A battered, beaten, broken down bullpen was the storyline all week. After letting a three run lead slip away on Tuesday, the Indians group of relievers had completed their epic meltdown. After posting dominating numbers for most of the year, the relief group suddenly faced a foreign problem — they couldn’t hold a lead.
Fast-forward to Friday night’s showdown against the division leading Minnesota Twins. Adam Plutko did his every fifth day high-wire act and limited the high-powered Twins offense to a pair of runs. Oliver Perez, Carlos Carrasco, and Adam Cimber came in and recorded some outs with efficiency… Until Cimber walked the nine hole hitter LaMonte Wade in a tied bottom of the ninth inning. This brought up the dangerous lefty Max Kepler, with 36 2019 homers to his name.
Obviously, submarine style righty Adam Cimber wasn’t the answer to this dilemma. Thus, Terry Francona chose to call on Tyler Clippard. The performance that ensued was one of the most crucial deliveries of the 2019 season by any Indian, let alone a reliever.
Starting with Kepler, Clippard established his location early. The very first pitch was a staple of his reinvention as an effective reliever at 34 years young. Earlier this season, Clippard relayed some interesting perspective to FanGraphs’ David Laurila.
“It’s not your traditional sinking two-seamer,” admitted Clippard, who is throwing it 20% of the time. “It’s not like I’m generating a great deal of ground balls with that particular pitch. What it’s doing is giving me arm-side command. And that’s huge. If I can get a righty to respect inside, it makes everything else better. It makes my changeup and splitter better. It makes the breaking balls that I throw better.”– Tyler Clippard to FanGraphs’ David Laurila
Arm side command. It is what helped Clippard leverage Kepler into an 0-1 count, courtesy of a two seam fastball of the perfectly spotted variety.
The swing Kepler put on that first offering was more defensive than offensive. It resulted in a harmlessly tipped ball into bleachers. Advantage Clippard.
Pitch two was another 90 mile per hour two seam, but this time right on the opposite edge of the dish.
In the 2019 version of Major League Baseball, relievers don’t tend to get away with many 90 mile per hour fastballs. That is, unless they are precisely located. For a second consecutive pitch, Clippard found the black. He changed the swing plane of Kepler from outer half coverage to inner half coverage, resulting in another harmless foul tip.
Working with an 0-2 count, Clippard had Kepler guessing. After burning each side of the plate with fastballs, it’s only natural to go with something slower. The trick, as with any 0-2 pitch, is putting it close enough to the zone to induce a swing while not allowing it to be hit hard anywhere.
Clippard walked the location tightrope with style. Kepler’s half-hearted swing at the splitter indicates that he was fooled entirely. This strikeout was a pitchability clinic by the wily Tyler Clippard, but he wasn’t done yet.
He would go on to strike out the first two hitters in the bottom of the tenth, as well. The fourth and final hitter he faced would produce a tapper to first basemen Carlos Santana. This bridged the gap to the 11th inning, when the Indians unloaded for four runs.
Without Clippard’s magic, the Indians might be staring at a larger wildcard deficit and a season in peril. The Minnesota Twins high-powered offense is no joke, and Clippard worked through the top four spots in the order on the road in extra innings to preserve his team’s chances.
While his strikeout numbers are slightly above average, they won’t blow anyone away. He pairs this, however, with an elite walk rate (in part thanks to his two seam command that was on full display in last night’s appearance). Pitchers of this ilk are quite possibly undervalued in today’s era of strikeouts being king.
Strike out a few, walk very few, and manage contact. That is how Clippard operates. The contact management part is even interesting, as he does not tend to keep hitters on the ground at an elite clip. It’s the opposite, actually.
Hitters have a 0.245 weighted on base average against Clippard in 2019. This is buoyed by a 0.229 mark on fly balls. He uses his expansive arsenal to induce poorly struck fly balls, leaving him with positive ball in play results. It’s not a mystery as to how Clippard has transformed into one of the best minor league signings in baseball this year.
Last night, that minor league signing was the savior for a battered bullpen that desperately needed a dynamite outing. It set the tone for a massive series in Minnesota.