Youth has helped the Yankees get back into the race, but they have veterans in important places too

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Even after two straight losses, the Yankees are still only two games back of the second wildcard spot with 19 games to play. FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at a slim 9.6% as of this writing, but hey, that’s better than the 2.3% they were at nine days ago. Those odds can change real quick from one day to the next.

At 24-15, the Yankees have the second best record in the AL since selling buying for the future at the trade deadline. (The Royals are 25-14.) Gary Sanchez has had a monumental impact, Aaron Judge and Tyler Austin have had their moments, and young hurlers like Luis Cessa and Bryan Mitchell contributed too. The Yankees would not be where they are without these kids.

As productive as many of them have been, the young players are not the only reason the Yankees have climbed back into the wildcard race. That was never going to be the case. The Yankees weren’t going to call up a bunch of prospects and let them carry the team into October. Some of the holdover veterans have contributed too, and in fact, the Yankees have veteran players in very important spots.

Front of the Rotation

It’s easy to forget Masahiro Tanaka is still only 27 years old, isn’t it? He’s two months younger than Chris Archer and five months younger than Jacob deGrom. And yet, despite his relative youth, Tanaka is very much a veteran pitcher. He’s thrown 477 innings with the Yankees on top of over 1,300 with the Rakuten Golden Eagles, with whom he won a championship and a pair of Sawamura Awards (Cy Young equivalent).

There’s something reassuring about having a veteran ace on the staff. During his heyday from 2009-12, you knew CC Sabathia was going to go out every fifth day and give the Yankees a quality outing. Even his bad starts weren’t that bad. We watched Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina do the same for years and years. That’s Tanaka now. He’s very good, rarely bad, and every fifth day he’s going to give the Yankees a good chance to win. (Remember when he couldn’t pitch on normal rest? He’s allowed six runs in 31.1 innings in his last five starts on normal rest.)

Back of the Bullpen

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

At this point Dellin Betances qualifies as a veteran, right? I think so. This is only his third full season, but he’s already been a three-time All-Star, and Dellin’s been throwing high-leverage innings for well over two years now. Relievers don’t have the longest career life span in this game. Betances is a grizzled veteran compared to most bullpen guys.

Add in Tyler Clippard and Adam Warren, and each of the Yankees’ three end-game relievers has been around the block. Veteran relievers melt down just as easily as rookies (see: Nathan, Joe), but there’s always going to be the element of the unknown with kids. How do they handle intense late-season games with postseason implications? There’s less wiggle room in the eighth and ninth innings because there’s not much time to score any necessary runs. The more unpredictability you can take out of the bullpen, the better.

Top of the Lineup

As we’ve seen over the last three weeks or so, Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury really ignite the offense when they’re both hot at the same time. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when those two are causing chaos. It’s imperative they stay hot for the Yankees to reach the postseason, and when it comes to setting the table for the offense, the Yankees have two veteran leadoff men. They need them too; none of their young players fits the leadoff hitter mold. I guess maybe Mason Williams, though asking him to do that right away seems like too much, too soon.

In the Clubhouse

Even after their sell-off, the Yankees kept most of their leadership core intact. Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran are gone, ditto Alex Rodriguez, but team leaders like Sabathia, Gardner, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira remain. Both McCann and Teixeira have had their roles reduced and that’s surely tough for a veteran player. They haven’t complained though. They continue to go about their business and help the young players. Young players are great! You need them to win these days. There also needs to be a leadership core in place to help those young players develop into winners, if not immediately than down the road.

* * *

At the end of the day, talent reigns supreme. It doesn’t matter how many veterans you have or where they fit on the roster if the performance is there. Can having experience and good leadership help that talent translate into good performance more frequently? I firmly believe the answer is yes. The Yankees have turned their season around because their young players have (mostly) performed and brought a lot of energy to their team. The veterans still play a big role though, and they still occupy some very important spots on the roster.

