Things might go better this time around
Clippard has been around a long time. Having just turned 36 years old this past Valentines day, the 2021 season will be his 15th in the majors. Originally drafted in 2003 by the New York Yankees, he made his major league debut in 2007 as a starting pitcher. He was converted to a full time reliever in 2009 and since that time his 763 relief appearances and 795 relief innings are by far the most in MLB and it’s not even that close. The next guy on the list, Fernando Rodney, is over 100 IP behind.
He’s had a lot of success too, as evidenced by his career 3.13 ERA and 132 ERA+ despite a 3.84 FIP. (More on the FIP later). His career batting against is a sterling .197/.279/.353 , .632 OPS. His ratios are 10K/9, 3.5BB/9, and 1.2 HR/9
He’s perhaps aging like fine wine, his last two seasons have produced a 2.86 ERA, 3.53 FIP and 163 ERA+. He pitched 7 seasons with the Nationals, but since 2015 he has pitched for no less than 10 different teams !
2021 of course will not be Clippard’s first stint with the Diamondbacks. Most of you will remember he was signed by the team prior to the 2016 season for 2 years, $12.25M. The signing was covered by Jim and Michael at the time, HERE , HERE and HERE. It didn’t go well however. In 40 games, 37 IP with the team he posted a lackluster 4.30 ERA, 105 ERA+ while giving up 7 home runs. He was traded to the Yankees at the trade deadline that year and has been in the American League ever since.
There are reasons, or one reason in particular to believe that Clippard has a decent chance to be more successful this time around. To understand Clip is to understand his most defining characteristic: He is the most extreme fly ball pitcher in baseball. His career 55.6% fly ball rate is the highest in MLB since 2007 (Min 100 IP) and he’s maintained that profile since 2018 , even increasing it some to 56.7%
Being so extreme to this degree can be a double edged sword. The obvious downside is fly ball pitchers tend to give up more home runs. And Clippard gives up his share of homers. (1.2 HR/9 for his career, and 1.3 HR/9 over the last three seasons.) But the good news is when the ball doesn’t go over the wall, it’s almost always an out. So he almost always has a low batting average against. This is typical for fly ball pitchers. It’s also why fly ball pitchers tend to have a higher FIP than ERA over larger samples. I’m trying not to get too eye charty here, but we really need some context, so please stay with me here. The following chart is for MLB relief pitchers only, since 2009
So lets walk through together what we have here:
1.) The overall distribution of LD, GB, and FB is not all that different over the last 12 years. Line drives are higher, Groundball are lower, and Flyballs, while higher than they were 5-6 years ago are actually lower than than they were a dozen years ago. The launch angle “revolution” has not actually resulted in that many more fly balls, albeit some but it has resulted in more line drives
2.) However we can see a clear demarkation point and increase in HARD HIT balls, and with the ratio of HR per Fly Ball has gone up with it. While batter approach may play some small factor, this is because of the changes to the baseball that occurred mid season 2015.
3.) Total BABIP has bounced around with a fairly tight range. BABIP has actually gone UP on ground balls. Clearly the harder contact has offset the shifts that have become prevalent. It’s not that shifting doesn’t work, but that without the shifts, GB BABIP would be even higher,
4.) Fly Ball Babip has always been very low, and is historically low in the last few years. This is key. Especially when you compare Clippard to the average reliever. Almost 60% of the balls hit against him are in the air, and over 90% of the non homers are outs.
5) Clippard induces softer contact on fly balls, but not on LD and Groundballs. This deserves a separate Statcast dive into his repertoire, location, and movement. But the bottom line is extreme fly ball pitchers allow fewer hits, and tend to have lower FIP than ERA, provided their HR per Fly Balls don’t get too crazy, and Clips HR/FB rate is better than average.
But this is who he’s always been, so why do I think he might be better in Arizona this time around ?
HUMIDOR AND MODIFIED BASEBALLS
Back in 2016 the humidor had still not been installed at Chase Field, and in most seasons Chase tended to play as a homer friendly ballpark. That was definitely the case in 2016. But since they’ve been playing a Humidor Ball at Chase, the park has played much more pitcher friendly when it comes to the long ball.
Below is the Chase Field HR Park Factor dating back to 2009. Over 100 favors the hitter, under 100 favors the pitcher. Good for pitchers highlighted in Green, bad for pitchers highlighted in red.
While there might have been some debate early on whether or not the humidor was having an impact at Chase Field, relative to the rest of the league, clearly Chase field has become far less homer friendly over the last three seasons. The sample size is large enough now to say that with confidence. There are humidors in 5 stadiums currently and it’s rumored that 5 more teams will add them in 2021. LINK
In any case, with a ballpark far more conducive to fly ball pitching compared to 2016, that can only weigh in Clip’s favor.
But there is one more aspect, and that is the reported changes to the baseball for the 2021 season. According to Physicist Alan Nathan, SABR member and one of the leading experts on the physics of the baseball, there is a potential small reduction in the distance fly balls might carry in 2021. You can read his comments at his Twitter Feed and in this Sportico Article.
I give this signing a thumbs up. Despite his struggles here in 2016, I think he’ll be better. The combination of the Humidor and MLB’s changes to the ball could result in a reduction of home runs he gives up in home games in 2021. It’s also notable that in career road games played against the Dodgers, Padres, and Giants he’s only allowed 1 HR in 33 IP, with those teams batting .128/.240/.183 against him. (And surprisingly he has never been homered against in Colorado in 11 IP ! ) So with roughly 2⁄3 of his games slated to be in parks that typically have pitcher favorable HR park factors, that bodes very well for Clips success in 2021.
The two caveats are of course reliever volatility in small sample sizes, and his age and workload over the years. That might catch up with him at some point. He has seen a very slight dip in velocity the last couple of years, but the spin rate and horizontal and vertical movement appear to be mostly intact. Still you never know when a reliever this age with this much mileage will hit the wall. Hopefully it’s not any time soon.