Cleveland Indians

The Bullpen Experiment — What The Indians See In Tyler Clippard

As a process, uncovering depth bullpen resides mostly in the check and adjust phase. Teams can plan adequately enough by prioritizing certain tool sets and execute those plans to perfection in theory, yet the instability factor of bullpens can lead to implosions. Fans of the Cleveland Indians had front row seats for one such implosion last summer. Between Andrew Miller injuries and Cody Allen ineffectiveness, Indians’ executives were checking and adjusting and checking and adjusting their way through finding a reputable cast of relief arms. 

So, due to the previously mentioned relative instability of the relief market, teams are isolated into buying arms based on tools and crossing their fingers. The Indians have done such with their recent acquisition of Tyler Clippard on a minor league deal.

A cursory glance at Clippard’s major league track record reveals a lot of hiccups on the command front. For the better part of his 12 year career — which includes stops with the Yankees, Nationals, A’s, Mets, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Astros, and Blue Jays — Tyler Clippard has struggled managing his walk rate. Permitting free passes has been the kryptonite to an otherwise downright impressive resume. 

Naturally, one might think command runs on fastballs. It makes sense in theory — the straightest pitch should be the most manageable from an accuracy standpoint. However, in the curious case of Tyler Clippard, his walk percentage has shared trend lines with his fastball dependency. More fastballs has historically meant more walks. 

Courtesy of Fangraphs

As is indicated in the graphic above, Clippard might have found an unlock in the later stages of 2018. He leveraged his fastball usage to find a happy medium that maintained strikeout rate while reducing walk rate, the two most intriguing statistic lines for pitchers, and the two happen to stabilize more rapidly than any other. 

Courtesy of Fangraphs

By plotting his fastball against another data point, a little more of the story unfolds. Clippard’s general effectiveness, as interpreted by his FIP, is highly dependent on the number of fastballs he delivers. Towards the end of last season, he stumbled into this adjustment and found a way to momentarily stabilize his outputs at peak levels. His 2019 will go as far as his non-fastball pitches take him, and will be a uniquely intriguing mark to follow and relate towards his success or lack thereof. 

Additionally, through exchanging about ten percent of his heaters for sliders, Clippard found a potential avenue to sustained effectiveness. The only drawback is it has caused another peripheral to rear its ugly head — the long ball. Past command issues, Clippard has always been a tad prone to giving up home runs. It’s the parameter that caused his elite strikeout rates to lose a bit of their luster. 

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Throughout usage shifts, including favoring a slider that does not keep hitters on the ground, Clippard has inexplicably ventured away from his changeup. This abandonment preceded his fastball departure and did not produce command results that would indicate it had a great effect on the amount of walks he allowed. As a result, by ditching his pitch that best prevents hitters from lifting the ball, Clippard has allowed the home runs to run rampant; thus masking the positive peripheral results from the fastball shift and maintaining unfavorable outputs. 

The Indians hope to optimize his usage profile, perhaps by offsetting his fastball usage with a renewed affinity for his change. There are some tools that are appealing, which are bolstered by the capacity to induce whiffs at an elite clip. Finding the route to that optimization will be a process that involves repeated checking and adjusting. Oh, and a prayer or two that the flammable entity that is relief pitching chooses to abstain from wreaking its havoc.

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