Sunday, July 11, 2010

Clipped wings

Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Clippard's ERA has more than doubled in less than three weeks.
There is perhaps nothing more aggravating in baseball than a relief pitcher who can't get batters out, especially when said reliever is entrusted to protect a late lead and then implodes.

By all accounts, Tyler Clippard is just as upset with himself as all of you are with him. Since he departed the Nationals' clubhouse before reporters entered following tonight's 10-5 loss to the Giants, we can't say that with 100 percent certainty. But those who know Clippard best know how much this recent rough stretch is weighing on him.

"It's killing him," teammate Matt Capps said. "It's killing all of us to see what he's going through. It's just one of those things everybody goes through during the course of the year. Billy Wagner's been through it. Mariano Rivera's been through it. It's where you find out what you're made of."

"It" is a stretch of seven games over the last 16 days that has turned Clippard's once-dominant season into cause for real concern.

The numbers aren't pretty: 13 runs (11 earned) and 15 hits allowed in six innings. Opponents are hitting .500 against him. Of the 39 batters he's faced, 22 have reached base. And the worst stat of all: an 0-3 record.

"Tyler's just struggling," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I don't really know what else to say. He's struggling."

There's no debating that. It was on display for 23,977 to see tonight, when Clippard entered in the seventh inning to protect a 5-4 lead and after striking out the first man he faced proceeded to allow the next four to reach safely via a home run, two walks and a single.

There's little sense analyzing what went wrong -- in a nutshell, Clippard's pitches are all up in the zone too much. The larger issue is what to do now.

Clippard has already lost his stranglehold on the eighth-inning role, ceding that to Drew Storen. Riggleman suggested he might get bumped even farther, perhaps making his next appearance in the sixth inning.

The timing of this slump -- right before the All-Star break -- could be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing. Clippard probably won't pitch in tomorrow's first-half finale, so he'll get at least five days off before having another chance to appear in a game. Of course, that's five days to sit around and stew over things, which could make matters worse.

"It would be great if it wasn't the break and we could get him right back in there," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "A lot of times, the best thing you can do for a guy that's struggling is throw him back the next day."

It's easy to attribute Clippard's struggles to his massive work load over the last three months. At one point, he was on pace to pitch in more than 100 games, and though he's backed off some in the last month, he still leads the Nats' bullpen with 44 appearances and 51 2/3 innings.

The club's coaching staff, though, doesn't believe that's the problem. His velocity isn't suffering at all. If anything, it's up a couple of notches into the mid-90s, which makes an arm injury unlikely.

"If the workload was too much, I don't think his velocity would be 94-95 like I've seen," McCatty said.

The Nationals would prefer Clippard ease off the gas pedal a bit.

"Even though you throw harder, it doesn't make things better," McCatty said. "There's an area where you pitch better at. Because you're not overthrowing, you're locating your pitches better, it seems like the ball will jump out of your hand. But when you tend to power up when you're struggling, you open up, you leave the ball up and make some hittable pitches."

This represents the first real test of Clippard's brief career as a big-league reliever. He's been incredibly successful since taking on this role last summer, almost too successful to believe.

How he responds to this adversity might very well determine how he'll be used in the future. Is he a potential closer-in-waiting if Capps gets traded? Or is he destined to toil in obscurity as a middle man?

Based on what they've seen, the Nationals remain convinced Clippard is a big part of this team's immediate and long-term success.

"He's just got to buckle down, get back to what made him so successful early," Capps said. "It'll work out for him. He's got too good of stuff for it not to."


Arlington Big Fish said...

Meanwhile, Joel Peralta is quietly showing that he could be a superb substitute as the 7th-inning guy, while Mr. Clippard heads up to Syracuse to get his head together.

Souldrummer said...

Joel Peralta is also a million years old and before this year was never more than a ROOGY. We're not a playoff team or a contender yet. We should give guys like Clippard, young team controlled players, the opportunity to succeed first. Sending guys like Clippard down to Syracuse is a bit drastic. Feels good at the time to say "You're Fired!" like Donald Trump, but it's not always in the best interests of the player.

Now Craig Stammen can take his act back to Syracuse, though. He just can't miss enough bats.

dale said...

The issue simply becomes managing Clippard. Riggleman needs to adjust his "Clip, Store and Save" routine to "Burn, Store and Save" in close games. Clippard needs to earn his spot back into the higher stress spot. Unlike other parts of the team there are decent options in the bullpen to readjust the order. After all, winning is the reason to play the game, or it used to be.

natsfan1a said...

