Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Arizona reunites with Tyler Clippard

The start of Spring Training activities didn’t signify the end of acquisitions for the Diamondbacks, as they nabbed another depth piece following a rather mild offseason. Tyler Clippard has officially inked a one-year deal worth $2.25 million. The former Diamondback can extend his second-stint in Arizona with a mutual option for 2022 as well. 

Arizona continues to add experienced arms to its young bullpen by signing their second reliever to a major league deal this month. Earlier, Joakim Soria joined forces with Arizona after a successful two-year stint as a setup man in Oakland. The pair aren’t just any veteran pitchers- they’ve been around the game longer than anyone else. Amongst active relievers, Clippard and Soria lead all of baseball in terms of innings pitched, both accumulating over 700 innings in their lengthy careers. Their presence will balance out a bullpen mainly composed of inexperienced prospects vying for an Opening Day roster spot. 

Since being converted to a reliever in 2009, he’s been the embodiment of consistency in MLB. By ERA+ standards, he’s fallen below league average just once, recording a 93 ERA+ in 2017 across stints with three teams (Yankees, White Sox, and Astros). He’s shaken off all, if any, critics of his age by phenomenal performances of late.

In the shortened season with the Twins, Clippard ensured that his durability isn’t the sole attribute landing him a gig at 36-years old. He produced one of his most successful seasons in 2020, posting a 2.77 ERA (159 ERA+) along with a career-low walk rate (4.1%) and second-lowest home run rate at 0.69 HR/9 in 26 innings. To put into perspective, the Arizona bullpen consisted of merely one reliever with a stronger ERA+ in Stefan Crichton. Especially after the departure of Andrew Chafin and Archie Bradley, the demand to insert a few veterans into the bullpen took precedence over other weaknesses within the roster. Acquiring the veteran duo takes some of the weight off the shoulders of our young bullpen. The two veteran signings allow the bullpen to breathe a sigh of relief going forward. 

The Diamondbacks’ infield will basically put their hands in their pockets when Clippard is on the mound. Amongst all 265 relievers (min. 305 IP) this century, Clippard holds the absolute lowest career ground-ball rate of 28.1%. Conversely, the highest fly-ball rate amongst those 265 relievers is none other than Tyler Clippard himself. Uniquely, Clippard doesn’t give up the long ball that often given his clear fly-ball approach. A career 1.15 HR/9 isn’t boast-worthy but is somewhat skewed by a period of abnormality in an otherwise home run-free career.

From 2016 to 2018, the righty surrendered 1.5 HR/9 across appearances with five teams, including a brief stint with Arizona in 2016. However, 70% of those homers were thrown in the “heart” of the strike zone. It would have brought greater concern if those jacks came off of quality pitches rather than non-competitive ones that hitters easily pounce on. Since that span of struggle, a passable 1 HR/9 across 88 innings would alleviate initial concerns and dictate that his previous struggle isn’t relevant anymore. Although if you look under the hood, his prior home run susceptibility could indeed pay him a visit this season. 

Avg. Dist (ft)Avg. EV (mph)Barrel%
20203239115%
201930590.518%
201831790.214.5%
201731190.412.5%
201630890.2 9.8%
201530189.99.6%
Tyler Clippard Stats 2015-2020, per Baseball Savant

The fly balls that proved to be a commodity could turn into more of a liability going forward. The frequency of fly balls is nothing out of the ordinary, but the quality fares otherwise. After producing effective, contact-oriented results, his batted-balls are suddenly worrisome indicated by a precipitous increase in average distance over the last six seasons. The trend in exit-velocity from batters moves unfavorably too. And lastly, a hike in Barrel%, a combination of EV and optimal launch angle, raises the ultimate question if whether a fly ball will reach the glove of its intended outfield recipient or instead find itself in the hands of a fan ecstatic about nabbing a priceless souvenir. 

There’s no dispute that Clippard’s effective yet risky fly-ball approach panned out and suited him throughout an established career. The repeatable success inducing fly-balls comes from his fastball, one pitch within a diverse arsenal. Since Clippard’s emergence as a reliever, the majority of batted-balls in the air came from a fastball that sat in the low 90’s. Although given the discouraging trends in batted-ball contact, he’s begun to change his pitch approach.

