VIERA, Fla. – Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard certainly doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters, but if you look at what he has accomplished on the mound the last three seasons, you might want to change your mind.
Over that time, Clippard has compiled a record of 18-10 with an ERA of 2.52. He had 153 strikeouts and 99 walks. His fastball is consistently around 93-94 mph and he has turned himself into one of the better set-up men in the game.
It wasn’t always like that for the right-hander from Lexington, Kentucky.
Clippard started his career in the Yankees organization. After four seasons in the minor leagues he finally got to the big club in 2007, but only for a brief time. He made six starts for the Bronx Bombers, going 3-1 while giving up 19 runs in 27 innings, an ERA of 6.33. He finished out the year back in the minor leagues.
Eventually traded to the Nationals for Jonathan Albaladejo, Clippard was a starter for the Nats in 2008. He wasn’t impressive and he was sent back down to Columbus.
In 2009, he came to spring training as a starter and by opening day, Steve McCatty, who was the pitching coach at Triple-A, told Clippard he was going to be put in the bullpen. Clippard was upset by the move and called his father, Bob who told him to be thankful he had a job.
Listening to his dad, Clippard accepted the bullpen role and it put his career on the right path.
“I was really trying to find myself and what worked best for me, especially at the big league level, Clippard said. “I think I have really taken the reigns as a pitcher and stuck to my guns and figured out what works best for me in certain situations, pitching in close ballgames and so on and so forth. I think it’s a big deal when you have confidence in knowing who you are as a pitcher, that mentality and that approach and it’s worked out so far.”
McCatty’s influence on Clippard throughout his time in the organization and his rise to All-Star status last season is something the right-hander doesn’t take for granted.
“I have been very fortunate to have Cat as my pitching coach over almost five years now. He has seen me struggle, he has seen me do well and he has seen the full gamut as to what I offer as a pitcher. We have had a lot of discussions on what I do well and what I need to continue to do well. To have a guy who has had his eyes on me for such a long period of time, it’s very beneficial for me and I’m lucky to have him.”
After finishing last season one game under .500, Clippard and the Nationals begin this season with high expectations, something he has seen coming for a while.
“It’s a good organization now,” he said. “We have come a long way as an organization and I think we have all seen the process take place and a lot of the key guys that are still here are important pieces and the people that we’ve brought in, even more chemistry wise and on-the-field stuff, we are all excited about it.”
And they should be.
The Nationals will have some competition during spring training for spots in what is an already strong bullpen, a pen Clippard sees continuing to get better.
“Well, hopefully a lot better,” he said. “Last year our goal was to be the best bullpen in the league and I think statistically we came close but came up a little short, but we were pretty close so we want to get to that point.”
A major contributor to the bullpen this year will be newcomer Brad Lidge. He has a wealth of post-season experience and he had the good fortune of closing out the Phillies 2008 World Series over the Tampa Bay Rays. Clippard says having the veteran on this team will only help.
“He brings a lot. We don’t have a lot of guys in that bullpen that have the playoff experience like he has. He has been to the top of the mountain so to speak and he’s also been through some struggles with some injuries but he brings a lot to the table. With experience, I think for myself and a lot of guys down there, we’re going to benefit from his presence a great deal.”
Clippard watched this week as veteran players made their way to training camp early. Every position player was in camp by Thursday morning, a day before the mandatory reporting date.
The expectations are high, higher than they ever have been for this club at the start of a season, and Clippard says the key for this group is to not get too caught up in their press clippings.
“It’s a day in and day out mentality I think. We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves on a team with so many unknowns as to what can happen during a 162-game season. I think we are all very confident in our personnel as far as a player’s standpoint and right now we are trying to get strong and get healthy and play to the best of our ability and do great things.”