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Know Your 40: Clay Rapada

Although he's fighting early-season shoulder bursitis, one of the LOOGiest LOOGYs of them all is returns for his second season in New York. Warning: Not to be used against righthanded hitters unless you just do not care at all.

It just seems unnatural to throw the ball like that...
It just seems unnatural to throw the ball like that...
Jonathan Daniel

Name: Clay Rapada
Position: Reliever (LHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 32 (born 3/9/1981)
Height: 6’5" Weight: 200 lbs.
Remaining Contract: Pre-arbitration, under team control through end of 2016
2012 statistics: (MLB) 70 games, 38.1 IP, 2.82 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 6.8 H/9, 4.0 BB/9, 8.9 K/9, 67 ERA-, 75 FIP-

According to Daniel Barbarisi, It appears that Rapada will start the season on the Disabled List as he recovers from bursitis in his left shoulder. He's only appeared in two games this Spring and none in awhile, although he is scheduled to throw off flat ground this weekend. Rapada has been mostly healthy throughout his career, but he also missed 16 games due to tendinitis and left shoulder inflammation in 2010. The injury is probably inevitable for someone who pitches as strangely as him. Hopefully, the bursitis does not linger for long.

More on the Yanks' 40-Man Roster: The "Know Your 40" series

In the meantime, the smart money is on manager Joe Girardi taking fellow sidearmer Cody Eppley on the Opening Day roster to start the season since Eppley pitched well for him from the right side as recently as last year, even with his Spring Training struggles this year. If Girardi really wants another lefty to complement Boone Logan, he could take Josh Spence, but it seems more likely that he will eschew the second lefty for now since it would involve a 40-man roster move to add Spence, and Rapada should not be gone for long. The Yankees are looking forward to his return, but why do the Yankees like Rapada?

It's been a long and crazy journey for the sidearming lefty from Virginia State University. Like most pitchers, he threw overhand in college, but he went undrafted and after a rough season in 2003 with the Chicago Cubs' Low-A affiliate Lansing Lugnuts, a coach suggested he give it a try. Prior to this switch, Rapada had occasionally dropped down to fool hitters with a funky delivery for a few years, but the Cubs told him that adopting an unorthodox delivery from the left side would be the fastest way to the big leagues for him. Unfortunately for Rapada, it was not until last year that he avoided the minor leaguers entirely for a full season.

Rapada only pitched one major league game for the Cubs before he as traded to the Detroit Tigers in August '07 as a player to be named later for outfielder Craig Monroe. After some September games that year, he rode the Triple-A express between Detroit and Toledo in '08 with decent success at the big-league level (96 ERA- in 25 games), but he barely spent any time in the majors over the next seasons with the Tigers and Texas Rangers. He did crack the Rangers' playoff roster despite only making it into 13 games for them in 2010, but against the Yankees in the ALCS, two of three batters to face him reached base. Had a 1.82 ERA in 59.1 inning with Triple-A Oklahoma City, but the Rangers cut him loose the following January.

From there, Rapada joined Buck Showalter's Baltimore Orioles, and like in '08, he spent the season going back and forth between the Charm City and its Triple-A affiliate, Norfolk. Finally given a second chance at extended time facing major leaguers, Rapada dominated lefthanded hitters. His sidearm delivery made many look like an utter disaster--in 53 plate appearances, they only hit .104/.170/.167 off Rapada with 18 strikeouts and just five hits. So how did his ERA end up at an ugly 6.06? Righties, of course, who blasted him for a horrifying .692/.750/1.462 triple slash in 16 plate appearances. That was all they needed to ruin his ERA, and the Orioles also cut him loose the following off-season. The Yankees stepped in and swooped him up four days after his Valentine's Day release, and he somehow went from not being good enough for a last-place team to a valued member of the defending division champion's bullpen. Baseball.

Rapada just barely made the Opening Day roster last year, as it took a season-ending stress fracture injury to remove the apparently-superior Cesar Cabral from the equation. He served in a "second lefty" role that manager Joe Girardi enjoys, often only coming in to retire one or two lefties before being quickly escorted from the game upon the announcement of a righthanded hitter. He was second on the team in total appearances at 70, but he only pitched a complete inning in 14 of them. Sure enough, the splits held true--lefties only hit .186/.263/.255 against him with 33 strikeouts and three extra-base hits in 115 plate appearances, and righties smacked him around to a .303/.425/.424 mark in 40 plate appearance. The splits were not quite as crazy as the previous year, but it was still clear that it was folly to use him as a regular reliever.

The southpaw employed a unique approach last year beyond merely his delivery. He barely threw any fastballs, deciding to instead go with a sinker/slider combination. It seemed to work, and at one point last June, Rapada retired 20 batters in a row. The sinker/slider mix seemed to give him a little bit more of a chance against righties too since his fastball to righties was pure batting practice. At least the slider and sinker added some break to the pitches, even if they saw them well of his hand. The slider was especially good last year, as batters could only hit .118/.189/.206 against it. 29 of his 38 strikeouts came via the slider--hitters swung on at least one out of every three sliders thrown out of the zone. Like most of his bullpen mates, Rapada was lights-out in the playoffs. He appeared in five games and only issued two baserunners, both on walks. Rapada did not make a lot of money last year, but his contributions against lefties proved helpful to the Yankees' success.

Rapada's usefulness ultimately boils down to whether or not you think there should be a place for a LOOGY on a baseball team. While good in theory, sometimes they can be just as susceptible to disaster as righthanders--just ask former Yankees LOOGY Mike Myers how far that monster homer hit by lefty David Ortiz against him at Fenway would have gone without the wind blowing in. The ones tagged as a LOOGY are normally useless against opposite-handed hitters, and that can be a hindrance on a ballclub looking for substantial bullpen innings.

Fortunately, the Yankees are a team with a deep bullpen anyway. They've had one of the AL's top five bullpens for the last three years thanks to a core led by Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Logan (Mo's stunted 2012 was basically replaced in full by Rafael Soriano's terrific season). All three of them are capable of going full innings, as are Joba Chamberlain and David Aardsma, assuming they can stay healthy. That's no guarantee, but very few relievers in baseball are near-guarantees. There are plenty of guys who can go a full inning and pitch on multiple days, so the Yankees can afford to employ a guy like Rapada. Hell, they even made it work last year with two guys who were only useful for one or two outs in Rapada and Eppley. Sometimes, a little deception is exactly what is needed out of the 'pen.

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