LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Tyler Clippard carried big goals with him before the 2007 baseball season, when he first arrived at the Performance Compound and met Director of Sports Performance Jason Riley. Clippard was still a New York Yankees farmhand, but that did not inhibit the grandiosity of his ideas. Clippard expected to reach the majors. He wanted to become an all-star. He planned to play for years and years.
“He really wanted to be at the top of his game,” Riley said. “He’s taken everything we’ve given him, and he’s wholeheartedly embraced it. That’s a unique quality in Clip. We built that trust factor, and he did everything to do his part.”
Six years later, Clippard has become a mainstay in the Washington Nationals’ bullpen. Over the past three seasons, he has thrown more innings out of the bullpen — 252 — than any reliever in the majors. Only two other relievers, Matt Belisle and Jonny Venters, have even eclipsed 220 innings over that span. An all-star in 2011 and a 32-save, stand-in closer last year, Clippard’s durability has placed him among the most valuable relievers in baseball.
Friday night, Clippard started another season with his first appearance of the spring, a 1-2-3, one-strikeout sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves that took nine pitches.
Baseball for years has tried in vain to find a way to keep pitchers healthy, to halt the yearly epidemic of millions of dollars wasting away on the disabled list. In an era highlighted by the fragility of a pitcher’s arm, Clippard has not landed on the disabled list in any of his 10 professional seasons.
He credits a virtual village of 15 to 20 medical and training experts — Nationals trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists and more. He stays in constant communication with Manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty and is never shy about telling them on the rare occasions he needs a day off.
“You have to listen to your body and know when enough is enough,” Clippard said. “I think there’s times in the last three years where I thought there was potential for something to maybe not go well with how I was feeling. But I was very vocal.”
Clippard does not get deep into the physiology of his arm — “I leave that up to the people who know what they’re doing,” he said. But he uses the myriad resources at his disposal and devours information in a quest to find better and better methods to maintain health.
“I just listen, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll do that,’ ” Clippard said. “If I do that and it has no effects on me, then I’ll try something else and ask somebody else. That’s the great thing about being a professional athlete — I can talk to three different chiropractors with three different opinions. They’ll tell me different exercises to do, and I’ll try them all. One will work, and I’ll do that. It’s just a constant trial and error.”
Every offseason, Clippard spends three months at The Compound, as he calls it, working with Riley and his staff. He arrives there with “a clean slate,” he said, and starts the process of preparing his arm for one of the most risky acts in sports.
“He questions a lot of things,” Riley said. “He wants to know why he’s doing something, how he can do it better.”
Clippard’s durability has not necessarily granted him insight into solving baseball’s larger problem. “It’s a case-to-case basis,” Clippard said. “Everybody’s body works differently.” Riley, though, may have some ideas.
Riley studies an individual pitcher’s biomechanics, the way muscles, tissues and joints connect and work together. Every time a pitcher delivers the ball, Riley said, each movement impacts the entire body. The way he lands on his front foot, for example, causes a cascade of interactions throughout the body. Riley wants to get at the sum effect of those interactions and how to prevent them from causing harm.
Riley hunts for “compensation patterns” — overuse of one muscle group that leads to injury in a complementary muscle. Pitchers work to create as much arm speed as they can, but the muscles responsible for slowing down the arm — the shoulder, the core and the hips — are often not strong enough to absorb that energy.
“If you don’t have the breaking force to slow your arm down, no matter how hard you pitch, you’re going to have injuries,” Riley said. “A Pinto is not going to be able to brake a Ferrari engine.
“I don’t get into release points or the mechanics of how they pitch,” Riley added. “All I do is try to make the biomechanics more efficient in their ability to create power and their ability to decelerate that power.”
At first, Clippard “was almost overly flexible,” Riley said. His lax joints gave him more whip in his arm action, but without the ability to decelerate his arm, he would be at risk.
Year after year, Clippard has trained to enhance his body’s ability to slow down his arm upon releasing a pitch. Riley studied how Clippard’s front foot landed and how power transferred up his body from there. He prescribed a regimen that focused two-thirds on Clippard’s “posterior” chain of muscles.
“Let’s make sure it’s those small little muscles that are supposed to be holding those muscles in place are activated, are fired,” Riley said. “It takes progressive years to make it stick.”
As the years have gone, Clippard has managed to stay healthy in a profession that causes injury. He will keep in touch with Riley over the course of the season, monitoring inevitable soreness. He still has grand plans, and he knows the only way to achieve them is by staying on the field.
“I definitely have things going for me, genetically and physically, to be able to do those types of things,” Clippard said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the work I put in, too. I’ve stuck with that program, and we’ve worked well together preparing and knowing what I’m going to have to endure during the year. It’s a team effort. Everybody has got a part in it.”
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