What the Hell is the Matter with Tyler Clippard?

Nothing.

Of course, you might have expected me to say that, since this is a post in the same spirit as last year’s “What the Hell is the Matter with Drew Storen” post.

Fine, I get it. It’s kind of hard to like Tyler Clippard right now. So far in 2014, Clip has recorded 4 meltdowns–and it isn’t even May yet. He recorded 8 meltdowns in all of 2013.

And I can see how you might yearn for the good old days–back in 2012, when the Nats were shutting everybody down, Clippard was awesome, right? Clippard’s 2013 seemed disappointing by comparison, and his 2014 is off to a truly awful start. Maybe you wish that Rizzo had traded him, and not Lombo.

Well, I’ve got news for you: if you thought Tyler Clippard was a great reliever in 2011–he is still the same guy he was in 2011.

We know that Clip is mainly a two-pitch reliever–fastballs and changeups. So far in 2014, his fastball averages between 92.8 (Fangraphs) and 93.8 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. His change up has averaged between 81.4 (Fangraphs) and 82.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour.

Back in the “good old days” of 2011, Tyler Clippard’s fastball averaged between 92.6 (Fangraphs) and 93.3 (Brooks Baseball) miles per hour. The changeup in 2011 averaged between 80.8 (Fangraphs) and 81.3 (Brooks Baseball) mph. Would you look at that: no difference.

Here’s the thing about Tyler Clippard: he’s a fly-ball pitcher. Over his career, he has a fly-ball rate of 57.2%. In 2011, he had a fly-ball rate of 60.1%.  In 2013, he had a fly-ball rate of 55.8%. If a batter puts the ball in play against Clippard, there’s a better than even money chance that it’s going to be up in the air.

Now, if you’re a fly-ball pitcher, the thing you want to do is to try and keep the ball in the yard, if at all possible. Clippard does a reasonable job of this. He has a career HR/FB rate of 9.1%–that is, of all the balls batters put in play, about 60% of those will be in the air. And of the ones hit in the air, about 9% of them are going to leave the yard. Live by the fly ball (easy F8s!), die by the fly ball (HR, meltdown, blown save, etc.).

So far this year, Clippard’s HR/FB rate is preposterously high: 25%. “CUT THE BUM,” I hear you howling. But look: in the good old days of 2011, Clip’s  HR/FB rate was 9.5%, and I didn’t hear anyone calling for his head then. And in 2013, Clippard’s HR/FB rate was 9.4%.

If there’s an anomalous year in Clippard’s performance, it’s 2012, where he had a HR/FB rate far below his career average (6.8%). In spite of that, he posted a lower-than-you’d-think ERA of 3.72, with a FIP of 3.31. And yet, Clippard still notched 32 shutdowns in that year, while recording 10 meltdowns.

Don’t take my word for it:

So, I repeat: If you thought Tyler Clippard was an awesome reliever in 2011–and, really, you did–then you need to relax about how he’s started out in 2014. He’s still the same Tyler Clippard.

If his HR/FB rate stabilizes above 10% by about June though…maybe start panicking.

 

Link

Pitches Illustrated

This is an excellent little site/cheatsheet illustrating how various pitches look from the catcher’s batter’s perspective. These diagrams assume a right handed pitcher. For lefties, imagine them (roughly) in reverse. 

For extra fun, print this out and read Stu’s excellent piece on Strasburg’s opening day pitch selection. It looks like Strasburg’s new slider is part of a plan to start busting left handed batters down and in. Contrast this with Strasburg’s previous approach against lefties: the changeup running away from the batter. 

In old-timey pitch classification, this gives Strasburg both an “in-shoot” (slider) and an “out-shoot” (changeup) against lefties. If you’re a DC baseball fan and believe in baseball reincarnation, this is a good thing. Guess who else had this kind of repertoire?

The ball that bothered the Naps [Cleveland Indians, managed by Napoleon “Nap” Lajoie] yesterday from Johnson’s delivery was a fast high inshoot that broke just in front of the plate. He had all the Cleveland batsmen guessing on this ball. If it failed to break, it cut the plate at about the height of the batsman’s breast letters. When they swung at it, however, it seemed to lift over the handle of the bat. This ball, breaking properly, is practically impossible to hit squarely, and will fool the cleverest stick artist in the business. Johnson’s speed, of course, is a factor in all of his work, his curves taking their swing viciously just before reaching the batting area.

 

Not bad, Strassy. Learn from the Big Train.

Imported from Detroit

The Nats traded Lombardozzi, Krol, and minor-league pitcher Robby Ray for Detroit starting pitcher Doug Fister. It’s official. 