The end of Didi’s slump and four others things that must happen for the Yankees to make the postseason

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Against all odds, the Yankees remain in the postseason race with less than three weeks to go in the regular season. They lost yesterday, but prior to that they won seven straight and 13 of their previous 17 games. The Yankees are two games back of the second wildcard spot and FanGraphs puts their postseason odds at 13.5%. They were 2.3% eight days ago.

As well as the Yankees have played recently, with seemingly a different player stepping up each night, they’re going to need to be even better over the final 20 games to sneak into the postseason. The schedule only gets more difficult from here on out. New York’s best chance to make the playoffs involves continuing their current play and getting some more from a few players on the roster. Here are five things I think need to happen to maximize the team’s postseason chances.

Gregorius snaps out of his slump

Didi Gregorius has been, rather easily, the Yankees’ best all-around position player this season. His 17 home runs are nearly double his previous career high (nine last year), and he’s still making a lot of contact and playing strong defense. I was skeptical when the Yankees acquired Didi because I didn’t believe in his bat. Boy was I wrong.

As good as Gregorius has been this season, he’s been slumping hard this month, going 3-for-34 (.088) with eight strikeouts and zero unintentional walks in September. Slumps happen, but with Didi it seems like fatigue might be a factor as well. His bat looks a little slow, and even in the field there’s been some moments when his first step wasn’t as quick as usual.

A day off could do Gregorius some good — the Yankees are ten games into a 17 games in 17 days stretch — though it is tough to get him out of the lineup given what he does defensively. We all love Ronald Torreyes, but he’s no Didi. No one is expecting Gregorius to hit five homers in a ten-game span like he did in late-June/early-July. The Yankees do need more offense from him than they’ve been getting this month, however.

Gardner and Ellsbury stay hot

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Overall, both Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have had disappointing seasons atop the lineup for the Yankees. Gardner’s power has disappeared, and up until recently, Ellsbury wasn’t getting on base all that much. Disappointing middle of the order veterans like Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez are the main reason the Yankees have had a below-average offense this year. The two guys at the top of the lineup aren’t without fault though.

Not coincidentally, the team’s recent strong play coincides with both Ellsbury and Gardner getting hot. Ellsbury has gone 9-for-27 (.333) with two homers, four walks, and only one strikeout during this recent 7-1 stretch while Gardner is 10-for-26 (.385). Their combined on-base percentage is .417. During the 13-5 stretch, Ellsbury has hit .311/.394/.541 and Gardner has hit .317/.386/.350.

Gardner’s power still hasn’t resurfaced, but he has been hitting for average and getting on base the last three weeks. Ditto Ellsbury. The Yankees look like an entirely different team when these two are hot at the same time. We’ve seen it at various points the last three seasons. Gardner and Ellsbury continuing to set the table like they have been the last few weeks is essential to getting the Yankees into the postseason.

Betances and Clippard be automatic

At this point Joe Girardi‘s bullpen pecking order is clear: Dellin Betances is the closer (duh) and Tyler Clippard is the eighth inning guy. For a little while after the trade deadline Clippard was the seventh inning guy, but he and Adam Warren have flipped spots, which is for the best. Warren is better able to go multiple innings, which means Girardi won’t hesitate to use him to put out fires in the sixth inning, if necessary.

The Yankees seem to play nothing but close games these days — eight of their last 13 wins have come by no more than three runs and seven have come by no more than two runs — and that doesn’t figure to change, which means Betances and Clippard are going to have to be perfect in the last two innings, meaning protect every lead. The Yankees can’t afford to led late leads slip away and the two righties are the last line of defense out of the bullpen. When they’re handed a lead, it has to hold up.

Pineda becomes a reliable second starter

Right now the Yankees have a bonafide ace in Masahiro Tanaka and four other guys in the rotation who don’t make you feel all that comfortable. Maybe comfortable isn’t the right word. They’re just unpredictable from start to start. CC Sabathia is in the twilight of his career, Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa are just kids, and Michael Pineda is one of the most enigmatic pitchers in all of baseball.

