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Can Tyler Clippard return to prominence in the Yankees’ bullpen?

Tyler Clippard was once one of the most unhittable relievers in baseball. Could the Yankees have fleeced the Diamondbacks out of the elite pitcher we saw with the Nationals?

MLB: New York Yankees at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the Yankees’ hoarding of high-ceiling prospects was the acquisition of two-time All-Star Tyler Clippard. The former Yankees prospect had fallen from grace since being traded to the New York Mets last year, going from an elite reliever in his contract year to signing with the Diamondbacks for two years and $12.2 million. In the desert, Clippard’s value continued to plummet as he had a 4.30 ERA in 37.2 innings out of Arizona’s bullpen.

There are some pitchers who just don’t get very many groundballs. Then there are pitchers who give up a solid amount of flyballs. Then there are extreme flyball pitchers. Then there is Tyler Clippard. Last year, hitters posted a flyball rate of 60.6% against Clippard, which was almost twice the league average.

The crafty righty relies mostly on a low 90’s rising fastball and a changeup that comes in at an average of 12 mph slower than his heater. At one point or another, he has experimented with a cutter and a slower breaking ball, with the cutter yielding positive results. For whatever reason, he scrapped both pitches in favor of a splitter last year, which gave him two off-speed pitches, a highly unusual combination. Still, his changeup was always his most deadly pitch, with his high arm slot and the speed differential inducing feeble swings like this one from Mark Teixeira:

But this year, hitters have feasted upon his changeup, with a .978 OPS against the once deadly off-speed pitch. After generating whiff rates north of 20% in 2013 and 2014, his changeup is only getting swinging strikes 11.4% of the time.

Clippard’s velocity has dipped a bit, but he has maintained roughly 12 mph of separation between his fastball and changeup over the last few years. He is averaging 48 more RPM’s on his changeup this year, which shouldn’t be an issue. According to Brooks Baseball, his changeup’s release point is a bit closer to third base than his fastball, but he was doing that during his glory years in Washington as well.

One way or another, Clippard is not deceiving hitters as much as he used to with the Nationals. Location alone probably isn’t the culprit, as hitters are chasing his changeup less than they have in the past, while making more consistent contact both inside and outside the strike zone, according to Pitch F/X. The best educated guess as to why Clippard’s changeup has depreciated probably has to do with his mechanics, as hitters clearly aren’t fooled by the drastic speed difference anymore.

Despite all of his recent struggles, Clippard is still striking 30.2% of hitters out, or 11.17 per nine innings. The latter would be a career high if it holds up through the remainder of the season. If Larry Rothschild can help him regain the deception in his changeup, the Yankees would have a more than solid replacement for Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman.

No Runs DMC was fun to watch while it lasted, but the Yankees almost certainly made the right decision by breaking the three-headed monster up to replenish the already improving farm system. With pitchers like Tyler Clippard, the Yankees might be able to rebuild the bullpen just as quickly. In addition to Clippard and hard throwing minor leaguers like Johnny Barbato, Ben Heller, and JP Feyereisen, promising pitchers like Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, and Chad Green also figure to have potential out of the bullpen if they can’t cut it as starters. If even one of them can support Dellin Betances, the Yankees would immediately go back to having an above-average bullpen again. As a Yankees fan, you have to like those odds.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.