Past Trade Review: Tyler Clippard

(From Flickr user MissChatter via Creative Commons license.)

Last year, as he continued his ascension as one of the league’s better setup men, Tyler Clippard earned a reputation. He cruised through the first half of the season with a remarkably low ERA, but he had a knack for allowing inherited runners to score. The Nationals’ offense also had a knack for scoring runs just after Clippard had blown a lead. That led to an 11-win season for a guy who pitched just 91 innings, all in relief and mostly in late relief. It begat the term, clipping a win, in which a reliever blows a lead but the offense gives him the win anyway. Last night he was at it again, facing one batter in the All-Star game and allowing a single, but benefitting when Hunter Pence gunned down Jose Bautista at the plate to end the inning. Prince Fielder homered in the bottom half of the inning, and so Clippard was awarded the W.

Only the youngest of fans doesn’t remember Clippard’s time with the Yankees. He was a 9th round draftee in 2003, and he quickly established himself by striking out a batter per inning or more through his first four seasons in the minors. His stuff wasn’t overpowering, but he mixed pitched and employed enough deception to fool minor league hitters. In 2006 he even tossed a no-hitter, which elicited this juvenile response from some amateur hack. Baseball America rated him the Yanks No. 7 prospect before 2007, right behind Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. It was during the 2007 that he got his first taste of the show.

The Yankees had plenty of pitching problems that year, and by mid-May they absolutely needed a starter. Clippard was struggling in the upper minors — he had a 4.50 ERA between AA and AAA that year — but a need is a need. Clippard came up to start a Sunday night game against the Mets, and he got through it as well as anyone could have hoped: six innings of one-run ball, including six strikeouts. That earned him a longer look, though his next few starts didn’t go as well. After a failure in his repeat performance against the Mets — 3.1 IP, 5 R — the Yankees sent him back down to the minors. About six months later, he was no longer on the team.

That September the Nationals put on display one of their lesser regarded pitching prospects, Jonathan Albaladejo. He made a quick impression, striking out three in 1.2 innings in his debut appearance. He pitched very well that month, allowing just three runs while striking out 12 and walking just two in 14.1 innings. This came after he tore through AAA in a mid-season promotion. The Yankees, wanting to cash in while they could on Clippard, thought they could get a quality major league reliever in Albaladejo, and so made the swap that December.

Albaladejo definitely impressed the Yankees brass, as he broke camp with the team in both 2008 and 2009. There were circumstances involved in both instances, and he was soon after optioned to the minors. But they still liked his stuff, especially his sinking fastball. But with the results not coming, they had little choice but to stash him in the minors. Even in 2010, as he dominated as Scranton Wilkes-Barre’s closer, they hesitated to call him up. When they finally did they saw more of the same: not enough strikeouts, too many walks. After the season they released him and allowed him to sign with a Japanese team. His final tally as a Yankee: 59.1 IP, 4.70 ERA, 5.21 FIP, -0.2 WAR.

After the trade Clippard had his own set of struggles. He returned to AAA for the Nationals in 2008, and in 26 starts he produced a 4.66 ERA, which was in part because he walked far too many batters. This was a problem he faced in 2007 as well, making it seem like a longer-term issue. It didn’t help that he walked seven in 10.1 innings (two starts) during a brief call-up. He still had some promise, but things didn’t look optimistic. He was a guy with average, at best, stuff, and he couldn’t control it.

After the season the Nationals shifted him to the bullpen, and that’s where he began to shine. He pitched 39 innings in AAA in 2009, allowing just four earned runs while striking out 42 and walking 15. Something had apparently clicked. In late June they called him up to the big league club, and he never looked back. He continued to walk a ton of batters, but he compensated by striking out more than a batter per inning. A .197 BABIP helped get him through 2009, but in 2010 that went up to .284 and he was still reasonably effective: 3.07 ERA and 3.18 FIP in 91 innings. This year he’s been even better, lowering his walk rate by nearly a batter per nine while maintaining an 11 per nine strikeout rate. His 1.75 ERA is aided by his .184 BABIP and an astounding 99.4 percent strand rate, but by all means he has gotten the job done.