Pineda is also one of the most talented pitchers in baseball — it’s good to be 6-foot-7 with a mid-90s cutter and a wipeout slider — and I think he has the best chance to emerge as a second reliable starter these last three weeks. The problem is Pineda has given Girardi no real reason to trust him. We all saw Girardi pull Pineda one out short of qualifying for the win with a five-run lead the other night.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

As bad as the offense has been for long stretches of time this season, it seems more likely the rotation will be the Yankees’ downfall these final few weeks. Ivan Nova‘s been traded and both Nathan Eovaldi and Chad Green got hurt, meaning the Yankees have no choice but to rely on two rookies and a fading Sabathia. Pineda is young and he’s in what should be the prime of his career. He’s the club’s best hope for second solid starter.

One of the kids contributes from the bottom of the lineup

The Yankees committed to their youth movement last month and the kids have really improved the team, not only on the field, but in the dugout. The Yankees seem more energetic than they have been in years. It’s fun to watch. Gary Sanchez has been a monster who is rightfully hitting in the middle of the lineup. Tyler Austin and Aaron Judge, two other rookies, have had a tougher go of it. Here are their MLB numbers:

Austin: .224/.274/.414 (81 wRC+), 3 HR, 6.5 BB%, 35.5 K% in 62 plate appearances
Judge: .177/.258/.316 (53 wRC+), 3 HR, 9.0 BB%, 43.8 K% in 89 plate appearances

Both have shown signs of coming around of late, especially Austin, but the fact remains both have been negatives at the plate since being called up. (Judge has at least improved the right field defense.) If the Yankees were well out of the race like many expected them to be this month, running both kids out there everyday would be no big deal. The experience is the most important thing.

The Yankees need impact to get the postseason though, and it would be a huge help if either Austin or Judge started to figure things out and contribute from the bottom of the lineup. It would be cool if both did it, but let’s not get greedy. One of the two getting locked in would lengthen the lineup and make the offense that much dangerous. The kids are a big reason the Yankees are remotely close to a playoff spot right now, and if they’re going to sneak into the postseason, rookies like Austin and Judge will have to be a driving force.

Yankeemetrics: Broom, broom! [Sept. 5-7]

(NY Daily News)
(NY Daily News)

Tanaka’s milestone, Ellsbury’s surprising power
Backed by another solid outing from Ace Tanaka plus a couple key hits from Jacoby Ellsbury and Tyler Austin, the Yankees kept pace in the playoff chase with a critical 5-3 series-opening victory over the Blue Jays on Labor Day afternoon.

Jacoby Ellsbury, in an unlikely performance from the struggling center fielder, sparked the offense with a two-run homer in the first inning and an RBI single in the third. It was just the second time he went deep at home this year. Entering the week, his 190 at-bats at Yankee Stadium were nearly three times as many as any other player who had one or fewer homers at the ballpark (Austin Romine was next with 66 at-bats).

Tyler Austin also had a huge day at the plate, breaking out of a deep slump with a pair of doubles and two RBI. Only three other Yankee first baseman under the age of 25 have hit at least two doubles and drove in at least two runs in a game: Don Mattingly, Ron Blomberg and Lou Gehrig.

Masahiro Tanaka was hit hard early, but settled down and finished with a solid pitching line of two runs allowed on seven hits across six-plus innings. It was his 19th start this season giving up no more than two earned runs, which was tops among all American League pitchers through Monday’s games.

The Japanese star also earned his 12th win of the season, matching last year’s mark and one shy of his career-best in 2014. Yes, pitcher wins is a flawed stat, but its still a significant milestone for Tanaka. He is the fifth Yankee to win at least 12 games in each of his first three major-league seasons, along with Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, Hank Borowy and Johnny Brocoa.