I can’t even begin to process this trade. It was so unexpected. And, on its face, it is amazing.

Here’s what the Nats acquired in Fister. Since 2009, Fister has an ERA of 3.53 and a FIP of 3.68.  That would automatically give him the second-best FIP among Nats starters–only Strasburg is better. His repertoire means that he induces more ground balls–and since 2009, he has a ground ball rate of 49.3%. That would be the highest among Nats starters. He has 1.81 BB/9–the lowest walk rate of any of the Nats pitchers. He has a slightly worse strikeout-to-walk ratio than Jordan Zimmermann (Fister: 3.46 K/BB, JZ 3.64 K/BB).

And consider that Fister has performed very well over the years as a ground ball pitcher with an infield that is sometimes comically inept: the Tigers were 9th in the AL in UZR, mostly because of a lack of range.

Now imagine Fister dealing groundballs with the Nats infield–a defense that, even with its woes in 2013, was still a good dozen runs better than the Tigers. Imagine a still-more efficient Nats infield, armed with the knowledge of the tendencies of opposing hitters, reinforced with better advance scouting and more intelligent defensive alignments. Imagine Ian Desmond gunning down runners.

Imagine it and smile, Nats town, because that’s the promise.

Yeah, I like this trade.

Now if only Rizzo would sign Robinson Cano and sign Rakuten Eagles ace Masahiro Tanaka….

Bad Company

Drew Storen has been optioned to AAA Syracuse.

This is a hard post for me to write, because I’ve been a huge Drew Storen fan since, well, ever. I’ve wanted him to succeed. I‘ve been a shameless Drew Storen apologist, even in the darkest moments.  But with Ryan Mattheus coming off the disabled list, and only twenty-five spots left on the active roster, someone had to go down. Drew Storen had an option year available. He has also had a disappointing year–so he had to be the one to go.

There’s going to be an awful lot written about Storen’s demotion, and even more said about it. The most pointed words probably come from fellow reliever and sometime roommate Tyler Clippard:

He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a  98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself.

You know by now that I don’t like getting into ballplayer’s heads. I sit in the upper deck. I’m lucky if I can track the movement of the ball, let alone look into a man’s heart, mind, or soul at that physical and psychic distance.

If Storen needs to get back to something, perhaps this chart has some of the answers:

This chart tracks the sheer number of swings and misses generated by each of Storen’s four main pitches: the four-seam fastball, the sinker (two-seam fastball), the slider, and the change-up.

Between 2012 and 2013, you will note the sharp increase in swings and misses generated by his changeup–a pitch that he began throwing far more often. There is a corresponding drop in the number of swings and misses generated from both fastball varieties and from the slider–with the largest decline coming from the slider.

This puts in graphical form something that even upper-deck dwellers have begun to suspect: Storen’s slider–memorably described by Bob Carpenter as the “killer slider” on so many occasions–has lost much of its lethality.

If we take the number of line drives as a rough proxy for the number of times batters really squared up and made good contact, that should tell us more. Let’s look at the total number of line drives generated for each ball in play for each pitch, from the second half of 2012 through this month:

Oof. Look at that. Sharp increase in hard contact off the slider. A look at his pitch selection data reveals that he’s throwing, proportionally, more sliders than ever:

So what we have here is a pitcher throwing more of a pitch that is ever less successful. Storen seems to want to throw that slider a lot, even if he knows that it’s getting hit hard. This is not a recipe for success. What’s gone wrong with Storen’s slider?

First: it’s not as hard as it used to be: notice that it’s about 2 miles per hour slower this year than it was last year:

Second, it’s dropping a bit more: surely this is good? Yes and no. Some of the increased drop will be due to the drop in velocity we’ve already seen. If we look at it’s dragless vertical movement plus gravity, compared with release velocity, we note that the slider drops about as much as it ever did–except that now it’s just, well, slower. That’s not good. 

 

 

 

Third, it’s not, well, sliding as much as it did last year:

If there’s any hope here, it’s the emergence of Storen’s change-up as a weapon. Notice: it’s the only one of his pitches that is fooling more batters this year, rather than fewer. That’s something positive. And if Storen hopes to come back to hear the adoring crowds at Nats park howl his name ( DROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! ), then I hope for his sake that he goes down to Syracuse and works on the fastball/changeup combination that seems to be working.

While he’s down there, he could probably stand to work on his slider. He was a much more effective pitcher with a harder, more violent, more lethal killer slider. This year’s softer, milder slider has gotten him into trouble.

And whenever he’s ready, I’ll be back in the upper deck, waiting for him to return as the fine reliever that I know him to be.

