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Tyler Clippard is good, not lucky

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Tyler Clippard has always outperformed his peripherals...is that just luck, or a unique talent?

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Yankees fans are all too familiar with the peril of putting serious stock in peripheral stats after experiencing annual disappointments by way of Michael Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi. In fact, Pineda and Eovaldi have the second and fourth largest differences in ERA and FIP, respectively, over the past three seasons, indicating they were some of the ‘unluckiest’ pitchers in the league. Alas, the luck never changed for that duo, and both have consistently struggled despite defensive independent pitching statistics (DIPS) suggesting imminent improvements.

These ‘underperformances’ feel commonplace for New York, but it’s time for fans to begin familiarizing themselves with one pitcher who has found a way to blow past the expectations of DIPS over his entire career: Tyler Clippard.

Clippard, drafted by the Yankees in 2003 but traded in 2007, was traded back to New York late last season and logged 25.1 excellent innings of 2.49 ERA ball. There was, seemingly, a catch to that performance, though, as the excellent run prevention came with the black mark of a 4.05 FIP and 5.01 xFIP. That canyon-sized split between ERA and FIP indicates nearly-inevitable regression, but it’s nothing new for Clippard.

Since his first full season in 2009, ‘The Yankee Clippard’ has the eighth largest FIP-ERA split among relievers. Despite that, Clippard’s accrued the 16th best reliever WAR over that span. While he’s never truly been a dominant late-inning pitcher over multiple seasons, the 32-year-old has been a model of consistency over his career: Clippard has carried an ERA over 3.60 just once, and has posted a sub-3.00 ERA in five of his eight seasons.

Clippard has a long enough track record to prove to us that aberration is, well, the norm for him, and with that in mind, we can safely say that there’s little reason to worry about Clippard’s xFIP being twice as large as his ERA. Even with that established, Clippard still represents a unique case as a pitcher who has managed to break one of baseball’s most popular advanced stats.

To understand how Clippard defies FIP and other DIPS, though, we should probably break down what makes up a statistic like FIP. The equation of FIP is as follows:

Essentially, home runs, walks, and strikeouts make up FIP, taking something like hits or BABIP out of the equation to (ideally) adjust for luck.

Breaking down this equation to find the variable(s) responsible for driving up Clippard’s FIP aren’t as easy as it may seem. There isn’t one clear issue here, as Clippard’s strikeout rate has always been excellent and his walk rate average, making for an above-average K/BB ratio. That leaves home runs as the clearest culprit in the FIP formula, and while he does give up more home runs than league average, it’s not an obnoxious amount. Instead, to find out why Clippard continually outperforms DIPS, we need to dive deeper than the formula.

The key to DIPS are, as the name suggests, their attempt to remove defense from the pitching equation. This, as a result, assumes that each pitcher’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is about average—somewhere in the .290 range. And that assumption is what allows Clippard to break FIP and other DIPS…since his first big league season in 2008, so qualified pitcher has a lower BABIP than Clippard’s .234 mark.

By all accounts, FIP and other DIPS should be correct in guessing that a .234 BABIP over a season is unsustainable, and is bound to regress (and, in doing so, hurt a pitcher’s ERA). Clippard is the exception to this rule.

Clippard himself credits this to his ability to create ‘plane’ with his pitches, or vertical movement both up and down, and PITCHf/x confirms this skill of his with his two main pitches:

Tyler Clippard's Pitches

Pitch Vertical Movement (in.) Rank (among RP)
Pitch Vertical Movement (in.) Rank (among RP)
Fastball 11.47 4th
Changeup 9.15 1st

The excellent drop on both pitches manifested itself in an average exit velocity which ranked 36th best in the big leagues and a soft% which was 14th best. Because of this, Clippard has been able to run a batting average on balls in play that has been lower than anyone else’s. Helping this fact is Clippard’s batted ball profile as an extreme flyball pitcher—since debuting, his flyball rate is 4th best in the big leagues. This trait of Clippard’s has penalized him in peripherals (extreme flyball pitchers, such as Chris Young, typically run abnormally high peripheral stats), but might be the driving force of that low BABIP, as BABIP and flyball rate are closely intertwined.

While much of our analysis of Yankees depends on sabermetrics, this is one example where the numbers do lie—Clippard’s unique extreme flyball profile and ability to induce hard contact has allowed for him to run historically low batting averages on balls in play, and this goes against the assumptions of many DIPS. As a result, we’re looking at a pitcher who, as long as he maintains those traits mentioned above, will consistently outperform his peripherals.