The curse of t-shirt Tuesday, anyone? Nah.

natsfan1a said...

But seriously, folks. While I'm not comfortable seeing him come in with the game on the line lately, I do really feel for the guy. I don't pretend to know whether it's overwork, or the league getting to know him better, or pitch selection, or whatever, but I hope that he can get it together for his sake as well as for the team.

I also can't help but think of some of the comments and blogs earlier in the year, where he was lauded as a stud, a beast, and a fashion icon. Now some are ready to throw him under the bus, and come up with snide slogans in contrast with the more optimistic "Clip and Save." Same with (The Player Formerly Known as Super) Willie Harris and Nyjer Morgan, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it manifested with SS should he experience a slump at some point.

I don't know. These guys are human, just like us. Sometimes they get it done. Sometimes they don't. I realize that in sports it's a culture of "What have you done for me lately," but maybe there's a happy medium in there somewhere?

At any rate, we'll be out there today to cheer on Livo and the rest of the team, hoping to put another curly W in the books.

Anonymous8 said...

Clippard is the real deal, he just needs to get some rest and dominate in Syracuse for a short time.

lesatcsc said...

I don't know about the Syracuse part. I don't think there is any real value in sending him to Syracuse at this stage. The Nats need to find ways to let him sort himself out without simultaneously blowing games. All that's needed at first is a change in role. Run him out there when they're way behind or way ahead until he gets his mojo back. But that isn't rocket science. What's up with our manager that he cannot adjust to things happening on the team. Clip stops pitching well for a while, change your plan on how to use him until he rights himself. Don't keep running him out there to get creamed in key situations. It's one thing to have your hands tied by a shortage of skilled players, it's another to be so set in your ideas that you cannot come up with a new plan. The only thing harder than getting a new idea into Riggleman's head, seems to be getting an old one out.

bdrube said...

@natsfan1 - "The curse of t-shirt Tuesday, anyone? Nah."

Interestingly, Clippard had his first rough stretch this season back during the homestand in which he was featured on the cover of the Nats' Inside Pitch magazine.

JaneB said...

They shouldn't send him down. They should let him stay up here and work with this coaching staff, show they believe in him, and WE (the fans) can start sending good vibes. Look at the Joy of Sox movie website, and how those fans are sending directed intention to help particular players. We can help Tyler.

BinM said...

Clippard could just be regressing to the mean. He's never been as dominant as he was early in the season, so was bound to slip a little; I think all of us (and his teammates as well) are suprised by how rapid the decline has been.

SYR might be the answer, but I'd rather see him in some low-leverage situations with the Nationals first.

sjm105 said...

Agree with most of you that Syracuse is not the answer, he can work this out at the big league level. We have enough options for the 7th and I think he will figure it out sooner than later. I realize Peralta is not a spring chicken but he sure has shown he deserves to stay up. Who do you guys think will be sent down when Walker returns? Hard loss yesterday but what a great night for a game, nice breeze and I took one of my niece's and her husband to their first Nationals game. Trying to wean my family from the O's but I have to remember that growning up that is all they had around here.

Anonymous said...

Clippard has really struggled but I don't think we should send him down. I think he could work through his problems in situations with less pressure. For now, Riggleman should count on Storen & Capps as the late inning relievers. He may be overworked or he may just be doing something differently. Its not just a matter of hitters figuring him out. There he would have some decline but not as dramatic as we've seen. Hopefully its not an injury, but you never know. I'm hoping the break can help him get back in the groove but I think Riggleman needs to adjust the way he uses him until his he returns to form. Its what good managers do - make adjustments as the need arises.

BinM said...

There is some anecdotal evidence that some pitchers see a spike in fastball velocity just prior to an elbow injury (see Matt Chico). While I hope this is not the case with Clippard, it would warrent some caution, imo.

Anonymous said...

Clippard's arm is dead, rest him if at all possible for the next seven days and see if he comes back strong, if not send him for an MRI.

PS - Matt Capps, when has Mariano Rivera, ever had a stretch like Clippard's???????

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the new GEICO commercial with the drill Sergeant as the therapist. Get off the pity party and get to work and solve the problem.

Complaining about it doesn't fix it [proper work does.

Will said...

anybody who watched Riggleman burn Clippard out in April and May could see this coming.

spans like April 20-28: eight innings in eight days, including a combined 67 pitches during consecutive two-inning appearances.

Clippard has 51+ innings before the All-Star break, and the sad part is that several of those high-stress outings were unnecessary (the four run lead in New York).

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