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Breaking down Tyler Clippard’s early season struggles

The veteran right-hander is having trouble with fastball location. Should the Yankees be worried?

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Yankees have a strong bullpen. At present, it leads all of baseball with a 1.39 ERA. If that metric doesn’t suit your fancy, don’t worry, there are others. The club owns some of the best FIP and K/9 numbers in the American League, with marks of 2.09 and 10.73, respectively. Isn’t it nice to have relief corps anchored by Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman?

Then there’s Tyler Clippard. The Yankees re-acquired him at the trade deadline last season, and he rewarded them down the stretch. The veteran right-hander posted a 2.49 ERA (4.05 FIP) with a 9.24 K/9 rate. Always an extreme fly-ball pitcher, Clippard managed to keep the ball in the park with a 7.9% home run to fly ball rate. His success resulted in expectations that he would slide into a set-up role in 2017.

In the early goings, however, Clippard looks off. His 2.35 ERA indicates that he’s getting job done, but that doesn’t paint a complete picture. He’s struggling with his peripherals, most notably at keeping the ball in the park. His sky high 2.35 HR/9 sits among the worst in relief pitching so far this season. According to FanGraphs, when a batter hits a fly ball against Clippard, there’s a 25% chance of it going for a home run.

This confirms the eye test. It seems like balls are jumping off of bats and into the seats. Take this home run he served up to Stephen Piscotty for example.

That’s not ideal. Even his outs have been close calls. Who could forget the long fly ball out hit by Dexter Fowler? That one took years off of Clippard’s life expectancy.

What accounts for this change in outcomes? The answer seems to come down to pitch location. This year, Clippard has surrendered two home runs on four-seam fastballs up in the zone. That’s the danger zone for a pitcher without great velocity. Batters can turn on those pitches and send them a long way.

Compare that to last season, where the only home runs he allowed with the Yankees came on belt-high changeups. His four-seamer played mostly down, if not sometimes in the middle of the zone.

He needs to keep the ball down to remain effective. Clippard hasn’t done that in the early goings of 2017. It’s not terribly difficult to imagine a scenario where a fly-ball pitcher on the wrong of 30 falls apart in the Bronx. Yet that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case with.

Clippard possesses an extraordinary pitching-IQ. Last August, he spoke to David Laurila of FanGraphs about the keys to his pitching success:

“I learned, probably back in 2006 when I was in Double-A, that if I can create some plane with my fastball — even though I was literally trying to throw the pitch as straight as I possibly could — it was a lot harder for the hitters to square it up. That’s what I’ve constantly tried to do throughout my career. I’m talking about both carry and downward plane. Up in the zone it stays up, and when I want it to go down, it has some downward plane. I want tilt, not flat and easy to hit.”

Given the relatively small sample size and his crafty knowledge of pitching, I’m willing to give Clippard the benefit of the doubt. He’s missing his spots now, but one could expect him to make adjustments. He knows keeping the ball down remains critical to his success. Clippard gave a depleted bullpen a large boost last season. While he’s off to a rough start, we can remain hopeful that a strong campaign is yet to come.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.