Adding in Tanaka’s impressive strikeout numbers puts him in even more exclusive company. Among all major-league players to debut since the end of World War II, only six others have reached at least 12 wins and 135 strikeouts in each of their first three seasons: Ricky Romero, CC Sabathia, Hideo Nomo, Dwight Gooden, Dennis Eckersley and Tom Seaver.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Birthday bombs and snow cone catches
Tuesday’s crazy win was a harrowing roller-coaster ride of emotions, filled with a ton of wild swings in win probability and a bevy of tense moments, resulting in yet another season-saving victory for the Yankees. Let’s recap the emotional victory in the only way that we know how, Yankeemetrics-style:

Tyler Austin delivered the first game-changing highlight, celebrating his 25th birthday with a monster two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh for a 3-2 lead. The list of Yankee first baseman to hit a homer on their birthday is a fun one: Austin, Shelley Duncan, Don Mattingly and Lou Gehrig. Austin also became the first Yankee to homer on his 25th birthday since Tom Tresh in 1963.

(AP)
(AP)

The Yankees are now 38-10 when a player homers on their birthday (since 1913) and have won their last 15 (!) such games. The last time they lost was May 29, 1992 when Charlie Hayes went deep in a 8-3 loss to the Brewers on his 27th birthday.

After the Blue Jays snatched the lead back in the top of the eighth, the Yankees quickly erased the deficit when Didi Gregorius smoked a triple to deep center, tying the game at 4-4. Before Didi, the last Yankee with a game-tying triple in the eighth inning or later at Yankee Stadium was Mariano Duncan in 1996.

Castro capped the rally with a sac fly to make it 5-4. It was the third go-ahead sac fly by a Yankee in the eighth inning or later this year, matching their total from the past three seasons (2013-15) combined. Castro is responsible for two of those three sac flies, and is the only player in the majors this season with multiple go-ahead sac flies in the eighth or later.

Finally, with the bases full and two outs in the ninth, Brett Gardner made an incredible leaping catch at the wall to seal the victory. With that ridiculous grab, Gardner increased his defensive Plus-Minus rating — a fielding stat devised by Bill James that estimates the number of plays the player made above/below the number that an average fielder would make, according to the video scouts — to +16, which ranked second among all left fielders this season (Adam Duvall, +22).

Aaron Judge kept the seventh inning comeback bid alive with a key single ahead of Austin; however, his monumental struggles to make contact continued as he struck out twice, extending his run of multiple-strikeout games to nine. That’s the longest such streak by any major-league player over the last 100 seasons.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Three times a charm
The long pinstripe nightmare is finally over as the Yankees completed their first three-game sweep of the season with a 2-0 shutout in the series finale. Before Wednesday’s momentum-building victory, they were 0-7 in the third game of a three-game set after taking games one and two. It was also their first sweep of a team with a winning record; their only other sweeps were four-gamers against the A’s and Angels.

Starlin Castro staked the Yankees to an early lead with a bullet line drive that just barely cleared the fences in left field. It was his 20th home run of the season, joining Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano and Joe Gordon as the only Yankee second basemen to hit 20-plus homers in a season.

Tyler Clippard sealed the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning for his first save with the team this year. He is the eighth Yankee to record a save in 2016, matching the 1979 and 1980 clubs for the most players with a save on any Yankee pitching staff since the save rule became official in 1969.

Luis Severino continued his dominance out of the bullpen with three more brilliant shutout innings after replacing Bryan Mitchell in the sixth. Here are his video-game-like numbers as a reliever: 14 ? innings pitched, 51 batters faced, zero earned runs and two hits allowed. Yup, opponents are “hitting” .044 (2-of-45) against Severino The Reliever. That’s easily the lowest batting average allowed by any relief pitcher that’s faced a minimum of 15 batters this season.

Like McCarthy’s cutter, the Yanks brought back Clippard’s slider after trade with Diamondbacks

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Barring an improbable run to the postseason, the 2016 Yankees will be remembered for selling at the trade deadline, something they hadn’t done in nearly three decades. Three productive veterans and Ivan Nova were dealt for a total of 12 prospects and Adam Warren. There’s an entire generation of Yankees fans who don’t know anything but contention and win at all costs. This was a big change.

