On Wednesday, the Washington Nationals dipped into the leftovers pile of free agency and came away with lefty reliever Tony Sipp, formerly of the Houston Astros, who signed a one-year, $1.25 million deal, with a $2.5 million mutual option for 2020.
Sipp spent five seasons with Houston, originally joining the Astros as a free agent in 2014 after being released from a minor-league contract with the Padres. The book on Sipp at the time was that his control wasn’t quite passable enough to use him in high-leverage innings, and it looked a lot like he was destined to spend his career shuttling between Triple-A and the majors depending on team needs at the time.
In 2014-2015, Sipp significantly improved that long-term outlook with increased confidence in his splitter, making a concerted effort to throw the pitch for strikes enough to make it not-so-predictable. Actually getting batters to chase it resulted in the splitter being promoted to a regular part of his repertoire, which had previously consisted primarily of a mediocre fastball and a good slider.
During those first two years, the splitter became his go-to tool against righties, throwing it 315 times against them compared to just 21 time to left-handed batters. The slider remained his bread-and-butter pitch against lefties as expected and over 2014-2015, Sipp allowed a 2.66 ERA and 2.93 FIP, and struck out 125 batters in 105 innings.
In those two years, batters only hit .151 against those two pitches from Sipp, slugging just .239 and only squaring up four homers. In 2016-2017, that number jumped to 11. This had a bit of a chain reaction in Sipp’s profile. His fastball still wasn’t good enough to be a weapon on its own. As the splitter became less effective, Sipp largely curtailed its usage against righties. Sipp went from throwing only 18 sliders against righties in 2015, to it being used nearly twice as often as his splitter in 2017 (107 vs. 61).
2018 was largely a back-to-basics year for him, and while the home runs are partially luck, Sipp got back to his successful pattern of splitters for the righties, sliders for the lefties, and not giving batters too many looks against his fastball, which is still mainly a change-of-pace pitch.
While there still isn’t an agreement between MLB and the players on the three-batter rule, it’s implementation will likely result in the LOOGYdämmerung, with Rob Manfred playing Loge (Loki). Going back to the start of his career, Sipp ranks fourth in baseball among current left-handed pitchers in one or two-batter appearances.
But the good news for Sipp is that he may survive, since unlike most of that list, he’s never been a true LOOGY. For those unfamiliar with the old term, this was Baseball Prospectus‘ invention for Left-handed One-Out Guy
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Whatever the overall level of effectiveness, Sipp’s regularly had an unusually small platoon split for a left-handed pitcher. That makes him a bit less useful in his poor seasons, since making him an even more situational left-handed reliever doesn’t accomplish anything, but a bit more useful when he’s actually pitching well.
Washington’s left-handed pitchers were quite effective in 2018, with their .296 wOBA (12th in baseball) ranking far better than the team’s northpaws (.322, 23rd). The problem is, a lot of that was Sean Doolittle, generally unavailable for situational roles as the team’s closer, leaving Matt Grace to have shouldered most of the lefty burden with Sammy Solis struggling.
Sipp gives the team a second, hopefully trustworthy lefty after Grace and one who isn’t limited to only getting lefties out. The team’s bullpen isn’t anywhere near as bad as advertised; the Nats ranked 11th on the FanGraphs depth charts even before the Sipp signing. Getting better is always good, of course, but it’s a deeper group than, say, the Red Sox have.
ZiPS is taking the middle ground for Sipp, because while he was extremely effective in 2018, the one homer he gave up will be hard to match in 2019, and it wasn’t so long ago that he was struggling. But then, if he came without risk, he wouldn’t have been available for $1.25 million.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.