The inherent volatility of set-up relief promotes short shelf lives and sudden crashes in performance, and entering this season, Tyler Clippard seemed like he might finally cede to the cold reality of his profession. After the all-star break last year, Clippard posted a 5.60 ERA, blew four saves and lost his grip on the closer’s job in September. The job was catching up to him.
Through the first half of this year, though, Clippard has shown he can still bring remarkable consistency to an unstable role. For the fourth straight year, he has been one of the Nationals’ best and most valuable relievers, throwing his same exploding fastballs and disappearing change-ups. Clippard owns a 2.15 ERA through 38 games, second-most on the Nationals behind Drew Storen.
“Kind of the same,” Clippard said. “This year, I’ve been really focused on pitching to my strengths. I think having some experience helps me realize what my strengths are.”
In the spring, Clippard resolved to make a change to repertoire, which was actually going back to how he pitched before last year. He wanted to throw more curveballs, to not allow hitters to sit on only his fastball-change combination. Last year, he threw curveballs on just 2.2 percent of his pitches. This year, he has more than doubled that rate.
Clippard has thrown 289 2/3 innings since the start of 2010, more than any reliever in baseball. The frequency of his appearances has bred familiarity for hitters, so he has to strike a balance between predictability and straying from his strengths.
“Teammates that I have now that I faced in the past have told me – and kind of just standard knowledge out there – I’m a fastball-change-up pitcher and they eliminate the breaking ball against me,” Clippard said. “Having that knowledge of how hitters are approaching their at-bats against me, I try to utilize that information as much as I can. At the same time, those are the two pitches that I’m going to feature, no matter what. At the end of the day, I still have to incorporate those other pitches.”
Clippard’s lack of a curveball late last year, he believes, is what led to his disappointing finish. After he took over the ninth inning and saved 32 games, he began to fall back on his fastball and change-up, not wanting to lose a game with his third pitch. He realized he can’t let the game situation change his approach.
“Last year, down the stretch, I got away from breaking ball altogether for an extended period of time,” Clippard said. “It wasn’t that long, maybe three weeks to a month. And then every time I tried to go back to it, it wasn’t there at all. I lost more confidence in it. As the season progressed, that was a big part of why I had a really bad September. I was only featuring two pitches. And if I lose a little bit of command with either one of those pitches, I put myself in a bad spot. I didn’t have my best stuff, and I was only featuring two pitches. There were outings where I was only able to throw one. When you’re out there doing that, it’s never going to be good, especially for a guy like me. I have to feature more than two.”
The return of his curveball has returned Clippard to his typically dominance. Since June began, Clippard has allowed one run and yielded only six hits in 14 2/3 innings, striking out 13. Some of Clippard’s peripheral numbers are ominous, including a .182 batting average on balls in play. But his results can’t be argued with. In a role few can conquer, Clippard has achieved undeniable staying power.