The Yankees also snuck in one buyer trade at the deadline, acquiring ex-Yankee Tyler Clippard from the Diamondbacks for Vicente Campos. It was kind of a weird move but an understandable one. The Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman trades left gaping holes in the back of the bullpen, so Clippard (and Warren) were brought in to lend Dellin Betances a hand. It’s not like they gave up much to get Clippard, after all. (Campos just suffered another major arm injury, which really sucks.)

In his one month and one week with the Yankees, Clippard has taken over as the team’s primary eighth inning guy, and has allowed just one earned run in 15 innings. His strikeout (26.2%), walk (9.8%), and ground ball (34.3%) rates with the Yankees are right in line with his career norms (26.9%, 10.0%, 28.3%). The only difference so far has been the lack of home runs; Clippard has a career 1.07 HR/9 (8.6 HR/FB%) and in his 15 innings in pinstripes he’s at 0.60 HR/9 (4.8 HR/FB%).

At some point Clippard will give up a dinger or two because that’s what he does. He’s a very unique pitcher. He thrives on getting weak contact, mostly in the form of pop-ups, and he does it primarily with deception. The guy is all arms and legs with his delivery. Even at his peak with the Nationals, Clippard would live in the 93-94 mph range and bump 96 mph on occasion. Nowadays he sits 91-92 mph and will top out at 94 mph. That’s what happens to 31-year-old workhorse relievers.

Last year, in an effort to combat velocity loss, Clippard started toying around with a slider while with the Athletics. He used it during his short stint with the Mets, but, after signing with the Diamondbacks in the offseason, the slider went in his pocket. It was very rarely used. Since returning to New York, Clippard has again started using that slider as a regular part of his arsenal (via Brooks Baseball):

Tyler Clippard slider curveball usage

Clippard has always been a fastball/changeup pitcher and he always will be. They’re by far his two best pitches. He changes speeds and eye levels with high fastballs and low changeups. A slower curveball used to be his third pitch, but since the start of last season, he’s shelved it in favor of this new slider. Well, except for his few months with the D’Backs, that is.

Why did Clippard put the slider in his pocket with Arizona? Who knows. They’re not exactly a brilliantly run organization over there. Remember, when the Yankees acquired Brandon McCarthy a few years ago, he said the D’Backs told him to stop throwing his cutter. New York let McCarthy throw the cutter and boom, his performance improved dramatically. Who knows why the D’Backs do what they do. They’re a mess over there.

Anyway, Clippard threw 27 sliders with the Yankees in August, one fewer than he threw in his four months with the D’Backs. He threw eight sliders in two appearances in Baltimore over the week, more than he threw in three of his four months with Arizona. This isn’t a new pitch. It’s an old pitch Clippard has reintroduced after not throwing it most of the year. Here’s one of the sliders he threw over the weekend:

Tyler Clippard slider

First things first: that’s a bad pitch! Clippard didn’t hang it over the plate, but he missed his spot by a mile and was fortunate to get a swing through. Backup sliders like that tend to be effective swing-and-miss pitches because hitters don’t expect them and the movement is very unnatural. Too bad no one can throw them consistently.

I posted the GIF of that slider specifically because the fine folks at MASN showed a slow motion replay after the strikeout, in which you can get a look at Clippard’s grip:

Tyler Clippard slider grip

That’s a slider grip. We can deduce that. It’s definitely not a changeup grip. PitchFX will misclassify pitches on occasion, and I was worried that maybe some of Clippard’s changeups were being misclassified as sliders, but no, that’s a slider. That’s not a changeup grip and we know it wasn’t a fastball based on the movement and velocity. It’s also not a curveball because his fingers are behind the baseball and not coming around. It’s a slider. It is. Trust me.

As you’d expect, Clippard has thrown most of his sliders to right-handed batters. They haven’t swung and missed at it much — only twice in fact, so that GIF above is one of the two — so I’m sure the Yankees and Clippard are hoping that will come. The good news is his hard contact rate against righties dropped from 33.3% with the D’Backs to 22.2% with the Yankees, though the sample is obviously small. That’s something the slider can help improve.

