Despite his recent struggles, Tyler Clippard has been an effective reliever for the Nationals for five consecutive seasons, a span that has gone unmatched by most relief pitchers
Clippard is one of only four relievers since 2009 to have thrown at least 60 innings with an ERA of 4.00 or less in each of the last five seasons, and one of them, Mariano Rivera, has since retired. The other two: Jonathan Papelbon and Edward Mujica.
In the era of the modern closer (1989 to 2013), 661 relievers have had at least one season in which they pitched at least 60 innings with an ERA under 4.00, a low bar even during the steroid era. ERA is not a particularly meaningful measure in the short term, but could be argued as the single stat that most influences whether a manager will keep putting the ball in that pitcher’s hand.
Since 1989, only 27 pitchers have managed to do it for five consecutive seasons, including Clippard and his colleagues above. (The 1994 and 1995 seasons were strike-shortened, but there were still 30 relievers who reached the 60-inning plateau in 1994, and 67 in 1995.)
The list is as notable for the pitchers who aren’t on it (like Dennis Eckersley and Billy Wagner) as for those who are:
Eric Gagne couldn’t do it. B.J. Ryan, who signed a $47 million contract with the Blue Jays, couldn’t. Tim Worrell did it, but his brother Todd — a much more dominant closer in his day — couldn’t.
So why have so few relievers managed to put together a streak to match Clippard’s? Injuries. For example, here is a list of the top 10 save leaders in the majors in 2009, when Clippard’s streak started:
Eight of them are no longer closers, either because of injury or retirement. Wilson had his second Tommy John surgery in 2012 and reemerged as a setup man. Aardsma had Tommy John surgery in 2011 and Cordero had shoulder surgery in 2013; both were released during spring training this year and have not thrown a pitch in the regular season. Bell remained relatively healthy, but his career collapsed in 2012 after signing a big free agent deal in Miami. And Rivera, Hoffman, Franklin and Fuentes have all retired.
Only Papelbon and Nathan are still closing games, and Nathan had to regain his position after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2010.
So reliability like Clippard’s is hard to come by. It’s a shame that the Yankees traded him to the Nationals, because his cup of coffee in the Bronx yielded one of the great modern nicknames: “The Yankee Clippard,” a play on Joe DiMaggio’s nickname, “The Yankee Clipper.” Perhaps some of Joltin’ Joe’s dependability rubbed off on him.
Alex Remington is a product manager at The Washington Post and a writer for the Hardball Times. He has written for Fangraphs and Yahoo Sports, and currently manages Braves Journal.