(Neil Miller/Sportsday Wire)
Tyler Clippard is plenty familiar with pitching well in Flushing. He made his major league debut for the Yankees at Shea Stadium in May 2007, allowing just three hits and one run in six strong innings, collecting his first major league victory and even a double to deep right-center field. But his other five starts were shorter, and by August he had fallen to Class AA. That December, the Yankees traded the then-starter to the Washington Nationals for relief pitcher Jonathan Albaladejo, who spent parts of three forgettable seasons in pinstripes.
The Nats kept Clippard in that role for his first season in the organization, allowing him to make 27 starts in AAA Columbus and two with the parent club. But he finished the 2008 campaign tied for the most losses (13) in the International League, and was told soon after by Nationals’ pitching coach Steve McCatty that his future was pitching in relief, believing his delivery could be an asset because of its deception and because his pitch count tended to get too high in starts.
“Moving into the bullpen at the beginning of that season was kind of a shock to me because I still felt like I could start,” Clippard admitted to me in the Mets locker room. “But at the same time going to the bullpen really helped my style of pitching because I felt like instead of trying to get 27 outs and go deep into games, I could really pitch the way I wanted to from out number one out of the bullpen, and if I had a 25 pitch inning it wasn’t that big of a deal. I was just trying to get outs and I think that mindset really helped me thrive in the bullpen. And it ended up working out pretty good.”
He dominated AAA in his first season working out of the bullpen with a 0.92 ERA in 39 innings before getting the call back up to the big club for good in late June to replace journeyman Kip Wells. And the rest is history.
From 2009 through 2014, Clippard had a 2.64 ERA (3.40 FIP), a 1.03 WHIP, 34 saves, 150 Holds, and 522 strikeouts in 453.2 IP. He made two All-Star appearances and led all Washington relievers with 6.2 fWAR in that span, nearly doubling (second place) Drew Storen’s 3.5. This January, the Kentucky native was traded to the Oakland Athletics for Yunel Escobar, with the veteran reliever agreeing on an $8.3 million salary for the 2015 season.
With Athletics’ closer Sean Doolittle beginning the season on the disabled list, Clippard served as the team’s closer. He saved 17 games for the A’s, but the work wasn’t consistent and the team wasn’t any good – two factors that he attributes to his current success with the Mets.
“I think earlier in the year in Oakland I never really got into a rhythm where I was pitching on a consistent basis. I’m a guy who likes to kind of get out there once every two days, once every three days, but there were a lot of times where I’d pitch and get four days off. Pitch, three days off and there was never really that consistent work that I’m used to in the past,” said Clippard, who has allowed just one earned run in 18 2/3 innings since joining the Mets days before the trade deadline last month. “And another thing is we’re in a pennant race and your mental focus is a little bit sharper out there, whether you like to admit it or not, it makes a difference. So I think a little bit of everything kind of plays into it, but I’ve just kind of been hitting my spots a lot more and got my mechanics where I want them and it’s been nice.”
After the Mets acquired Clippard, he quickly told writers that the Nationals were beatable. Since then, the Mets have surged past his former team to claim first place in the National League East and Clippard has been a big reason why. In 19 appearances with the Mets, Clippard is 2-0 with a 0.48 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and five holds. His steady presence among the club’s relief corps has been particularly crucial given the recent struggles of and untrustworthiness of basically everyone not named Jeurys Familia.
“When I got here I was able to right away kind of get thrown into the fire a little bit and get put into some situations and start pitching pretty consistently,” said Clippard, who is known for his quirky delivery and trademark protective eyewear. “And that’s what I need and that’s what I’m used to”
In addition to giving the Mets an effective setup man for closer Familia, Clippard is among their few relievers with postseason experience and he has also excelled at neutralizing left-handed hitters. His fastball may not be anything special — 91 or 92 miles an hour — but his changeup has helped him limit left-handers to a .106 average (12 for 113) this season.
The 30-year old reliever is due to become a free agent this off-season, which limits the financial burden for the Mets, but also increases the likelihood that he will be pitching for a different team come next season. But it’s hard for Clippard to look that far ahead as the Mets are making a run at the playoffs after six straight losing seasons.
“You know that the off-season is coming and what that entails, but the beauty of baseball and the beauty what we have going on here is you come to the ballpark everyday trying to win a baseball game in a pennant race,” said Clippard, who continues to be one of baseball’s most durable and reliable setup men. “So as long as you are focused on that all the other stuff will take care of itself, and that’s the nice thing about being on a winning team and being in this situation for me is I don’t have to worry about any other things except for when I’m out there trying to get outs so we could possibly go deep in the playoffs.”
While free agency looms in the winter, Clippard is long removed from the days when he and Phil Hughes formed one of the best pitching duos in the minor leagues for the Yankees. But he is a Met for now, and he seems to be enjoying his time in the Big Apple a bit more this time around.
“When I was with the Yankees I was so young and I was only there for a month and a half, two months and it was such a whirlwind experience for me because I made my debut with the Yankees, the big league experience was very new to me, New York was very hectic and overwhelming in a lot of ways,” said Clippard. “So this time around has been a lot better for me because I’m a little more experienced in the big leagues, I know what to expect, I know what to expect out of the city of New York. So I think all that stuff helps me enjoy being with the Mets more so, not that I didn’t enjoy it with the Yankees, it was just overwhelming a little bit. So for me it’s been a lot of fun here.”