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Athletics trade: Is Tyler Clippard an 8th-inning upgrade?

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That's one vote for "yes."
That's one vote for "yes."
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Oakland Athletics acquired reliever Tyler Clippard from the Washington Nationals on Wednesday. The current plan, until further notice, is that they will pay him over $9 million to pitch for them in 2015. We got an insider's introduction to him from Noah Henry of WTOP, but the short version is that he's a right-handed set-up man with a 93 mph fastball and a devastating changeup who strikes out 10 batters per nine innings and boasts a career ERA+ of 139. Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs also has some interesting notes on him. The question at hand is whether Clippard will upgrade Oakland's ability to protect leads, and in particular whether he will justify his mammoth sticker price.

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To begin, I've never been a fan of paying high salaries for relievers. Their performances are particularly unpredictable and the marginal benefit of a great one over a good one isn't necessarily worth the premium price. Besides, Billy Beane has always been adept at finding nobodies and turning them into quality MLB arms. However, I was willing to make an exception last year for Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson -- after all, they were short-term commitments and the money needed to be spent somewhere.

One bitten, twice cautious. After watching Johnson light up like a Roman candle and Gregerson lead the Majors in blown saves, on top of the disaster that was Brian Fuentes a few years ago, I'm right back to preferring cheap, young arms. Heck, I recently advocated trading Ryan Cook from a competitive team partly because he's due to start making seven figures and there are rookies available to replace him. Clippard is looking at around nine million in 2015, thanks to an arbitration process that is utterly broken for relievers.

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Of course, there's a reason Clippard costs so much. He's been incredibly good over the last six seasons, generally racking up around 1.5 bWAR per year. He's usually good for a sub-3 ERA, tons of strikeouts, and a heavy workload, though his innings have declined annually since 2010. He's probably Oakland's best reliever at the moment, unless Sean Doolittle backs up every ounce of his 2014 breakout campaign. And while this is certainly a sloppy way of looking at things, my eyes can't help but wander to the bottom line: blown save percentage.

The following rates take into account all career save situations, even if the pitcher just earned a "hold" for preserving the lead in the seventh or blew a game in the eighth. So, the equation is (saves + holds) divided by total save opportunities (aka, leads to be protected). There are big flaws in the way these stats are assigned, but hopefully taking a long-term look will cancel out some of that noise.

Doolittle - 88.1%
Johnson - 86.6%
Clippard - 85.2%
Gregerson - 84.3%
Cook - 81.2%

It's hard for any of us in Oakland to properly judge the quality of Johnson or Gregerson's careers since we only saw the worst of them up close, but ranking alongside them isn't a horrible thing. Gregerson was at 75.6% last year when he was handing out game-tying homers as if they were that day's free stadium giveaway, so Clippard's career is a huge step up from that. Cook was 8-for-10 last year, still below Clippard's level. Clippard himself hit 87% in 2014.

So, now comes the Rorschach portion of the analysis. What do you see in that list of save percentages? Do you see Clippard as being in the range of respected late-inning guys? Or do you see the potential for him to be the next high-priced mistake, primed to have his johnsonian off-year right as he arrives in Oakland? Or do you ignore the departed hurlers and just take solace in the fact that Clippard is comfortably better than Cook, the incumbent eighth-inning option?

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Here's a tiebreaker for you. Clippard maintains an elite strikeout rate at all times, and lots of strikeouts mean the opposition isn't making a lot of contact and has fewer chances for lucky bounces. Johnson was more of a pitch-to-contact guy, and a lot more has to go right for a batted ball to turn into an out than for the catcher to squeeze strike three. Clippard is unhittable in a way that Johnson has never been -- Johnson's lowest single-season hit rate (7.1 hits per nine innings, in 2008) is still higher than Clippard's worst full year (6.8, in 2010).

As Sullivan notes in his article, that's partly because Clippard induces mostly fly balls, plus more than his fair share of pop-ups. Flies turn into hits less often than grounders, while pop-ups are statistically nearly equivalent to strikeouts because they almost never fall. That's why Clippard has allowed just a .236 BABIP in his career, far below what you would expect to be sustainable, while Johnson's career mark is .297, right in the range of normal. The biggest risk for Clippard is that he could start giving up piles of dingers due to all the fly balls he allows, but that seems unlikely in the homer-suppressing Coliseum. The only thing that he has remotely in common with Johnson is the salary he will draw from Oakland.

