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Tyler Clippard is out here heaving trash and somehow it’s working

Who needs fastballs when you have a big pile of trash?

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Relief pitchers are a strange entity. With the small samples they deal in, you’re always wondering whether what you’re seeing is a statistical fluke, the real thing or something in between. That’s where we stand with Tyler Clippard.

For the last five years, Clippard has been … fine, I guess, pitching for eight different teams, notching a 3.21 ERA over 404 innings, striking out 26.9 percent of batters and walking just 9.5 percent. That ERA oscillated between 2.18 in his last year with the Nationals and 4.95 in 36.1 innings with the Yankees.

So what he’s doing this year isn’t really unprecedented. His 2.87 mark would be his fifth best full season mark in his 13 year career, his 27.4 percent K rate just a smidge above his career average and his 5.7 percent walk rate comfortably his best rate ever. He’s been a pleasant surprise. He’s also been decidedly different as a pitcher from any previous iteration of his own self. It appears as though Clippard has fully leaned into the life of the Garbage Man.

The thing about Clippard, despite that solid strikeout rate, he ranks 441st among relievers in average pitch velocity across his entire repertoire. That his fastball averages basically 90 mph is a big part of it, but Clippard doesn’t throw it that much anymore:

If you’re unimpressed at first look when Clippard takes the mound, it makes total sense. Between the spectacles, the string-bean build, and that he basically just heaves whatever kind of junk he wants at the plate, it doesn’t seem like he should be able to get anyone out. It looks like batting practice. I swear, every time he throws a ball in the upper half of the zone I instinctively cringe, and yet more often than not he gets a good outcome.

Part of that is a remarkably effective splitter he has. Over the last three years it’s been his second most used pitch, and also had some of the best break in baseball. From 2017 to this year it averaged 37.7, 38.9 and now 42 inches of total drop, which are 14%, 6% and 14% better than league average, all top 10 in baseball among splitters in 2018 and top five this year and 2017. Looking at that pitch use chart, it seems like Clippard started doing it three years ago (with the Astros no less, like they know something or something), something other pitchers have leaned into last year or this one, throwing their best pitches consistently more than others and using their best to beat the other guy’s best.

Which, in the scope of Clippard, looks much more trashy than if he were snapping out sliders like Amir Garrett or Brad Hand. The splitter is a more subtle pitch than the slider, and the way games are broadcast make horizontally breaking pitches seem a bit more wicked.Along with that splitter though, his throwing a changeup more than any other pitch is just odd. The way his approach is constructed, if anything he changes up ON the changeup. He’s one of only four relievers who throws it more than some kind of fastball. It’s not even like it ‘s a good fastball. What a weird pitcher.

It’s amazing to see this kind of pitcher be successful. Part of that has to be simply because when we see low velocity in general, we expect lots of low velocity fastballs and merely low quality pitches. Velocity is supposed to be the killer, the separator. That’s not true with Clippard, especially that splitter. With hitters so consistently geared for fastballs, even with the fastball being thrown less and less each year, it’s a good approach. You wonder how someone like Josh Tomlin with his dirty curve and not much else would have fared had he just ignored the fastball altogether. For Clippard though, the last three years have been a major change in his pitching life. He’s found a path to great success — dirty trash that baffles and tricks. It’s not always pretty, but the outcomes have proven to be quite nice.