Jays From the Couch takes a look at the numbers and concludes that Tyler Clippard could be another strong pick up for the Blue Jays
Heading into the off-season, the Blue Jays’ bullpen was an interesting area of the team. Interesting, because it was very good last year (7th best in terms of fWAR), yet made up of pitchers with limited track records of success. 2017 stalwarts Joe Smith and Dominic Leone (1.0 fWAR each last season) were no longer on the team. That left two vets—Roberto Osuna, who has established himself as an elite closer (5th in fWAR among relievers since 2015), and Aaron Loup, projected to maintain a 3.63 ERA and produce 0.5 fWAR for $1.8 million— alongside two guys with one strong season under their belts (Ryan Tepera and Danny Barnes) and a number of inexperienced, but promising options (Tim Mayza, Carlos Ramirez, Matt Dermody and others).
While major-league additions were made in the field (Curtis Granderson, Randal Grichuk, Yangervis Solarte, Aledmys Diaz) and starting rotation (Jaime Garcia), the Jays were patient in the relief market. Now, exactly three weeks before Opening Day, the fruits of that patience are evident. Last week, the team signed Seung-hwan Oh, the only reliever they’ve signed to an MLB deal this winter (for less than they paid for Joe Smith or J.P. Howell). He seems likely to bounce back from a rough 2017, with league-average production a reasonable baseline expectation (and plenty of upside on top of that).
John Axford, a minor-league signing (and Canadian!), seems like a good bet to make the team. On Monday, Arden Zwelling singled him and Al Alburquerque out as the guys most likely to fill the final two bullpen spots, with Axford impressing with his mid-90s four-seamer and Alburquerque showing off a new sinker.
Wednesday, the Jays announced that they will take a flier on yet another high-upside MiLB signing, Tyler Clippard. Clippard had been an elite reliever since breaking into the bigs back in 2009, before producing below-average results last season (ERA- of 110). Digging into his 2017 season, I found a lot of evidence that he was unlucky not to post a better ERA. Given his body of work, it seems likely that he will get one of the last bullpen spots, barring a terrible end to Spring Training. [With respect to the other bullpen spot, obviously, the best pitcher will make the team. However, if Ax and Al leave a similar mark on the Jays’ staff, I’d bet that Axford gets the nod and Al gets sent to AAA. Alburquerque has spent a lot of time at AAA over the last two seasons—67.1 IP at AAA vs. 20 IP at the MLB level—so he’s much more likely than Axford to accept an assignment down to Buffalo, which would bolster the team’s depth.]
On to the numbers!
Let’s start with walks and strikeouts, and the factors that contribute to them. Compared to his peak seasons (2009-16), Clippard saw batters chase after balls less often (bad), but also make contact with strikes less often (good). The combination of these two changes resulted in a chase-to-zone contact ratio (O-Swing%/Z-Contact%) that wasn’t as high as it used to be (bad), but remained above-average (good).
As I’ve described in a few recent posts and the Jays from the Couch Guide to the 2018 Blue Jays (available in both e-book and paperback formats), a pitcher’s chase-to-zone contact ratio is a useful new tool I’ve been using when examining changes in a pitcher’s strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB). [This is based upon research done by Fangraphs with respect to a batter’s walk-to-strikeout ratio.] Intuitively, if a pitcher sees their strikeout-to-walk AND chase-to-zone contact ratios fall, there’s a good chance that bad luck wasn’t a big factor in their troubles. However, if their strikeout-to-walk falls, but their chase-to-zone contact ratio remains the same (or increases), bad luck is likely a big part of the story.
When examining the bounce back potential of Oh, I found that his strikeout-to-walk ratio fell far more from 2016 to 2017 than his chase-to-zone contact ratio did. The implication was that he “deserved” a better K/BB, perhaps closer to 4.60 than the 3.60 mark he posted last year.
