In the middle of July 2012, Tyler Clippard held a firm grasp on the Nationals’ closer role, a job he always wanted that had taken him years to attain. His chance came after Drew Storen needed surgery and Henry Rodriguez imploded. He saved 14 games in his first 14 chances. He had been passed over for harder-throwing relievers, but once circumstance gave him his shot to close, Clippard seized it.
And then, he lost it. Clippard had thrived on his changeup-fastball combination with curveballs mixed it. Suddenly, he lost the ability to throw his curveball, which reduced the efficacy of his two primary pitches – without a third option to keep hitters honest, it mattered less how good they were on their own. In 29 appearances, Clippard posted a 6.04 ERA, lost three games and blew four saves. Before the playoffs, the Nationals moved Storen back to the ninth inning.
“Pretty much lost the closing job because of that little stretch,” Clippard said last week. “It was because I became just strictly fastball-changeup. I didn’t have a curveball to go to. I completely lost that pitch. I saw the ill effects of me not being able to have another pitch in the arsenal. For me, it’s very important that I can do those things. If not, I can get exposed.”
The ordeal led to Clippard’s newest pitch. Clippard toyed with a splitter for several seasons, unveiled it last fall and early this year he incorporated the pitch into his repertoire. He still uses it only as a complement to his fastball-changeup combo, throwing once every 20 pitches or so. But it forces hitters to consider another pitch while giving him a fallback if his curveball escapes him.
“It’s a normal part of my repertoire at this point,” Clippard said. “I mean, I still have to find the right spots to throw it. I’m not going to be just fastball-split. It’s definitely my third or fourth pitch. But it’s something that I’m going to use consistently.”
“As you progress in your career, you do have to re-invent yourself a little bit,” Clippard added. “I think that’s what that pitch is going to do for me. It’s going to help me put something else in their head. And I think if I can do that on a consistent basis, I’ll be that much tougher to face.”
The splitter will help ensure hitters cannot use Clippard’s durability against him. The Nationals have leaned on Clippard for the past four years, and divisional opponents such as Jimmy Rollins, Giancarlo Stanton, David Wright, Chase Utley and several others have faced him at least 15 times.
Last Tuesday, Clippard threw a splitter to Stanton, and the slugger swung over it for strike three. The next afternoon, a reporter approached Stanton to ask him about the new splitter Clippard had been throwing. “I didn’t know that until last night,” Stanton said with a wry smile.
“With guys that have faced him and know how to plan against him, to throw in a new pitch like that, that’s a good pitch, it’ll definitely throw you off,” Stanton said when asked to elaborate. “Now that I know he has that, it’s a new scheme that I have to have in the back of my mind, to be prepared for something else.”
The splitter, for Clippard, has been a simple pitch to add. He grips the ball wider than the seams and otherwise throws it the same as he would a fastball. It takes less maintenance than his curveball, which matters for relievers who, once the year starts, have little opportunity to hone their pitches between appearances, needing to save their bullets for games.
Clippard’s ability to thrive in the late innings with a variety of looks, and not overpowering velocity, makes him rare. But he is not alone. Last year, Koji Uehara dominated the ninth inning as the closer for the World Series champion Red Sox, using two different kinds of splitters as his primary attack. Clippard said he enjoys watching Uehara succeed with a fastball that typically hums less than 90 miles per hour.
“I think at the end of the day, his splitty kind of works like my changeup,” Clippard said. “The way I throw the splitty is different from the way he throws it. He throws it more for command and for a strike. I’m throwing it for a swing-and-miss pitch or a groundball pitch. But, you know, I have the changeup, too. Maybe there’s a comparison there – I throw my changeup for strikes, where he has different types of splits. It’s kind of the same idea. But I definitely like watching him throw.”
“I remember watching him in Baltimore thinking that, ‘This guy can probably close.’ His batting average against numbers were always really good. He doesn’t walk guys. For me, that’s the biggest thing I try to do, is bring my walk totals down. It’s pretty impressive.”
Clippard also found a kinship with Uehara because of the path he took. Uehara started the season as a set-up reliever, and it took three injuries for the Red Sox to tab Uehara as their closer.
“That’s the constant battle that I’ve dealt with in my career,” Clippard said. “I’ve gotten passed up numerous times for guys that threw harder than me. Not necessarily that put up better numbers. Just the fact that they threw harder, and the manager felt more confident with those guys in the ninth inning. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed that. Not just from a personal standpoint. But from everyone else in the league. At the end of the day, it works itself out. But it takes too long. It takes longer than it should. The writing is on the wall, most of the time. Human nature is human nature. You see that 99 up there, you think, ‘Wow.’ That’s not everything.”
Clippard argued that his modest velocity should actually be considered a plus. He has been the most durable reliever in baseball since 2010, throwing more than 20 innings more than any other relief pitcher. He believes prototypical closers come and go because their arms cannot withstand the strain. When they naturally lose their velocity, they have nothing to fall back on. Clippard could lose a few miles per hour off his fastball, and he would still be essentially the same pitcher.
“Very rarely have I seen guys for seven to 10 years consistently throw 98-plus miles per hour,” Clippard said. “It just doesn’t happen. You got to know how to pitch. [Craig] Kimbrel might be the exception. He’s really been consistent with his velocity. It just doesn’t happen.”
And so Clippard, as he tries to pitch his way back to a closer’s job, will try to find new ways to stay adapt. He and pitching coach Steve McCatty have had frequent conversations about how much to use the splitter. McCatty doesn’t want Clippard to go away from his fastball-changeup combo too much. But he’s fine with Clippard using the splitter, too.
“If he throws the one that he threw to Stanton, he can throw it every pitch as far as I’m concerned,” McCatty said. “That was a good one.”