At this point we still don’t know how much the slider has helped Clippard, if it’s helping at all. Adding another pitch seems like it can only help, but if it’s not that effective and you start getting beat on it, it’s a problem. Clippard is still a fastball/changeup pitcher and chances are he always will be. He’s in the wily veteran phase of his career, and slider is a surprise pitch. Something new to keep hitters guessing.

Game 105: The New-Look Yankees

Subway Series

The last week or so has been a pretty crazy time in Yankeeland. For many fans, this is the first time they’ve ever seen the team be legitimate sellers. Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and Ivan Nova are all gone. They Yankees basically traded their three best players and Nova. In return, they netted a ton of prospects. A ton of prospects.

There are still games to be played, of course, and tonight the new-look Yankees open the Subway Series in Citi Field. Well, these aren’t new-look Yankees, really. There’s no one new on the roster. Just a bunch of guys we’ve all seen before. The team is new-look in its direction though. The focus is no longer on right now. It’s on the future, and that’s a new development. Here is the Mets’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. C Brian McCann
  5. SS Didi Gregorius
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Rob Refsnyder
  9. LHP CC Sabathia

It is on the cool side and cloudy in New York, and there’s rain the forecast much later tonight. It won’t be a problem unless the games goes to like 20 innings or something. Now that I’ve jinxed it, I’ll tell you the game is scheduled to begin at 7:10pm ET and you can watch on both YES and SNY locally, as well as ESPN nationally. Enjoy.

Roster Moves: In the wake of today’s trades, the Yankees have called up Ben Gamel and Nick Goody. Also, Tyler Clippard has reported and was added to the active roster.

Yanks send Vicente Campos to D’Backs for Tyler Clippard

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

It’s not all about selling this trade deadline. Sunday morning the Yankees announced they have traded Double-A righty Vicente Campos to the Diamondbacks for ex-Yankee Tyler Clippard. It’s a straight one-for-one swap. Campos was on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees won’t have to make another move to clear room for Clippard.

The Yankees traded both Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller in the last week, so the Clippard pickup gives the team a veteran arm for the late innings. Joe Girardi confirmed Dellin Betances will take over as closer. Joel Sherman says the club plans to use Clippard in the seventh and others in the eighth. I assume Adam Warren will factor in there somehow.

Clippard, 31, has a 4.30 ERA (4.30 FIP!) in 37.2 innings for Arizona this season. His last three appearances have been ugly (2.1 IP, 4 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 4 BB, 5 K, 2 HR), but he was pitching well before that (2.80 ERA and 3.59 FIP). Clearly though, this is not the Clippard of old. The guy who dominated with the Nationals is gone. Clippard’s on the decline and outs don’t come as easily as they once did.

As you know, the Yankees originally drafted and developed Clippard back in the day. He was their ninth round pick in 2003 and one of their better prospects before making his MLB debut in 2007. Clippard had a 6.33 ERA (6.68 FIP) in six starts and 27 innings for the Yankees that summer. He was traded to the Nats for Jonathan Albaladejo that offseason. Not Brian Cashman‘s finest moment.

The Yankees reportedly had some interest in Clippard over the winter but obviously did not sign him. He inked a two-year deal worth $12.25M with the D’Backs instead. The Yankees owe him the remainder of his $6.1M salary this season plus another $6.15M next season. He’s not a rental but his salary is hardly prohibitive. A little veteran middle relief depth is never a bad thing.

Campos, 24, was the other guy in the Jesus Montero/Michael Pineda trade. He has a 3.20 ERA (3.07 FIP) with a 21.3% strikeout rate and a 7.7% walk rate in 121 total innings this season. Campos was limited to only 166 total innings from 2012-15 due to ongoing elbow problems, including Tommy John surgery. He’s stayed healthy this year and the Yankees took advantage by flipping him for an MLB arm.

