It’s another math light week for Statistically Speaking—you don’t need much advanced knowledge of math or statistics to realize that Washington Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard has struggled mightily out of the gate this season, coming to a crescendo in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, where the usual reliable Clippard was on the hook for all four Angels runs. Clippard sputtering to start the season isn’t anything new, as the table of selected stats over the setup man’s first 11 appearances each year since 2011 below shows:
Yes, Clippard is a notoriously slow starter; however, this season, it’s been a molasses-in-northern-Minnesota-in-January slow start. While he hasn’t been helped out by batting average on balls in play like he has historically—he owns a career .238 BABIP—he also has not helped himself out, with fielding independent pitching (FIP) nearly a run higher than his ERA, indicative of Clippard being responsible for the elevated OPS more so than any defensive miscues.
So what could explain the historically bad start by Clippard? Let’s go through some of the usual suspects that can sometimes induce performance declines and see if we can get to the heart of the matter with Clip’s shaky start.
First, let’s look at velocity; with drops in fastball velocity often come performance drops, as hitters no longer fear the velocity or the difference in velocity between the hard stuff and the offspeed stuff, so perhaps this is the culprit:
With the above chart, we find the exact opposite—Clippard’s fastball velocity has actually increased a hair in 2014, averaging 93.4 mph and maxing out at a little over 96 mph. His other most frequently thrown pitches (split-fingered fastballs are not shown due to small sample size) are also within shouting distance of one another with respect to velocity, so we can put to rest any questions over the demise of Clippards velocity, fastball or otherwise.
Thinking about all of his pitches, let’s see how he’s used each of his pitches in 2014. SL stands for slider, CH for changeup, FC for cut fastball, and FF for four-seam fastball:
…compared to 2013; IN indicates an intentional ball:
There is a slight change in how Clippard attacks hitters this season compared to 2013—he is going to his fourseamer 10% less now than last year, opting for more sliders and changeups, primarily.
More secondary offerings in place of a fastball that’s at an all-time best, velocity-wise—how well is Clippard locating, with the caveat that he is unique in that he thrives in the upper half of the strike zone with his fastball.
…compared to last year:
By the looks of it, Clippard is just missing with his pitches, in particular, his bread and butter, the fastball and changeup. Unfortunately, just missing means missing in the strike zone. For the fastball, there isn’t as much rise in the pitch so far this year, concomitant with less drop with the changeup and the slider, which has been left up in the zone a little more this year compared to last.
Let’s finish this brief analysis with a look at Clippard’s swinging strike rate since 2011; this rate is typically above average for the righty:
Again, nothing really screaming out as the reason for Clippard’s demise. Let’s look at the swinging strikes on 2014 broken down by pitch type for 2014:
…and the same thing, looking at last year:
The first obvious difference is the lack of any swing-and-miss from a slider so fat in 2014; however, given the pitch isn’t used much by Clippard, this really isn’t anything of concern. However, despite the small smattering of data so far for this season, we do see that hitters aren’t chasing or missing the high fastball, just out of the zone. Hitters are also not apt to chase the changeup out of the strike zone this season, by the looks of it. Overall, we see Clippard’s ability to get hitters to chase not as strong this year, with those swings and misses just out of the zone being spit on, leading to working behind in the count more often, leading to both increased walk rates (5.6 BB/9 in 2014) and grooved pitches to get strike calls.
It’s been a discouraging start to the season for Clippard, but it appears that with a slight tweak in approach and possibly mechanics, the rough start will get smoothed out, bringing a return to the form that Nats fans have enjoyed for the last few years and the normally reliable Clippard back on track towards getting hitters to chase his pitch.