Tyler Clippard doesn’t overpower anybody anymore, but he doesn’t need to.
We’ve written a few times in the past about how the veteran’s extensive arsenal allows him to keep hitters off-balance. Whether you chalk it up to him being a successful junk pitcher or simply crafty with his sequencing and delivery (if there’s a difference), Clippard continued to outperform expectations in 2019.
I’m stating that from a statistical perspective, not just what many of us thought Clippard might contribute when the Indians signed him for less than $2 million in the offseason. Clippard’s career xFIP in 816 total innings is 4.22. His actual ERA is more than a run less than that: 3.14.
How does he manage to out-perform the statistical expectations by so much? It depends on how you consider the expectations. xFIP is partially based on BABIP, reasoning that pitchers have very little (if any) control on whether or not a ball in play becomes an out. Clippard is a clear sign that at least some pitchers can control this. His BABIP since 2009 is .236. In a single season, you might chalk that up to luck; over the course of a career, it’s a skill. That BABIP is nearly 10% better than any other pitcher with at least 600.0 IP since 2009. Even if you reduce the minimum number of innings to 200.0, he trails only Josh Hader.
How does he manage to do it? Since 2009, he has the third highest soft-hit percentage of any pitcher with at least 600.0 IP. Only Zack Britton and Kenley Jansen managed to induce weak contact more often. Weak contact itself doesn’t necessarily mean that a ball will turn into an out; we’ve all seen soft liners die just after they sail beyond a leaping infielder’s glove. 55.9% of all batted balls against Clippard are fly balls; 15.6% of those do not leave the infield. Those are the two highest totals in baseball from 2009-2019 among pitchers with 600 IP. Again, even if cut the innings requirement by a third, he still owns the highest FB%, and he is seventh in IFFB%, just behind Mariano Rivera and Josh Hader.
I point all of this out because Clippard didn’t change a bit in 2019. I felt surprised at how effective he was for the Indians this season, but in hindsight I should have seen it coming.
For the 11th consecutive season, Tyler Clippard pitched at least 60.0 innings in relief. He owned a .204 BABIP, the seventh-lowest in baseball. He out-performed his xFIP by two runs. His fWAR totaled 0.7, but because Fangraphs uses FIP in its WAR calculations that’s not really a fair way to evaluate someone who has proven that he earns his ERA every season. Baseball Reference shows him as being twice as valuable, with a bWAR of 1.4.
Said another way: there is a very strong case to be made that Tyler Clippard was not only the most consistent, but also the most valuable reliever for the Cleveland Indians in 2019.
Father Time might be undefeated, but as Clippard enters his 35th year he looks like the type of pitcher who is will challenge Him for years to come.