learned that. I’m constantly trying to figure out ways that I can pitch to get the weakest contact, whether it’s from my arm slot or my pitch selection. That’s kind of how I’ve always pitched. I’ve always tried to maximize my room for error. I’m not a guy who is going to have pinpoint command, so I’m always trying to create more plane, more deception.

“You’ll see guys throwing 96-98 and they’ve got a 4.50 ERA and a .300 batting-average against. You wonder, why is that? A lot of times — at least from what I see — the ball doesn’t change plane. It’s just a one-plane pitch. If there is movement, it’s side to side, and it’s predictable.

“I learned, probably back in 2006 when I was in Double-A, that if I can create some plane with my fastball — even though I was literally trying to throw the pitch as straight as I possibly could — it was a lot harder for the hitters to square it up. That’s what I’ve constantly tried to do throughout my career. I’m talking about both carry and downward plane. Up in the zone it stays up, and when I want it to go down, it has some downward plane. I want tilt, not flat and easy to hit.

“I work on it all the time, even when I’m just playing catch. I work on it and watch the ball take off and carry. But I do think a lot of it just how I throw the ball. I’m a high-end flexibility guy and it’s easy for me backspin stuff. It’s natural — I think my spin rate is a little above average — but, at the same time, it’s something I’m definitely aware of.”

On why he has a higher-than-usual BABIP (.294) this year: “That’s a good question. If I knew… I feel like there have been times this season where I’ve thrown the ball better than I have in the last couple of years. So yeah, I’ve been trying to put my finger on that all season long. Whether it was pitching in the NL West, with Colorado and Arizona where the ball does different things… I’m not real sure. There have been times I’ve felt really good, yet have given up a lot more hits than I’m used to giving up.

“I’ve been able to get a lot more strikeout fastballs this year, so my strikeouts are up, which is how I like to pitch. I guess maybe the biggest difference is that my changeup hasn’t really been the pitch that it has been in the past. That’s probably it as much as anything.

“I throw both a changeup and a split, and my straight change is the pitch I’ve made a lot of mistakes with this year. I’ve been pulling it a lot. I usually focus on putting it on the arm-side side of the plate, and I’ve been pulling it over the middle of the plate. As a result, it’s been getting hit.”

On WHIP, FIP and the lack of respect that comes with not having plus velocity: “Something that is innate for me is never wanting to give in to a hitter. That’s one reason I walk more guys than I’d like to. At the same time, I historically give up a lot fewer hits, so at the end of the year, my WHIP is right around where I’d like it to be. I pay a lot more attention to that stat than I do my walks.

“[FIP] is a stat that has too much variance for me to put much validity into. If I consistently outperform that number, then that’s who I am. I’m not the number it says I’m supposed to be. I’m a fly-ball pitcher and if I’m getting weak contact… I don’t really know what the best formula would be for that.

“For somebody throwing in the high 80s, low 90s, it takes a larger level of dominance for people to take notice. It seems like the game is transitioning into stuff instead of actual pitching, the knowledge of pitching and what it takes to be good at it. Teams seem more willing to stick with guys who have a 5.00 ERA and throw 98-99 [mph], as opposed to guys with a 2.50 who throw 88-89. They don’t think the 88-89 is going to translate to success in the big leagues. If they give up runs, it’s ‘Well, he doesn’t have the stuff.’ With the guy who is throwing 98-99, it’s ‘He has the potential to figure it out.’ He might not be performing, but teams feel it’s easier to justify putting him out there.

“I’m such a feel pitcher. I’ve done this for so long. I’ve been lucky enough to stay healthy and on the field, year in and year out, and have experience in every role. I threw a thousand innings as a starter (since entering pro ball) and have almost 600 appearances as a reliever. Every facet of pitching, I’ve experienced. Basically, I’ve created a good feel for what works for me. I can tell you visually what you can tell me statistically.”

We hoped you liked reading Tyler Clippard on Beating BABIP and the Limits of FIP by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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rosen380
Member

““You’ll see guys throwing 96-98 and they’ve got a 4.50 ERA and a .300 batting-average against. You wonder, why is that?”

Qualified pitchers with a 4.50+ ERA and .300+ AVGA, 2010 onward, with their average vFA that year:

83.8 2016 Jered Weaver
90.0 2016 Collin McHugh
89.7 2013 Joe Saunders
92.3 2012 Rick Porcello
92.9 2011 Brad Penny

Those guys don’t exist right now. Unless he was talking 4.50 ERA and .300 AVGA from the early aughts when that meant a roughly average pitcher by ERA with well above average hit rates? But IMO assuming the offensive levels from when he was playign seems to make more sense.

amdennis1990
Member
amdennis1990

Clippard is a reliever you should look at relievers not starters. Some example from this year:

Carlos Estevez 97.2 MPH 5.24 ERA
Trevor Rosenthal 97.1 MPH 5.13 ERA
Arodys Vizcaino 96.8 MPH 4.54 ERA
Enny Romero 96.1 MPH 4.98 ERA
J.C. Ramirez 96.1 MPH 4.99 ERA
Jose Dominguez 96.0 MPH 4.43 ERA

It is hard to find anyone with a .300+ BA against simply because relievers giving up that kind of BA against don’t get to pitch many innings. In that regard I guess “Those guys don’t exist right now.” Still I think his basic point that velocity alone doesn’t get you outs holds true. I don’t think Clippard was looking at a spread sheet when he made that comment.

If you drop the innings minimum to zero you can find guys that fit Clippard’s description perfectly but I can’t say those are very reliable numbers. Using an innings threshold of 20 you get the list above. Rosenthal is the closest to a perfect match with a .299 BA against.

rosen380
Member

I used starters just to try and avoid SSS. When an unusual thing happens in 20 IP, I’m also not sure about just ditching one of the factors; Clippard said ERA and AVG for a reason, so I’d probably try to keep both even if relaxing them a bit as I did in my second post.

Of the ones you identified, four also had 20+ IP in 2015. They collectively had a 3.06 ERA in 2015 in 156 IP vs 4.91 this year in 167 IP.

Maybe they are pitching differently this year than last and should go back to what they were doing before. Or maybe in the SSS of 2016 they just got bad results?

amdennis1990
Member
amdennis1990

I dont think you can avoid the SSS when looking for relievers throwing 96-98 and they’ve got a 4.50 ERA and a .300 batting-average against.

From 1990-2016 only 26 relievers have averaged 96 MPH or faster and pitched more than 50 innings combined across 26 years. Teams also don’t keep giving innings to relievers with 4.50 ERA and a .300 batting-average against

rosen380
Member

Which is why I primarily looked at hard throwing SPs who have bigger samples [particularly with relaxed MPH, ERA and AVG threshholds].

That said, another option is to look at multiple years together…?

amdennis1990
Member
amdennis1990

That is exactly what I did. I looked at pitchers who threw 50+ innings in relief combined between 1990 and 2016. That produced a sample of 26 pitchers who had an average fastball velocity of 96+ MPH.

If you expand the sample to include any pitcher (starters and relievers) who threw threw 50+ innings combined between 1990 and 2016 the sample actually shrinks. Adding in the innings Andrew Cashner, Daniel Bard and Jeurys Familia threw as starters drops their average velocity below 96 MPH. I see no way to avoid the SSS.

johnahare
Member
Member
johnahare

Another way to expand the set of players/not take his comments overly literally would be to look at guys who can *hit* 96-98, not necessarily average velocity

rosen380
Member

I didn’t have that handy, so opted for not taking his comments overly literally by significantly cutting back the ERA and AVGA thresholds.