In a nutshell, the Yankees reshuffled some assets and turned an injury prone prospect into a declining reliever. Not exactly a ton of value changing hands here. The Yankees are selling, the Chapman and Miller trades are evidence of that, but they still need players to throw innings, and Clippard’s a capable of seventh inning guy. Unexciting? Yes. They ain’t all blockbusters.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Tyler Clippard

(Mitchell Layton/Getty)
(Mitchell Layton/Getty)

It is now the middle of January, and several big name free agents remain unsigned. The market has picked up in recent days (Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Ian Kennedy, etc.) but there are still several quality players on the board. Thirteen of MLBTR’s top 50 free agents are still unsigned as of this writing, including three of the top 20.

One of those 13 players is former Yankee Tyler Clippard, who was involved in one of the most lopsided trades in recent memory. The Yankees shipped him to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo in December 2007. Clippard went on to become an elite reliever while Albaladejo gave the Yankees 59.1 replacement level innings before being released in 2010. Not Brian Cashman‘s finest moment.

The Yankees improved the back-end of their bullpen by replacing Justin Wilson with Aroldis Chapman, but the middle innings did take a hit with the trade of Adam Warren. The club has a ton of internal candidates for the open bullpen spots, though outside of Chasen Shreve, none have had much MLB success in their careers. Could Clippard be part of the middle innings solution? Let’s look.

The Performance

Clippard, now 30, spent the 2008 season in the minors with the Nationals before breaking out as a reliever in 2009. From 2009-14 he led all relievers in innings (by a lot) and ranked sixth in WAR. Clippard was a high-leverage workhorse. Here’s what he’s done the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% HR/9 RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2013 71.0 2.41 3.82 26.6% 8.7% 1.14 .240 .232
2014 70.1 2.18 2.75 29.5% 8.3% 0.64 .191 .292
2015 71.0 2.92 4.28 21.3% 10.3% 1.01 .327 .211

Clippard is a proven FIP beater. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2009 he has a 2.68 ERA and a 3.52 FIP in 524.2 innings. It’s not an accident. Clippard has demonstrated the ability to outperform his peripherals over a period of several years now.

How has he done it? By being an extreme fly ball pitcher who excels at getting hitters to pop the ball up on the infield. Clippard’s career ground ball rate is 27.9%, the second lowest among pitchers who’ve thrown at least 500 innings since batted ball data started being recorded in 2002. (Chris Young is the lowest at 26.4%.) His 15.6% infield pop-up rate is third highest during that time, behind Mariano Rivera (16.1%) and Al Leiter (15.7%).

Infield pop-ups are as close to an automatic out as it gets for balls in play. For much of his career Clippard has had an excellent strikeout rate and an excellent pop-up rate. Those are the two best possible outcomes for a pitcher. It’s no wonder why he’s been so successful. That’s a great formula.

Now, that said, Clippard’s strikeout rate took a big step back last season. He struck out close to 30% of batters faced the last few years before dropping down to a league average-ish strikeout rate in 2015. That’s kinda scary. Furthermore, his fly ball and pop-up rate declined as well.

BABIP GB% FB% LD% IFFB% HR/FB%
2013 .170 27.9% 55.8% 16.3% 18.8% 9.4%
2014 .251 36.9% 49.4% 13.7% 19.3% 6.0%
2015 .211 21.2% 60.6% 18.2% 13.3% 6.7%

The super low BABIP is the result of all the pop-ups. (His career BABIP is .232.) Last season Clippard posted a career high fly ball rate and his lowest pop-up rate in five years, which means more of those fly balls were traveling to the outfield. His HR/FB% didn’t spike, but he was giving up way more fly balls, hence the jump from a 0.64 HR/9 in 2014 to a 1.01 HR/9 in 2015.