 

[Edit: I had initially mis-interpreted the vertical movement graph, which led me to look at dragless horizontal movement plus gravity, which actually underscores the point better. Storen’s slider is dropping as much as it used to, but not because of any breaking motion…it’s dropping just becuase it’s slower. That’s an appealing target for a hitter, no?]

What the hell is the matter with Drew Storen?

Absolutely nothing.

Let me explain: Storen’s 2013 has been pretty bad, right? To date, Storen has a terrible 5.21 ERA. His FIP is a suitably terrible 4.26. How can I possibly say that nothing is wrong, especially when compared to his excellent 2012, where he posted a 2.37 ERA and a 2.40 FIP?

Look at the batted-ball data. In 2012, Storen only gave up 2 home runs all year. In 2013, he has surrendered 3. So, the question we have to ask is: is Drew Storen broken, or just unlucky?

Fortunately, we have a tool that might help us answer that question–it is xFIP, which is just like FIP, but normalized to a league-average HR/FB rate. A quick look at Storen’s ERA, FIP, and xFIP  with Storen’s FB% and HR/FB rate since 2010 gives us these data:

  • 2010: ERA: 3.58; FIP 3.26; xFIP 3.88; 40.3% FB, 5.0% HR/FB;
  • 2011: ERA 2.75; FIP 3.32; xFIP 3.14; 35.5% FB, 11.1% HR/FB
  • 2012: ERA 2.37; FIP 2.40; xFIP 3.52; 28.0% FB, 0.0% HR/FB
  • 2013, Year-to-date: FIP 5.21; FIP 4.26; xFIP 3.95; 37.1%, 13% HR/FB

What are we to make of this? Storen’s xFIP in 2013 is up, relative to what it had been: 3.95 isn’t great. But that’s in line with his 2010 xFIP of 3.88. And curiously, during his annus mirabilis of 2012, Storen posted an xFIP of 3.52–not at all what you’d expect, given his miniscule 2.40 FIP of that year.

If anything, we should look at the xFIP data and figure that the rest of Storen’s 2013 might look a little more like 2011 than 2012. Storen’s game depends on inducing weaker contact, and that means a HR/FB rate lower than league average.

And we have further evidence that Storen, in 2013, has been inducing weaker contact. His line-drive rate is currently 16.1%, which is lower than it was in 2012 (18.3%) or in 2011 (17.2%). Likewise, his ground ball rate in 2013 of 46.8% is down from 2012 (53.7%) and–you guessed it–in line with his 2011 ground ball rate of 47.3%.

So, what does that mean? When batters put the ball in play against Storen, they aren’t squaring it up (declining line-drive rate). They aren’t putting it on the ground as much, either (declining ground-ball rate). They are, however, hitting it up in the air. That should result in quick outs to Harper, Span and (eventually) Werth. But Storen’s been awfully unlucky so far, since his HR/FB rate is higher than the league average.

Once that HR/FB rate normalizes, his FIP will get ever closer to his xFIP–that’s hope for improvement. The declining ground ball and line drive rates are even more encouraging. Weaker contact should make for even lower HR/FB rates. There’s hope for improvement there.

Looking at Storen’s peripheral stats, then, there is plenty to suggest that his 2013 will not end as disastrously as it appears to have begun. Drew Storen is still Drew Storen–and that’s not all that bad.

Epilogue: You will notice that I haven’t addressed his mental state at all. Again, that’s because I have no way of knowing what the hell is going on in Storen’s head. The data we can measure, though, shows that Storen is at least capable of being better than he’s been lately, and that he’s got every chance to show it. If you want to think you know something about his mind, go ahead. But it’s bad enough for me to be an armchair baseball analyst without also becoming an unlicensed, upper-deck psychoanalyst in the bargain.

“If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that”

That’s Glenn Fleisig talking to Baseball Prospectus on pitch counts, innings limits, and how organizations maximize the health of their pitchers. The interview is republished on Deadspin. 

The relevant question-and-answer:

BL: So without commenting on any specific team or pitcher, would you say that a team that puts hard innings limits in place is just sort of going overboard with risk aversion or covering their own ass? I mean, I’m sure they must base it on some sort of research, but maybe they’re not looking at the right research.

GF: Yeah. I do say that. If a major-league team or minor-league team has a hard pitch count across their whole organization, they can do better than that. They should be using—because they have professional coaches throughout their major and minor leagues, and a professional medical staff—they should be using pitch counts as a feel, as a guideline for who has pitched a lot, who hasn’t pitched a lot, and then they should individualize it and know each of their pitchers, each of their athletes, and know who is a quick responder, who’s doing well on the physical assessments with the trainers and medical staff, who has good mechanics according to the pitching coach, things like that. And they should individualize it and they should say, ‘Oh, Rodriguez, he recovers quickly, but Johnson, he’s always in pain, so let’s keep Johnson lower than Rodriguez,’ and individualize it.

