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.

 

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A New Era

Yesterday, the 2012 Washington Nationals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals by a score of 4 to 3. Stephen Strasburg pitched well, but got a no-decision–the vagaries of the rule-book having awarded the win to Ryan Mattheus. Tyler Clippard recorded a save. Later, the national media would focus on the news that Strasburg’s season would end on September 12.

As the rest of the baseball world considered this, something more amazing happened: The 2012 Nationals won their 81st game. That exceeds the 2011 Nationals’ 80 wins. It ties the 2005 Nationals, whose improbable, roller-coaster, flip-a-coin debut in the Capital was a delirious first love affair for this generation of baseball fans.

There are still 29 games remaining.

That’s right, Nats town. If the Nationals win so much as one out of the next 29 games, they will have completed their best season ever since they arrived in DC.

We knew this was coming, of course. As soon as Gio Gonzalez recorded his 16th win of the season on August 19, beating Livan Hernandez’s 15-win 2005, we knew. But somehow it hasn’t been real until now: the 2012 Nationals have begun to outrun the long shadow of futility. They cannot be compared to the Natinals of years past. They are tied with the Texas Rangers for the highest run differential in all baseball–a feat they achieve with only an average offense, because they allow the fewest runs per game (3.6) in the National League. And, although I complain constantly, the Nats have scored 269 runs in the months of July and August–second only to the Milwaukee Brewers in runs scored during that period.

These Nats are pretty good, you guys. So don’t sweat the Strasburg Shutdown drama. Whatever happens, we Nats fans already have the team we dreamed about since the last out was recorded in 2005: a team that can beat any other team in the league on any given day. In the words of Ryan Zimmerman–a man who knows a thing or two about these things–the Nats have finally given DC baseball fans a team to cheer for.

Today, as you get ready to watch those Nats face the Cubs, remember that. Today, you have a team to cheer for, one that is the equal of any other in baseball–and perhaps better than most.

Today, savor how awesome that is.

Today, root, root, root for the home team.

Looking at the Bullpen: Shutdowns and Meltdowns

Not even in my most optimistic moments would have said that the Nats would win two in a row out of the gate! As I write this on Easter Sunday morning, the Nats are sitting pretty, sharing first place atop the National League’s Eastern Division with the Mets (the Mets!).

And all this despite a lackluster debut for Gio “the Motown Kid” Gonzalez. The Nats won yesterday behind the unexpected heroics of former Hiroshima Carp Chad Tracy, and some absolutely phenomenal pitching from the “B” bullpen, with Craig “Matinee Idol” Stammen in long relief, followed by Ryan “Firework” Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and some pitching from Hot Rod that was pretty frickin’ bueno.

The Nats’ late-inning heroics aren’t great to my stomach lining, though. I’ve been wondering how I could better quantify the feeling I have when relievers come in. I attempted this earlier, of course, when I introduced my heartburn index–but I’m now convinced that the heartburn index doesn’t give a complete picture.

Fortunately, FanGraphs has ridden to the rescue again, with a new, and, I think, extremely helpful, pair of statistics for measuring relief pitcher performance: Shutdowns and Meltdowns. As the proponent of the new stats explains them:

Shutdowns (SD) and Meltdowns (MD) are two relatively new statistics, created as an alternative to Saves in an effort to better represent a relief pitcher’s value. While there are some odd, complicated rules surrounding when a pitcher gets a save, Shutdowns and Meltdowns strip away these complications and answer a simple question: did a relief pitcher help or hinder his team’s chances of winning a game? If they improved their team’s chances of winning, they get a Shutdown. If they instead made their team more likely to lose, they get a Meltdown. Intuitive, no?

Using Win Probability Added (WPA), it’s easy to tell exactly how much a specific player contributed to their team’s odds of winning on a game-by-game basis. In short, if a player increased his team’s win probability by 6% (0.06 WPA), then they get a Shutdown. If a player made his team 6% more likely to lose (-0.06), they get a Meltdown.

Shutdowns and meltdowns correlate very well with saves and blown saves; in other words, dominant relievers are going to rack up both saves and shutdowns, while bad relievers will accrue meltdowns and blown saves. But shutdowns and meltdowns improve upon SVs/BSVs by giving equal weight to middle relievers, showing how they can affect a game just as much as a closer can, and by capturing more negative reliever performances.

Nats fans are by now intimately familiar with WPA, thanks to the hard work of Federal Baseball. The squiggly-lined graphs he pots after every game show the ebb & flow of the game as measured by WPA. A “Shutdown” happens when a reliever bends the line towards the Nats’ favor. A “Meltdown” happens when a reliever bends the line in favor of the opponent. The Shutdown/Meltdown stat pair thus give us a good indication of whether a reliever is helping or hurting his ballclub–which is kind of neat!

