ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Sometimes simple questions bring the most complicated answers. For example, find Tyler Clippard at Frontier Field, one call and hundreds of miles from a big league mound, and ask him how his season has been. See how he smiles through a side-eyed glance. Then consider the weight of what he does and doesn’t say.
“It’s been weird. It’s been frustrating. It’s been fun. It’s been awkward,” Clippard said in Rochester on Tuesday, after he threw before a game against the Worcester Red Sox, not the Red Sox he has faced 32 times in a decade and a half. “It’s kind of been everything, an all-encompassing year. But obviously there’s been some good things, too.”
At 37, Clippard wants another shot at the highest level. He wants it with the Washington Nationals, the team he pitched for from 2008 to 2014, straddling its worst seasons and a sharp turn to contention. And he wants his work with the Red Wings, the Nationals’ AAA affiliate, to mean more than it already has.
When Clippard signed a minor league deal with the Nationals in March, he expected a short trip to Rochester before heading to Washington. Instead, he entered Sunday with a 2.51 ERA in 32⅓ innings for the Red Wings. The last time he threw this much in the minors was in 2009. On April 16, the first game after the pitch clock was introduced in Class AAA, he yielded two hits, three walks and five earned runs without recording an out. Across his next three outings, he walked eight batters in 3⅓ frames, trying to adjust to a new tempo.
Clippard also mentioned something in his personal life affecting him around then, which he wants to keep private. The point, though, at least in a baseball sense, is that his strong numbers were juiced by that rocky stretch. Twenty-six of his 30 appearances have been scoreless. But when the Nationals have needed a reliever, it was Erasmo Ramírez and Carl Edwards Jr., then Sam Clay and Francisco Perez, then Jordan Weems and Reed Garrett.
Sometimes the Nationals wanted a multi-inning option. Sometimes they wanted a lefty. Sometimes the choice over Clippard has felt harder to explain. Each of those pitchers is like him, scratching for a chance. Yet none has Clippard’s history with the club.
“It’s not the results, right? It’s certainly not the results,” said Clippard, who missed a bulk of last year when he injured his shoulder with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 15 years — across stops with the Nationals, Diamondbacks, New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics, New York Mets, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins — Clippard has a 3.13 ERA and has mostly stayed healthy.
“Other than that one outing, really, it’s been dominant and really good and pretty much right where I thought I’d be heading into the season,” he continued. “I don’t know. It just has to be the right situation for them. That’s part of the process, and I’ve been around long enough to get it. I hope it works out in D.C. This organization has meant everything to me. My fondest memories in the game were with the Washington Nationals. I wanted to put that uni on in the big leagues one more time. But if it doesn’t happen, that’s okay, too.”
On Tuesday, Clippard played catch with 23-year-old righty Cade Cavalli, the Nationals’ top prospect. Before leaving the field, he walked by a few other pitchers and offered tips. Matthew LeCroy, the Red Wings’ manager, had a long list of what Clippard can teach his staff: how to stay on the mound, how to take care of your body to pitch deep into your 30s, how to use video like major league coaches and catchers and how to get outs without elite velocity, even if that’s what some of the younger arms possess.
With the Diamondbacks in 2021, Clippard’s average fastball velocity was 89.1. The highest mark of his career, 93.3, came with the Nationals in 2012. To compensate for the dip, he’s mixing in sidearm pitches to catch hitters off guard. And, yes, he still throws change-ups at the top of the zone.
“When he came here, I think he probably assumed he was going to throw a little bit and go to the big leagues, and that didn’t happen,” LeCroy said. “And then he had to go through a little adjustment with the pitch clock. The pitch clock killed him for about three or four outings where he just wasn’t used to that rushing and sprayed his pitches a little bit. It wasn’t the same Clippard. Now he’s used to it.
“I would love to see him get back up there. Without him telling me, it seems he wants to show people that he can keep doing it at his age without 95.”
LeCroy was spot on there. About 24 hours earlier, Clippard stood by the Red Wings’ dugout, leaning on a rail, and described that — bucking convention, proving people wrong — as his main motivation. Clippard could have opted out of his minor league deal by now. But after the trade deadline, there could be openings in the Nationals’ bullpen.
Maybe one goes to him. Maybe, having stuck it out in Rochester, Clippard will hear his phone ring.
“I want to basically show the new generation, the new wave of front offices and the way baseball is viewed that there still is a place in the game for somebody like me,” Clippard said. “That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. I guess at this point I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. But I want to.”