In the excellent interview with NoMaas, Yankees VP of Baseball Ops Mark Newman said of Clippard, “The mistake we made was not seeing what [he] looked like in the pen.” It’s an understandable mistake, but it’s one that the Yankees probably won’t make again. Even the Nationals continued to view him as a starter for another year following the trade. It wasn’t until he had completely disappointed everyone in that role that they tried him as a reliever. Sometimes, that type of move sticks. The Yankees absolutely lost out on this trade, even though it seemed like a minor one at the time.

Is Tyler Clippard the one who got away?

The Yankees’ bullpen has cost them a few games over the last week or so, which really isn’t anything new in April. However, this year we were privy to an added bonus, some revisionist history pieces written about a trade the Yankees and Nationals consummated way back in December of 2007. That’s because over the last ten months or so, former Yankee Tyler Clippard has emerged as a bullpen force for the Nationals while the player he was traded for – Jon Albaladejo – toils away in Triple-A after being unable to make a positive impression in his many call-ups over the last two-plus seasons.

Photo Credit: Matt Slocum, AP

As I’m sure you remember, Clippard was a darling on the interwebs because of his gaudy minor league stats, and make no mistake, they were superb. He struck out 501 batters in 450.2 innings from 2004-2006, finishing among the top five in strikeouts per nine innings in all of minor league baseball each season. If you’ve followed me long enough, then you know that I was never a big T-Clip fan because the scouting report never matched the results, and I took a lot of heat for it. He relied on deception too much for my liking (look at this freaking delivery), and the stuff was merely good, not holy crap good. I acknowledged on more than one occasion that he was probably a back-end starter or reliever in the long run, and not for a team like the Yankees, which is pretty much what he is.

While Albaladejo was busy not missing bats during his many chances with the big league team (including two Opening Day roster assignments), Clippard struggled as a starter in Triple-A before the Nats made the decision to move him to the bullpen full time before last season. Without a doubt, Clippard has been tremendous for the Nationals since resurfacing as a reliever last June. He’s struck out 87 in 77 innings with just 43 hits allowed since, good for a rock solid 3.98 FIP. The ERA looks even better at 2.22, and he’s emerged as the team’s 8th inning setup man in recent weeks. However, there’s a little bit of luck fueling that performance.

Just as he was in the minors, Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, getting nearly two outs in the air for every one he records on the ground (0.53 GB/FB ratio), and because of this he’s pretty homer prone, again just like he was in the minors. In those 77 innings since being called up, he’s given up nine long balls, or one for every 8.2 innings pitched or so. Furthermore, his batting average on balls in play during that time is … wait for it … an unsustainably low .204. Point two oh four! Clippard’s expected BABIP (xBABIP) based on the types of batted balls he gives up (line drives, fly balls, etc) over the same time is a still low .283, but it’s much more in the realm of normalcy. Essentially, he has allowed one fewer hit than expected out of every 11 balls put into play, so we’re talking about 16 hits that should have been charged to Clippard over those 77 innings that somehow ended up being turned into outs.

In addition to the BABIP luck, the percentage of runners that Clippard has stranded is a ridiculous 88.01%. The league average is right around 70-72%. If that were to ever regress back to the mean, his ERA would climb something like a run, a run and a quarter. Stranding runners is not a repeatable skill, though it is somewhat influenced by groundball rates because of the double play potential. However, we’ve already noted that Clippard is an extreme fly ball pitcher, so this does not compute.

Does this mean the Yankees are better off with Albaladejo than they would be with Clippard? No, of course not. They’d like to have him back just like the Mets would like to have Heath Bell back and the Brewers would like to have Nelson Cruz back. There’s no denying that Brian Cashman would like a do-over on that one, but let’s not act like the Yanks let a young John Smoltz get away here. Relievers are very volatile, and signs point to Clippard’s success having a lot more to do with straight up good great luck than true talent.