So what does that mean for the Nats bullpen in 2012? Using my standard measuring interval (2008-2011 seasons), here’s how the pitching staff looks:

 Name  Holds  Saves  Blown Saves  Shutdowns  Meltdowns  Heartburn
 Brad Lidge  9  100  16  92  28  6.85
 Tyler Clippard  64  1  18  77  35  5.22
 Sean Burnett  54  8  9  63  42  5.62
 Drew Storen  13  48 7  59  22  4.34
 Henry Rodriguez  13  2  4  13  13  8.51
 Tom Gorzelanny  7  1  2  12  5  6.01
 Ryan Mattheus  8  0  0  7  6  5.63
 Craig Stammen  2  0  0  5  2  4.09

A few things jump out at me at once:

  • Since 2008, Brad Lidge is unquestionably the Shutdown King of the current Nats bullpen. The 100 Shutdowns mean that he left his ballclub in a better position to win after his appearance than before one hundred times–and only made them worse 28 times. This makes me wonder whether Philadelphia unloaded him more because of his relatively high heartburn factor than any other measurable quality as a relief pitcher. On the other hand, Lidge’s ridiculous 2008 season may have gone a very very long way towards inflating his stats here. In any case, Lidge was pretty good on opening day this year.
  • We all know that Tyler Clippard is an awesome relief pitcher. He was an all-star in 2011. But now we have a clearer idea why. He’s second only to Lidge in shutdowns since 2008, and leads the staff in Holds.
  • Sean Burnett has collected 63 shutdowns since 2008–apparently, while I was averting my eyes in terror. The more I study him, the more I am forced to conclude that I have been terribly unfair to Burnett over the past few years.
  • We also now have a better idea why Drew “Batman” Storen is such a good reliever. He hasn’t been relieving nearly as long as Lidge, but he’s already accumulated 59 shutdowns. His 2.68 Shutdown/Meltdown ratio is second only to Lidge’s.
  • Henry “Hot Rod” Rodriguez is, by this set of measures, not even nearly in the same class as Storen or Lidge. 13 Shutdowns and 13 Meltdowns, giving him an abysmal SD/MD ratio of 1.00–the lowest on the staff. I’m still hoping that he will improve during 2012 and pitch to his potential, though.
  • Tom Gorzelanny has a shutdown/meltdown ratio of 2.40. That’s fourth, behind Lidge, Storen and Stammen. I guess he really is better as a reliever than as a starter? Then again, he’s only recorded 12 shutdowns, total–so maybe we don’t know enough about him to judge.
  • I was expecting a tighter correlation between high shutdown numbers and low heartburn index numbers. That’s not what we see. Lidge, for instance, ought to give me more heartburn than his shutdown numbers suggest. Mattheus looks pretty bad next to his heartburn near-equivalent Burnett–but then, Mattheus hasn’t had all that many chances yet.

If the Nats’ starting rotation can routinely get through 6 or 7 innings, there are enough high-shutdown arms in the bullpen to keep the game in hand. This is very encouraging news for the rest of 2012.

The Cone of Silence Descends

In what Mark Zuckerman called “the biggest news of Nats training camp so far,” Bryce Harper has deleted his Twitter account.

I don’t need to go over all the ridiculous things Harper has tweeted over the past year.other bloggers have done a better job of that.

But what interests me most is the apparent cone of silence that has descended over Nats players’ twitter accounts over the past week. At about the time that Nats players attended a media meeting where Davey Johnson issued some stern warnings about Facebook and “Tweeter” and “a whole bunch of web sites”, Nats player twitter accounts lit up with the same message:

Follow @NationalsPR for a behind-the-scenes look at the Nationals and Spring Training 2012!

Who carried these robo-tweets? Well, Stephen Strasburg, Craig Stammen, Tyler Clippard, and Edwin Jackson reproduced it verbatim. Closer Drew Storen varied the wording a bit. This blogger is aware of only two Nats players in major league camp in Viera who seemed to evade this apparent pronouncement from Nationals PR: Danny Espinosa, and Jesús Flores. I wonder if these two escaped because of Nats PR’s oversight, though. Espinosa hasn’t tweeted since September. Flores’s background image still shows him in his Navegantes del Magallanes uniform–maybe the PR hacks don’t read enough Spanish to know that Flores is active on Tweeter.

Has there been a team-wide social-media blackout? Likely not. Flores, Storen, and Jackson continue to be their gregarious selves on Twitter. But the sudden intrusion of the team’s PR apparatus on player Twitter accounts seems to point to a Nationals organization that is much more interested in the careful management of its public image.

Perhaps this is what the League and the Union meant when they agreed that “all players would be subject to a social media policy.” The summary of the 2011 Collective Bargaining agreement is very terse on the subject, acknowledging only that such a term exists, but not fleshing out any of the regulations to which players would be subjected.

For as much as Harper’s tweets and his front-running ways may have annoyed me, personally, it’s tough for me to see this as anything other than a warning to other players: tone it down before the social-media rules let us force you to tone it down. Players–and fans and writers–will take notice.