It is probably safe to assume that many fans of the Washington Nationals are going to take this morning as an opportunity to discuss the team’s thrilling 12-inning win over the Houston Astros, which came in the early morning hours on a spectacular game-ending catch that sent outfielder Roger Bernadina crashing into the fences. The win extended the Nationals’ lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East to four games and left them in sole possession of the best record in all of baseball. Go ahead and take a minute to relive the excitement. If you missed it, you can check out all the action right here.
But in an attempt to offer some less-circulated content, this time will instead be used to discuss Nationals closer Tyler Clippard, his recent performance in a relatively new role and how his confidence has played a part in that performance.
Tyler Clippard is an exceptional pitcher. I know it. You know it. The entirety of Major League Baseball knows it. More importantly, however, Clippard knows it.
He knew it in 2011, when he led all relievers with 38 holds and struck out 104 batters in 88.1 innings pitched.
He knew it before the 2012 All-Star break, when he converted 14 of 15 save opportunities and struck out 43 batters in 37.1 innings pitched, giving up just nine runs and taking home the Delivery Man of the Month award for June.
But since the All-Star break, something is different. Clippard is just 9-for-12 in save opportunities and has already given up more runs post All-Star break in less than half of the number of innings he pitched prior to the break (10 runs allowed in 15 innings pitched). Deep down, he knows he possesses everything required of an elite closer, but lately he seems to avoid acknowledging that fact.
The first glimmers of change cropped up in a home stand that begun with a series against the New York Mets. On July 17, Clippard surrendered his first home run of the season, giving up three earned runs and suffering a blown save – his second of the season. The next night, Clippard earned the save but again yielded a home run. And then he gave up another. Two nights later, Clippard blew a third save before going on a tear – earning seven saves in as many opportunities, which, if we skip over a non-save opportunity against the Miami Marlins, brings us to the current four-game series with the Astros.
Before going further, it would probably be a good idea to remind you that Clippard tends to rely heavily on just two pitches – a lively fastball that tops out in the mid-90s and a devastating changeup that floats over the plate in the low 80s. For that changeup to be effective, however, it must be set up with the fastball.
In 2012, about 49.5 percent of Clippard’s pitches have been fastballs. Only about 36.6 percent of his pitches have been changeups. Not so in his two outing thus far in Houston.
On Monday, Clippard blew his fourth save of the season after a performance in which he seemingly lost confidence in his fastball, which accounted for only about 37.5 percent of his pitches. His changeup, however, accounted for about 54.2 percent of his pitches. Did he really lose confidence or could it have been that newly-acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki called for a higher percentage of changeups, something not atypical of an American League catcher.
Last night, with Jesus Flores behind the plate, Clippard again threw more changeups than we typically see from him (about 40 percent), which seems to support the idea that he may have lost at least some confidence in his fastball.
Though he did earn the save, it was Bernadina’s spectacular grab that truly nailed down the win as Clippard had allowed two base runners on a single and a walk and was just inches away from a fifth blown save.
If Clippard needs a confidence booster, he needs look no further than teammate Ross Detwiler, who threw 85 pitches last night, 75 of which were fastballs. In his last outing, Detwiler threw 78 fastballs on 88 pitches. It is probably not a coincidence that those two outings were two of the most dominant in his young career thus far.
Far be it from me to give advice but if you have a good fastball, throw it.