I’ve seen more than one person say recently that the Yankees screwed up by making the trade, but that’s incredibly easy to say nearly three years after the fact. They traded a surplus prospect with a less than stellar track record at Triple-A and above for a young reliever with a slightly better track record at the higher levels. The Yanks needed help for their beleaguered bullpen, the Nats needed anyone that offered some kind of promise. It really was a swap of spare parts, and Washington got the better of it. To claim the Yankees should have seen Clippard having such immense (luck fueled) success is weaksauce.

* * *

As an aside, take a quick gander at this sample of core peripheral stats dating back to last season…

Pitcher A is Clippard. Pitcher B is a reliever in the Yanks’ bullpen. His name rhymes with Ravid Dobertson. Considering the environment (league and division) each set was compiled in, who would you rather have?

Someone call 911! Tyler Clippard’s been kidnapped! (wait, maybe that’s just the real him)

Some tidbits from LoHud:

Spoke to Brian Cashman this afternoon. He is interested in acquiring a first baseman but offered no comment on Shea Hillenbrand. He did say, however, that he will not be trading Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain or Ian Kennedy.

Hughes has started his throwing program and a few days ago threw off the half mound in Tampa.

Update by Joe: Better news on Hughes: he’ll throw off a full mound this weekend. According to Pete Abraham, “The hope is that he will return by the end of July.” The article also mentions that they’ve signed third-round pick Ryan Pope (the pitcher from Savannah College of Art and Design) and are laying it on thick for Carmen Angelini. End of update.

Good news all around, although don’t think that just because Cash didn’t comment on Hillenbrand that means he isn’t interested; if he said he wanted him, it’d be tampering (I think).

Triple-A Scranton (6-2 loss to Buffalo) it’s not fair that Buffalo can roll this guy out of the ‘pen to protect a 4 run lead…
Justin Christian: 1 for 4, 1 R, 2 K
Kevin Reese: 2 for 4, 2 RBI
Shelley Duncan, Bronson Sardinha & Alberto Gonzalez: all 0 for 4, 2 K – Sardinha threw a guy out at third
Eric Duncan: 0 for 2, 2 BB – 6 for his last 44 with 13 K
Tyler Clippard: 3.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 1-7 GB/FB – 38 H, 26 ER, 22 BB, 15 K in 28.1 IP since he beat the Mets in his MLB debut…
Sean Henn: 2.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K
Steven Jackson: 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 2 K – 5 H, 3 ER, 3 BB, 4 K in 7.2 innings since moving to the ‘pen

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This means war

It seems that some people don’t like that I rated Tyler Clippard as the Yanks 12th best prospect, but in fact, if it wasn’t for a string of elbow surgeries, he’d have been 15th.

No, I do not have a personal vendetta against the one you so affectionately call T-Clip, there’s just some things about the kid that concern me. But before I get into that, check out the 10 most similar players to Clippard via First Inning’s FIPro (which uses some fancy sabermetric stuff, which I’m sure some people will appreciate):

Beltran Perez
John Stephens
Jarod Matthews
Derrick Van Dusen
Steven Shell
Kris Honel
Jimmy Gobble
James Tiller
Bobby Keppel

Hmmm, interesting. And just who the hell are those people? Jimmy Gobble is the Royals swingman and is surprisingly good at what he does, but the rest of the lot? All but Tiller were once highly thought of prospects, but now they aren’t even has beens, they’re never wases. They all share one thing in common though: ace stats in the minors, average stuff, failed to reach their ceilings. Okay, so that’s 3 things in common.

EJ’s usually great with facts and such, but he makes a gross error here:

Tyler Clippard does not rely on deception.

Contrare, monfrare. I present to you Tyler Clippard’s delivery:

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