This is also true of Clippard. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (-18%) fell much more than his chase-to-zone contact ratio (-3%) did relative to 2009-16, due to an increase in his walk rate. What was a 2.32 K/BB “should have been” closer to 3.65, at least based on relief pitcher data over the last three seasons (the first graph below). Using only his own statistics going back to 2009 (the second graph below), his K/BB “should have been” around 2.76. Leaving aside the exact figure, I would say with confidence that his below-average strikeout-to-walk ratio would have been above-average with neutral luck—while his 2.32 K/BB ranked 110th (out of 150 relievers with 50+ IP), his 0.39 O-Swing%/Z-Contact% ranked 54th.
Shifting gears to his performance on batted balls paints a similar picture: 2017 wasn’t his best performance, but it was still very solid (as is the case when a player comes down from a high peak), with bad luck making the results look worse.
Statcast data only goes back to 2015, so I thought it best to start with some Fangraphs batted ball data encompassing his whole career. One blind spot that has persisted throughout his career was giving up hard-hit fly balls, the most dangerous batted ball in this framework (MLB average 479 wRC+ last season). In 2017, he performed even worse against the league average in this regard.
However, he maintained his better-than-average line drive (334 wRC+) rate and improved upon his already low hard-hit ground ball (180 wRC+) rate. [Interestingly, there’s less difference in the potency of line drives than you’d expect, whether they’re considered soft (275 wRC+), medium (349 wRC+) or hard-hit (329 wRC+). Hard-hit liners are probably less productive because they carry all the way to the outfielder, while medium-hit liners drop in for base hits a little more often.] Overall, a slightly larger share of his batted balls were considered “dangerous” in 2017, relative to his prime. Neverthless, his dangerous contact rate remained better-than-average.
His recent Statcast numbers essentially say the same thing. He took a step back in 2017, but was still pretty solid, in terms of both underlying performance (xwOBA, xBA and barrel rate) and results (wOBA and BA). What Statcast adds to the conversation is evidence of his bad batted ball luck. In spite of relatively small regressions in his xwOBA and xBA on batted balls, his wOBA and BA on batted balls each regressed heavily. While he ranked well in terms of both xwOBA (68th out of 210 relievers with 100+ batted balls in 2017) and xBA (33rd), he found himself much further down the list in terms of wOBA (116th) and BA (74th).
Clippard’s top-line numbers point to a worse-than-average season. He gave up more runs than most, leading to a high ERA-, and a touch too many walks and dingers, leading to a high FIP-. However, the underlying stats paint a different picture. He got batters to chase after balls at a league-average rate, but missed bats in the strike zone at a much better-than-average rate (ranking 12th among relievers). Typically, that combination results in a better-than-average ratio of strikeouts-to-walks, evident in recent MLB data and his own career stats—since 2009, he has produced above-average chase-to-zone contact ratios in eight seasons and an above-average strikeout-to-walk ratio on seven of those occasions. Plus, he limited opponents to weaker-than-average exit velocity-launch angle combinations, resulting in a relatively low xwOBA and xBA on batted balls (and a league-average barrel per batted ball rate).
An underperforming pitcher who got batters to chase reasonably often, avoided bats in the strike zone far more often than most and generated tons of weak contact is a textbook bounce back candidate. That’s without potential tweaks that might get him even closer to his full potential. With some pretty solid bullpen pieces already in place, a guy like Clippard could give the Jays another Top 10 relief corps (like 2017). Going into the 2018 season, the Jays boast a significantly improved outfield, an infield full of average or better players, a rotation with four of the guys who were part of a Top 5 group in 2016 and an increasingly solid-looking bullpen.
Importantly, the depth they’ve built—via player development (Joe Biagini, Tim Mayza, Matt Dermody, Carlos Ramirez, Anthony Alford, Ryan Borucki, Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire) and acquisitions (Solarte, Diaz, Teoscar Hernandez, Thomas Pannone, Taylor Guerrieri)—appears strong enough to withstand injuries relatively well. I genuinely feel that 2018 has the potential to be as much of a positive surprise as 2017 was a negative surprise. Only three weeks to go!
*Featured Image Credit: Michael Tipton UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.