Pitch Velocity (mph)Usage%FB%K%Whiff%wOBA
2019-202089.918.8%20%47%38%.205
2009- 201892.350.1%51.3%31.2%29.1%.294
Tyler Clippard 4-seam Fastball Statistics 2009-2020, per Baseball Savant

Over the last two seasons, fastballs accounted for 36% of fly balls and for one of twenty fly balls in the 60-game season. Clippard never throws hard, identified by a peak of 93.4 mph almost a decade ago and diminishing every season since. It seems to remain just as, if not more effective against hitters by changing the function. After considerably scaling back its usage too, Clippard redesigned it to serve the purpose of inducing whiffs. Clippard’s whiff-skills despite bottom-of-the-barrel velocity isn’t that striking. Approaching hitters at a playful 89 mph, Clippard fools batters with its movement. Amongst 400 qualified pitchers, Clippard’s fastball ranked 13th in vertical movement (inches) vs average in 2020.

Oddly enough, pitchers with such poor velocity typically don’t generate vertical movement to that degree. All dozen that ranked ahead throw harder and are also some of the premier pitchers around the league, including Trevor Bauer, James Karinchak, Walker Buehler, and Liam Hendriks. Clippard will pursue more whiffs with the four-seamer into a primarily batted-ball orientated approach. The recent development in swing and misses with the fastball isn’t attributed to a newly-discovered movement- its vertical movement fared strongly for a long time. And he certainly isn’t thanking a velocity in the bottom 10% in 2020. One notable change is the location of pitches. Although Clippard mainly throws four-seamers in the same area, the location is in a more defined spot and avoiding susceptible areas in the middle of the zone.

Left image: Fastball heat-map from 2015-2018, per Baseball Savant

Right image: Fastball heat-map from 2019-2020, per Baseball Savant

The strong vertical movement along with adequate spin allowed him to elevate it for batters to swing underneath it to accumulate whiffs that aren’t obtainable lower in the strike zone. Clippard remarkably induced fly-outs by boldly tossing them over the center of the plate until two seasons ago. As previously stated, Clippard is still a fly-ball pitcher. Batters are still hitting balls in the air at an exceptional rate, albeit hitting them a lot harder. The batted-ball dependency has changed to other pitches amongst his arsenal.

Last season, 80% of fly-balls came from the changeup, a career-high. Although the recent results and trends in air-contact dampen the effectiveness of fly-balls altogether, the changeup will remain active going forward. He’s relied on it second-most behind the fastball until 2020 when its 34% usage took the lead. With the absence of a slider and a rare curveball, Clippard breaks conventional wisdom by challenging same-handedness batters with changeups. Identical to the fastball, its velocity ranks in the bottom 10th percentile at 78 mph. Despite throwing at batting practice speed, Clippard utilizes his changeup in all counts, although it doesn’t garner many whiffs nor strikeouts.

Perhaps Clippard’s most valuable secondary is a split-finger with velocity faring like all other pitches. However, batters still swing-and-miss at an alarming rate. Clippard’s splitter is working better for him than anyone else, as the drop ranks first among MLB pitchers, including more than Detroit Tigers’ coveted prospect Casey Mize’s elite splitter.

Although to his disadvantage, it doesn’t necessarily garner swings out-of-the zone. Within that same list of splitter-throwing pitchers, Clippard’s O-Swing% ranked second to last. This brings concern because of the increasing drop, his splitter finds its way beneath the zone. If hitters aren’t enticed to swing at them, it’s considered a wasted pitch. Despite the lack of deceptiveness, his splitter posted a decent .219 xBA and 30.3% whiff rate but produced stronger results in prior seasons. Clippard will find a way to continue to entice batters to swing beneath the zone or elevate them to an area that’ll gain more valuable results.

It’s difficult for a pitcher to abruptly change the approach to batters after fourteen seasons of a consistent plan to hitters. But an arsenal composed of pitches with unique features enables him to rethink his plan this upcoming season. Although it’s questionable whether he’ll remain just as valuable, in one way or the other, any concern can be resolved by the following question: How often has a team regretted signing Tyler Clippard?

Paul Beckman

Arizona Diamondbacks Writer