In a season that has seen inconsistency up and down the Nationals' roster, Tyler Clippard has been as steady and reliable as ever. He's appeared in more games than any other pitcher on the Nats' staff (61) and holds its lowest ERA (1.94).
Relief pitching is usually among the most volatile roles in sports. Success can be fleeting, fortunes and failures extreme. But though Clippard's role has changed slightly over the years, his reliability has been a constant since 2009.
"He’s been the most consistent pitcher I’ve had in some time," Davey Johnson said. "And his numbers are off the charts."
Clippard is just 11 1/3 innings away from his total workload last season, a year he filled in as closer to save 32 games. With a month left in the schedule, he should easily surpass last year's mark and possibly challenge his career-high for games played. Clippard made 78 appearances in 2010 which remains his highest total to date.
Johnson expects Clippard to set the career-high, simply because he needs him. Rafael Soriano and Drew Storen have both had their troubles at the end of games this season and the bullpen as a whole has been a weakness.
"A lot of the workload he had early, he wouldn’t have had," Johnson said. "I had him in games where we were close, to keep us close."
The Nats are 21st in the majors in bullpen ERA this season at 3.75. Their ERA in the ninth inning or later ranks 23rd in MLB at 3.91. But in the eighth inning, where Clippard has pitched primarily, he holds a 1.24 mark through 45 outings.
One thing Clippard has improved on specifically this season is eliminating extra base hits. This year he has a 3.5 extra basehit percentage (% of XBH per PA), about half of his career average. Batters are making contact with Clippard's pitches at the same rate they always have, they just aren't causing major damage.
Clippard is seeing more opponents swing at his pitches as well. 54 percent of his pitches have been swung at this season and 82 percent of his strikes have been on swings, both are career-highs. His 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings rate is also the lowest he's held since joining the Nationals.
No matter how he gets out of jams, Johnson has been impressed with Clippard's ability to pitch under pressure since before he even managed him.
"Even before I got here, I was watching the games, he’d come in in tough situations earlier in the game and get out of it and pitch another inning. And he did that quite frequently – get out of a big jam and pitch another inning."
Clippard has pitched in ten of the Nats' 14 wins since they were swept by the Braves Aug. 8-10. He's been pivotal in their late season surge and, if they are to continue winning, will likely set up many of the future victories with dominant eighth innings.
"I feel for what we have to do from here on out, I’m gonna have to lean on him heavy," Johnson said.