Last night the Nats entered the top of the eighth inning up 1-0 on the visiting Los Angeles Angels with bullpen ace Tyler Clippard on the mound. The Nats exited the top of the eighth inning down 4-1. Through his first 11 appearances Clippard has struggled to the tune of a 3.72 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 15 strikeouts and 6 walks. If that sounds familiar it should. After his first 11 appearances in 2013, Clippard had a 4.35 ERA, 4.89 FIP, nine strikeouts and eight walks. After his first 11 appearances in 2012, Clippard had a 4.91 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 12 strikeouts and six walks.
But this year seems to be a bit more insidious of a problem. Four times this year Clippard has entered a game with the Nats tied or ahead and left the game with the Nats behind. That only happened once in 2013 and just twice in 2012. So this means the end of the great Tyler Clippard, right? Well, probably not.
If we look at the actual pitches Clippard is throwing everything seems to be perfectly in order. In fact, Clippard’s average fastball velocity is up 0.5 MPH over last year. We already discussed earlier this season what benefits a pitcher can expect from such a change. His swinging strike rates look normal too. This year batters are swinging and missing at 12.8% of pitches Clippard has thrown, right in line with his career rate of 13.0% and well above the league average rate for relievers of 10.0%.
So Clippard is throwing harder and making batters miss about the same as usual, so why isn’t this reflected in his performance? Well it actually is, so far this season Clippard is striking out 34.9% of batters faced, well above his career average of 27.5%. While that number likely won’t stay that high for the remainder of the season, we can use that swinging strike rate to get an idea of what it will look like for the rest of the season.
In 2012 Bradley Woodrum of Fangraphs looked into how swinging strike rate correlates to strikeout rate and found a strong correlation. Using the equation for the best fit line Woodrum found we get a predicted strikeout rate of 26.4% for Clippard’s 12.8% swinging strike rate. This seems to be a reasonable prediction when compared to his career rate and is still excellent for a pitcher.
So what’s the problem then? Well it’s a combination of an old enemy and some bad luck. First, the old enemy, the walk. Despite his success Clippard has never been particularly skilled at keeping his walk rate down and has a career walk rate of 10.4%, which is as awful as his strikeout rate is good. This season Clippard has taken that to another level, walking 14.0% of the batters he’s faced this season. That should regress as the season progresses, but it has been a constant problem for him and could be a cause for concern.
The main problem for Clippard so far this year has just been simple bad luck; opponents have a batting average on balls in play of .300 against him. For his career, Clippard has allowed a BABIP of just .234 and has three professional seasons with a sub-.200 BABIP. This is something that will have to change, and with some normal regression in his strikeout and walk rates we’ll see the same old Clippard. Now of course the Nats aren’t completely out of the woods, the high walk rate and inflated BABIP are still real problems that exist right now, but the likely bet is still on Clippard to bounce back to normal, especially if he maintains that increased velocity.