Tyler Clippard was the winning pitcher in last year’s All-Star game. That might come as a surprise to casual fans, because the Washington Nationals set-up-man-turned-closer isn’t exactly a household name. He is, however, one of the best relievers in the National League.
Originally a starter in the Yankees system, the 27-year-old Clippard has been quietly lethal since moving into the Nationals bullpen. Since the beginning of the 2009 season, he has allowed 168 hits in 268 innings, and his K/9 over that span has been 10.65.
Clippard talked about the secrets to his success — including his mesmerizing changeup — when the Nationals visited Fenway Park last weekend.
Clippard on closer mentality and high-leverage usage: “I feel like anybody can do it. There is definitely a mentality there, but I think that a lot of it plays into just being a big-league pitcher. If you’re pitching in important roles out of the bullpen, whether it’s the seventh, eighth or ninth, a lot of it is similar.
“I’m a believer in [having your best reliever pitch in high-leverage situations] but it’s also a tough thing to really pinpoint. The game is always changing and you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next inning. It’s a lot of in-the-moment stuff. Your six, seven and eight hitters could put together better at bats than the two, three, four guys. You never know for sure how to go about it, so maybe it’s better to put guys in roles and let them feel comfortable. That might be the best way to approach it.”
On having been a starter: “In 2009, I was still developing physically, mentally, the whole thing. The starter role kind of got taken away from me that year. It was the year I finally started throwing a little bit harder and developed a cutter. I was still learning
“I feel that I could go back to starting.“The biggest knock on me was that I wasn’t able to get deep into games. I wasn’t able to throw six, seven, eight innings on a regular basis. With the way I pitch, there are times where I’ll throw 20-25 pitches in an inning and that’s not necessarily conducive to pitching deep into ballgames. I think I could be successful, but I also don’t know if I’d be the starter that a lot of teams would want, as far as pitching a lot of innings.”
On his strikeout rate: “I feel like I’m a pitcher first, and the strikeouts will come if I’m doing things the right way — if I’m throwing the right pitches in the right situations. That’s basically what it comes down to. I don’t try to strike out everyone that I face. Strikeouts just kind of happen with the way I pitch.”
On his changeup: “I’ve thrown it a lot in my career. Ever since I was 19 years old, it’s been a pitch I’ve leaned heavily on. I’ve just became really comfortable with that particular pitch. I don’t think it’s the best changeup in the game, but it works for me. I don’t hold it any differently than anybody else. It’s a four-seam changeup — just your regular circle-change grip. I have a lot of confidence in it and can throw it in any situation.
“When I first started throwing it, I was 14 or 15 years old. I had a pitching coach tell me to take my lower half out of it, but to keep my arm speed. That’s what is going to make the hitters think it’s a fastball. If you take your lower half out of the pitch, your velocity will be less. That’s something I really focus on, still to this day. You’ll even notice that I kind of fall off to the right-hand side when I throw my changeup, because I’m not finishing through the pitch. That’s on purpose.
“By the time a hitter could recognize that, the ball is already there. I’m not tipping the pitch, because it’s something that kind of happens after the fact. I’m essentially throwing a fastball with a changeup grip and no lower half.”
On fastball command: “Fastball command has been a big part of my success. I’ve gotten really comfortable with my mechanics, and what I’m trying to do on an outing-by-outing and a year-to-year basis. That plays a big part in my fastball command because it’s the pitch you’re throwing the most. When you’re playing catch every day, you’re constantly holding the ball with a fastball grip — a four-seam grip.
“Once you feel comfortable with your mechanics, you can repeat your delivery over and over. Whether you’re on the mound, off the mound, your throwing program — whatever the case may be — the consistency and everything gets tightened up. The screws get tightened up and you start to throw more strikes. It’s basically a product of feeling comfortable. I’m not tweaking anything, I’m just staying with what I feel comfortable with and what I’m confident in. Everything else takes shape from there.”
On video and scouting reports: “I listen to scouting reports, but at the end of the day, when you’re on the mound in a tough situation — when you’re in the trenches — you’re always going to rely on what you do best. That’s what I’ve always fallen back on, no matter who I’m facing. Regardless of what the scouting report says, you have to pitch to your strengths in this game. I don’t think Mariano Rivera is too concerned with a scouting report. He’s going to pretty much pitch how he pitches. So am I.
“Some guys do [hit the changeup better] and that plays a part in it. But at the same time, if you can command your fastball to those hitters, you can still have an effective changeup.
“As far as video goes, I watch it on a pretty consistent basis, but not really to see the hitters. I basically just watch video of myself. Each outing, I’ll feel something a little bit different, or I’ll have a thought process on a particular pitch that I’ll remember. I want to see if it translates into the video — what I was feeling with my body and what was actually happening with my body. If those two things are in line, I know I’m in the right spot. It gives me a check point to make sure that my mechanics are staying where they need to be.”
On working with pitching coach Steve McCatty: “Cat is an extra pair of eyes for me. I’ve been with Cat for four years now and we work together really well. He knows how I like to pitch and what I like to do mechanically. Fortunately, the last two or three years I’ve been able to stay pretty close to what I’ve been doing. I’ve been pretty consistent, so he hasn’t had to say much to me. That’s a good thing, because when your pitching coach is talking to you a lot, you’re probably not doing something right.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.