Plus, even within a person—even if they say, ‘Rodriguez, he seems to be healthy and doing well and good mechanics and very fluid and in good shape, all those things,’ they shouldn’t set a pitch count number for him; they should set a soft pitch count number—‘He can go to this level, 100 pitches or whatever”—but then game by game, they should monitor and take him out when he’s giving signs of being fatigued or if there’s a history of he’s been pitching a lot recently, or he’s stinking tonight, other things where you individualize it. But a hard pitch count is really for youth baseball and perhaps high school baseball, when you can’t assume the coaches are all experts.”

This is really a question about the Nationals and Strasburg (and Jordan Zimmermann). This isn’t just any yahoo they’re talking to, either–this is Glenn Fleisig, the leading scientific authority on pitching mechanics. And I don’t mean “scientific” in the 19th-century quack medical sense–I mean peer-reviewed. I have quoted his work debunking “inverted W” scaremongering before. So at first glance this looks like an indictment of the Strasburg limit. In 2012, the Nats had Strasburg on a hard innings limit, just as they had Jordan Zimmermann on a hard innings limit in 2011.

But before you grab your pitchfork and light your torch to storm Mike Rizzo’s office, stop and think for a minute. Rizzo refused to commit to a hard innings limit until Strasburg was finally shut down. At all times, Rizzo said that he was going to monitor Strasburg for signs of fatigue.

Here’s what Strasburg was doing in his last few starts of 2012:

  • August 21, 2012, vs. Brewers: 6 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 HR; 94 pitches.
  • August 28, 2012, at Marlins: 5 IP, 9 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO, 1 HR; 84 pitches
  • September 2, 2012 vs. Cubs: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 9 SO; 97 pitches.
  • September 7, 2012 (“Shutdown Day”) vs. Marlins: 3 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 SO; 81 pitches.

What do we make of this?

I’m not really sure. Strasburg himself insisted and continued to insist that he was ready and able to pitch after Shutdown Day. On the other hand, his final appearance showed him laboring against the lowly Marlins.

What you make of this as a Nats fan is really a reflection of what you think of the Nationals and their management. If you tend to trust GM Mike Rizzo, then you will have to assume that the organization had been observing Strasburg’s rest and recovery cycles all season, and decided that those observations, plus the disastrous outing against the Marlins, led them to believe that the time was right to shut down Strasburg.

If you are disinclined to trust the organization, then you’re going to have to assume that there was a hard innings limit from the outset, and that the club refused to deviate from that limit even to the last. One disaster against the Marlins probably shouldn’t have been enough to convince the organization to shut Stras down.

Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this.

About Strasburg’s Innings Today

I wasn’t at the park at Opening Day today. I had to tune in and listen to it on the radio.

I missed a hell of a time to be there. The Nats beat the hated Marlins 2-0 behind two Bryce Harper homers and seven shutout innings from Stephen Strasburg.

Indeed, Strasburg was out of the game after only throwing 80 pitches. The sound of fans griping about yet more “kid gloves” treatment for Strasburg could be heard all over Twitter. Strasburg was dealing–why limit him now?

Even Barry Svrluga, veteran Post-ie, seemed to take issue with the sudden, unwelcome appearance of Captain Hook:

Here’s why Strasburg was out of the game with 80 pitches: the Nats have the day off tomorrow (Tuesday), and the bullpen is currently hurting for work.

In the last week of Grapefruit League play (including the exhibition game against the Yankees), going back to last Sunday,  the Nationals relievers that are on the actual big-league staff right now have pitched only 16.2 innings.

Would I love to see a complete game shutout from Strasburg? You bet. But there’s no reason to leave Strasburg hanging out there on a cool, misty afternoon to get a complete game just for the sake of getting a complete game. I would prefer to see Strasburg–or any starting pitcher, really–get a complete game any day but Opening Day.

Later this year, there will be periods during which the bullpen will be taxed. There will be long extra-inning night games that last into the wee hours of the morning, followed by brutal afternoon games, followed by travel. There will be times where a starting pitcher doesn’t get through a lot of innings. There will be doubleheaders. There will be stretches where relievers will appear on three consecutive nights–like Storen did when he entered the game in NLDS Game Five.

I would much rather that a Strasburg complete game happen during one of those periods, where it does the most good. An opening day win against the Marlins (who are expected to be the worst team in the division) is nice. A complete game, saving a tired bullpen in the middle of a tense series with the Braves would be much, much better.