After three dominant seasons as the Nationals stopper in the bullpen, including an appearance in the 2011 All-Star game, Tyler Clippard entered the 2012 season expecting to serve as the late-inning bridge to closer Drew Storen while picking up the occasional save if the situation warranted. Unfortunately due to Storen’s elbow injury and the command issues of Henry Rodriguez, Clippard was forced into the closer role and has continued his excellence, pitching 68.2 innings this season with a 3.67 ERA and 32 saves, allowing 51 hits and 27 walks against 80 strikeouts. However, his poor numbers in September, specifically a 9.64 ERA and 17 hits allowed including 2 home runs in 9.1 innings, has left us wondering what is wrong with Tyler Clippard.
In some similarity to Jordan Zimmermann earlier this month, the significant workload Tyler Clippard has undergone since 2009 makes the immediate conclusion that his sheer number of innings pitched is leading to arm fatigue, and his results are suffering as a result. Clippard’s performance in the 2nd half of the season has suffered to the tune of 31.1 innings pitched, a 5.74 ERA, 32 hits allowed and 12 walks issued against 37 strikeouts, leading to his demotion in recent days and Storen returning to the closer role. In a closer examination of his statistics, Clippard has allowed 6 home runs since the All-Star break verses none in the first half, and his rate of stranding baserunners sits at 69.8% for the season (52.8% in September), well below his career 80.6%.
These warning signs lead me to take a closer look at Clippard’s average velocity and his release point for further confirmation of fatigue. Clippard’s average fastball velocity this season has been 93.52mph, and his changeup this year has averaged 81.74mph with 6.74 inches of downward sink to it. (That is as difficult as the math gets, I promise… thanks to BrooksBaseball.net) But in the order of his appearances this month, his average fastball velocity has been clocked at: 92.55mph, 93.11mph, 92.33mph, 92.21mph, 91.78mph, 90.72mph, 92.38mph, 92.84mph, 93.55mph, and 93.38mph – There is only one above-average figure and a few troublesome readings in the middle of the sample. It could be nothing, but another sign potentially pointing toward arm fatigue.
More telling information lies with his changeup, as this month Tyler’s changeup has had velocities and downward movements as follows: 79.06mph/5.22in, 79.55mph/5.17in, 79.43mph/5.22in, 80.5mph/6.19in, 79.84mph/5.36in, 78.0mph/8.05in, 80.24mph/5.50in, 80.10mph/5.44in, 81.61mph/5.12in, 81.02mph/5.19in. Aside from the one outlying figure in the middle, his changeup velocity has dropped almost a full mile-per-hour and more than an inch less of downward sink this month, with results trending worse in recent games. Obviously this is not a positive sign, so I wondered if his release point has suffered as well.
Clippard has never had the most consistent release point, a main reason he struggled as a starting pitcher early in his career, so it makes it difficult to analyze him in a comparative way to look for clues or potential flaws. That said, after looking at each of his charts this month, in addition to one or more each month of his career, the only difference I can find is there seems to be a few more solitary outliers this month in comparison to previous months. Certainly this is explained away fairly easily in the small sample size, but otherwise, a positive sign is that it appears his release point has stayed relatively consistent during these struggles.
So after digesting that information, Clippard appears to be the recipient of some regression after a terrific first half (1.93 ERA, 19 hits, 43 strikeouts in 37.1 innings pitched) while also seeing his fastball and changeup lose some luster in recent weeks. Although decreasing velocity and movement are not particularly good signs as the Nationals enter the postseason, the relatively consistent release point tells us he likely does not have an injury, and he is either dealing with arm fatigue and/or a minor flaw in his pitching mechanics. Considering that the Nationals have given him a 7-day break and a 3-day break already this month, he has received some rest so I tend to disagree with the fatigue argument, nonetheless if he is indeed tired, he will have to pitch through this until after the season. Without completely dismissing a tired arm as the reason (only he can do that), the most likely cause of Clippard’s struggles involves a slight flaw in his mechanics, coupled with a need to regain his swagger on the mound, along with a bit more of the luck he received in the first half of the year. Here’s hoping he can cure what is ailing him in the next 10 days, because Clippard will be counted on in numerous high-leverage situations in their upcoming playoff games.
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