There are some definite red flags here. Clippard’s strikeout and infield pop-up rates dropped while his walk rate increased. That’s bad, especially for a guy who’s endured such a big workload. It suggests Clippard wasn’t fooling hitters as well as he has the last few seasons. Right now this is just a one year sample. Whoever signs him will hope it isn’t the start of a trend.

The Stuff

Clippard has more or less shelved his little cutter/slider in recent years, so he’s now basically a two-pitch pitcher: low-90s heater and a split-changeup hybrid right around 80 mph. That split-change has helped him neutralize lefties throughout his career. No one has bothered to make a 2015 Clippard highlight video, so here’s a really short video from late-July:

It’s important to note Clippard has tremendous deception in his delivery, which helps his stuff play up. You can see it in the video — he’s all arms and legs (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 lbs.), and he hides the ball very well. The radar gun says 91-92 mph but hitters seem to react like it’s 95-96. That deception is a big reason why he’s been so good.

The only significant red flag in Clippard’s stuff is the swing-and-miss rate on his split-change, which dropped to 15.3% last season after sitting around 21.0% from 2012-14. That’s still an above-average whiff rate — the average whiff rate on changeups is 14.9% — but it’s not nearly as good as before. Clippard’s velocity has held fairly steady over the years too.

Watching him pitch over the years, I think Clippard’s biggest problem last season was his location. His stuff seemed good enough, he just had trouble throwing to the desired target. His first pitch strike rate dropped to 55.8% after sitting closer to 63.0% for a few years, so he was behind in the count more often, which could explain the diminished the effectiveness of his split-change.

Injury History

This will be short: Clippard has never been on the DL. He missed one game with lower back tightness in September, and way back in 2011 he missed three games with what was described as shoulder fatigue. Clippard’s had no arm problems since and he’s never had any kind of significant injury in general.

Contract Projections

I have to think Clippard and his agent came into the offseason hoping for an Andrew Miller contract. Clippard’s been an elite reliever for a few years now, so he has the track record, and he’s been durable. That’s probably the best case scenario, but the free agent reliever market stunk this winter, and Clippard was arguably the biggest name.

The only contract estimate we have for Clippard comes from MLBTR. They pegged him for three years and $18M. Five relievers have signed contracts of at least three years this offseason: Shawn Kelley (three years, $15M), Tony Sipp (three years, $18M), Ryan Madson (three years, $22M), Joakim Soria (three years, $25M), and Darren O’Day (four years, $32M). I have to think Clippard’s holding out for at least three years, right?

Things have been extremely quite around Clippard this winter. His archive at MLBTR includes only six posts since the start of November, and three are blurbs mentioning the Mets are open to re-signing him to a one-year contract. That’s all. I’m sure there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, but geez, very little public interest in Clippard.

Wrapping Up

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

I’m mentioning Clippard as a possible target because there has been so little interest in him this offseason. Spring Training is only a month away and he might be more open to a one or two-year contract. The Yankees aren’t going to spend big on a free agent, that much is clear, but what if Clippard will take a one-year deal at $5M or so? Or a two-year deal at $10M with an opt-out?

The Yankees do have three open bullpen spots as it is — it could be four come Opening Day if Aroldis Chapman is suspended — and Clippard would give the team some quality middle relief depth. I do think the declining strikeout, walk, and pop-up rates are a sign of decline more than a one-year blip, but on a low cost contract, it’s worth the chance. Clippard could be a real difference maker.

At the same time, if Clippard is open to a low cost deal, why would he come to the Yankees? Yankee Stadium and the AL East is not a place for pitchers looking to build value on short-term deals, especially not fly ball pitchers. And Clippard’s not oblivious, he knows he would be no better than fourth on the bullpen depth chart behind Chapman, Miller, and Dellin Betances.

Clippard is a potential fit for the Yankees but the Yankees are not a fit for Clippard. If he’s going to take a relatively small contract, he’s going to go somewhere with a big ballpark and where he’d be no worse than the primary setup man. There are still way too many clubs in need of bullpen help right now to think Clippard’s price has dropped so low that he’d settle for an undesirable situation in the Bronx.