As for Gregerson, I'm going to be a bit more subjective: I just don't trust top relievers who survive solely with wipeout sliders. Just a thing I have. Once batters learn to lay off the pitch, a guy like Gregerson has little else to fall back on and he becomes predictable and hittable -- just sit on his 88 mph fastball, since he rarely uses his changeup. He'll still succeed a lot of the time, but in 2014 Gregerson was the poster boy for why a reliever's ERA (2.12) doesn't tell the whole story when it comes to his ability to hold late leads. It's not that I don't like sliders at all, I just don't like it when that's the only weapon a pitcher has and he uses it as his primary offering.

Clippard, on the other hand, brings a more varied arsenal. His fastball alone is a plus pitch, and so is his changeup. He mixes in a curve and a splitter to keep things interesting, and he uses each more often than Gregerson throws his own change. Sullivan also keys in on Clippard's affinity for high fastballs, which moves Clippard further away from Gregerson and closer to a more favorable comp -- Sean Doolittle. Clippard actually lives up in the zone more than Doo does. With four different pitches to look for, which can range in speed from the mid-70s to the mid-90s and might come hard up in the zone or break down into the dirt, hitters can't just lay off the out pitch and sit on the fastball; they have to be ready for anything.

Clippard shouldn't have either of the problems that plagued Johnson and Gregerson. His ability to miss bats and to keep the ball in the air in the spacious Coliseum will take some of the random chance out of his results, helping avoid a repeat of Johnson. His good velocity and his strong arsenal make him a more complicated assignment for hitters than Gregerson was. Any reliever can turn in a stinker of a year without warning, but that seems particularly unlikely with Clippard.

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Of course, Johnson and Gregerson were already gone. Prior to this trade, Ryan Cook was lined up to be the top set-up man for 2015, pitching the eighth ahead of Doolittle in the ninth. I've expressed my concern over that arrangement already, as Cook just makes me nervous in tight spots.

Like Gregerson, Cook relies largely on his slider, although he does have a powerful fastball as his primary pitch. He walks too many hitters for my liking, and in close games the worst thing you can do is hand out free baserunners. Clippard issues walks too, at around 3.0 per nine innings over the last four years, but Cook is even a notch higher than that. Most damning is his low save percentage, which illustrates how pedestrian he's been at actually holding leads in his young career. Perhaps he will improve with experience, but he's just as likely to take a step back when his velocity begins the inevitable dip that hits all pitchers eventually. I had considered the bullpen a strength until now, without really thinking about it, but the staff really did lack a secondary stud to complement Doolittle so that Cook wouldn't have to be that guy.

With Clippard aboard, the bullpen looks like this:

Doolittle
Clippard
Cook
O'Flaherty
Otero
Abad
(Open spot)

(That last spot could go to a long-man, perhaps one of the extra starters who doesn't make the rotation. Or it could go to an out-of-options guy like Evan Scribner, or a youngster like R.J. Alvarez could force his way in with a strong spring. Billy Beane could earn my eternal love and gratitude, beyond what he's already got, by letting me watch Pat Venditte pitch ambidextrously in the Majors. Or, Cook or O'Flaherty or Abad could still be dealt to free up one more spot.)

Everybody has been pushed down the depth chart, and there isn't a single name on there that makes you groan. Three of them have been All-Stars. For all my criticism of Cook, he's still a good pitcher, just not a great set-up man; he'd be a fantastic option in the sixth or seventh, or as a backup in the eighth if Clippard needs a day off. Clippard also has has experience filling in as a capable closer, with an efficient 32-save season under his belt. And as an extra bonus, he's never been on the DL before despite averaging a whopping 79 innings each of the last five seasons.

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Alright, time to answer the questions we started with. Is Clippard an eighth-inning upgrade? I'd say there's no question that the top of the bullpen has improved over what Oakland had last year, since Clippard is more slump-proof than Johnson and Gregerson. It's also better than what the A's previously had planned for next year, since he's more reliable than Cook.

Is he worth his salary? That's a tougher one to answer because $9 million seems so astronomical for a reliever, but Andrew Miller just got that much on the open market for each of the next four years so it's not a big overpay for a one-year deal. If Clippard can turn in one of his typical seasons, with a low ERA and an 85% save rate and nearly 100 strikeouts, he'll have been worth the money.

Is he worth giving up a useful middle infield piece (Yunel Escobar) from a roster with little depth in that area? That will entirely depend on the performances of Marcus Semien and the rest of the 2B/SS gang, and whether they can hold down the fort for 162 games.