What’s wrong with Nationals pitcher Tyler Clippard?

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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4 thoughts on “What’s wrong with Nationals pitcher Tyler Clippard?

  1. Or not …

    Davey has already shifted away from him suspecting at the very least what you eloquently laid out above. Watch for more Storen, Mattheus, and Garcia. And less Burnett and Clippard.

  2. Well, the game tonight is over and why am i feeling like the Nats are in deep doodoo?

    They got swept by Atlanta, looked ok for a few games but have had poor pitching all around. Not just Clippard.

    There seems to be a real potential that the Nats end up going from #1 in baseball to the wild-card game. They have lost to Philly all year, and we play them 5 more times. Meanwhile, Atlanta won tonight, and plays easier games.

    Scary all around. Playoff stress? Maybe, shutting Stras down is looking worse and worse. Losing a few games he’d have won might have made all the difference. Rizzo’s been great developing a great team, but this one decision may come back to bite him in the butt. We don’t win a WS in the next few years, we’ll never know how good we coulda been had they managed Stras better.

    Still excited, but each loss and each Atl win will make it all the more aggrevating.

  3. My suspicion is a combination of injury/fatigue and some regression (his numbers this year are closer to his 2010 performance). The lost of life on fastball is indicative of either fatigue or an injury. Maybe he’s got some nagging arm issues that he doesn’t want to disclose; he finally has the closer role, has a ton of saves in an arbitration year, so this is a very important payday year for him and he likely will do anything he can to stay in the role through the end of the year. If he gets moved back to a setup role next year (likely because he excelled in that role in 2011 and the fact that Storen remains a better shut-down closer option), at least he’ll be able to bank on his salary earned as a closer this year.

  4. Gloom and doom and Stras … even here … his last start was a nightmare and there’s no guarantee it was because the impending shutdown was on his mind. And even if it was does that even compare to the kind of pressure John Lannan must now feel knowing the onus will be on him for two key and critical starts against the Phillies? And there’s no guarantee that Davey wouldn’t have gone all lefty even with Stras against the Phillies. He probably would have played those match ups.

    Please stop with the Stras shutdown blew up the world? Rizzo and his FO have done a masterful job rebuilding this team, make no mistake, the mind behind their best drafts starting in 2006 and gaining influence was Rizzo. And the last 2 or 3 drafts with his new FO, Roy Clark who built the Braves for starters.

    People need to look at the big picture of where the Nats were, and where they are now. So good in fact they provide plenty of ammunition for ownership to take it to Angel’hoes and give this franchise a sense of real permanency … and all around Nats park a neighborhood and quadrant of the district rises from the ashes again.

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