Typically middle relievers only get noticed when they do something terrible like blow a lead, walk in a run, or otherwise screw up a perfectly good start for the starter or a potential save opportunity for the closer. Like umpires, if we know the names of middle relievers it’s usually a bad sign, just ask the Royals relief squad.
Tyler Clippard, however, has transitioned from a starter on the most recognizable American sports franchise, to a middle reliever on perhaps its most dubious and somehow has gained more recognition, and even more astounding it’s positive recognition. After another late-inning rally by the suddenly feisty Nationals, Tyler Clippard, not Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, or even Big Time Timmy Jim Lincecum leads all of Major League Baseball with seven wins. This is the same Tyler Clippard who announced his presence with authority as an up-and-comer for the Yankees in 2007 and pitched his way to the bullpen in Washington in less than two years.
Last year he had a fine season, pitching 60.1 innings in 41 games and compiling a 2.69 ERA. This year, though, he’s out of his mind. In addition to the absurd record he’s allowing opposing hitters a tiny .188/.294/.291 (AVG/SLG/OBP). His WHIP is 1.12 and he’s struck out 30 to only 12 walks. Of course, his incredible win total is due in part to his losing a few leads (he has 0 saves in 5 opportunities) and being in the right place at the right time to get credit for victories when the team has come back late. It also doesn’t hurt that once he leaves the game with the lead he’s followed by the best closer in baseball so far this season, Matt Capps.
However he’s getting it done, both he and the Nationals will take it. The starters may be giving him a hard time about being the win vulture, swooping in and stealing their Ws, but this franchise will take them any way they can get them. With their potential front end starter finishing his apprenticeship in Syracuse, the dominance of Clippard and Capps in the back of the bullpen adds another ray of hope to the Nationals increasingly bright future.
When I look at the league leaders online or in the newspaper (yeah, they still exist) I see what fans see every year during April, a surprising collection of names that usually disappear by the time school lets out. Scott Podsednik and Pudge Rodriguez hitting .449? And even though I know it’s early and things will begin to level out and make sense within a few weeks, I still can’t help but be shocked by this line, ERA: 1. Hernandez, WSH, 0.75. What!?
That’s Livan Hernandez, pitching for his fifth team since 2006, back with Washington for a second go-round. He’s 2-1 and is incredibly getting hitters out consistently. He’s averaging eight innings per start and has thrown a complete game shutout already. Allow me to channel my inner John McEnroe; You cannot be serious! Isn’t this the same guy who allowed approximately six hits per inning over the last several years? Isn’t he the guy who throws a mid-80s fastball and an assortment of junk similar to the guys I see in city leagues across the metro Kansas City area?
It’s true, 35 year old Livan Hernandez has apparently found the fountain of youth and is enjoying a start that no one could have predicted. Over his last four seasons, Hernandez has essentially been a glorified batting practice pitcher, but has somehow guiled and gutted his way into double digit wins three times, though he’s posted double digit losses all four years and compiled a 46-47 overall record. His batting average against over that time is stunning, .288, .308, .342, and .308 from 2006-2009. His ERA is a robust 5.28 over that time, but considering the way hitters have been teeing off on him it’s surprising it’s not worse.
So what’s the key to his turnaround this year? Has he suddenly regained his fastball or retooled his repertoire? Has he begun a top secret HGH regimen? Is it really Stephen Strasburg in disguise? I believe, in fact, the answer is much more mundane than any of those possibilities. It’s just plain dumb luck.
Hernandez is dominating opposing hitters with an unreal .159 batting average against, third best in all of baseball. His WHIP is a stellar 0.83, a shade over half of his career average. However, a closer look shows that he also has the third best BABIP in Major League Baseball with a ridiculous .180, which means that eventually those atom balls that have been finding gloves will turn into bleeders and gorks that find holes. Before long, opposing hitters will start “hitting ’em where they ain’t,” and feasting upon Livan’s fat fastballs as they have for much of the past decade.
Now usually I’d say that three straight starts like Livan has had is a trend and not a fluke, and he has faced three legitimate teams, including a shutout against the potent Brewers lineup that just napalmed the Pirates staff this week. However, with the combination of his history and the good fortune that he’s had so far, I can’t imagine this charade lasting much longer. Only thrice in fourteen full seasons has he had fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and I expect things to return to normalcy soon.
He usually doesn’t hurt himself with walks, but with a team behind him that’s still building and a pedestrian offense, Livan should enjoy this month while he can. I expect the rest of the summer will be much like the last several have been and Livan will find himself running to back up bases as opposing hitters fight at the bat rack for a chance to face him.
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The Washington Nationals have confirmed that Steven
Strasburg, the phenomenal right-handed pitcher from San
Diego State, is at
the top of their draft board. That, of
course, was never in question. Not only
is Strasburg the best player available in this year’s draft (by a wide margin),
but some consider him the greatest pitching prospect in history. The real question is whether the Nationals
are prepared to offer the $50 million contract that it’s believed Strasburg will
seek. With the Nats’ lack of star power
and talent at the big league level, Strasburg could be a huge draw for
them. They’re already out of any
potential for a playoff spot and even with their new ballpark in only its
second year, they could use a headliner to fill seats and provide their small
fan base with some hope for the future.
It would be a huge loss if they missed out on such a tremendous prospect.
It appears the kid certainly has the goods to deliver on the
hype, though it may be hard to live up to all the hoopla. Earlier this spring I read an article quoting
a Major League scout who said that Strasburg is a better pitcher than A.J.
Burnett right now. At 6’5″ and 220 lbs. he
looks every bit the part of an MLB ace physically. His fastball is consistently upper 90s, which
he can maintain deep into outings and touching 100+ mph is nothing new to him. He’ll have one of the best fastballs in the
game the moment he is called up. His secondary
pitches are also very good as well and his mound presence appears to be
excellent. He has an unblemished 10-0
record right now with 147 K to only 15 BB.
One downside to Strasburg is his regrettable choice to be
represented by Scott Boras. Boras
undoubtedly gets his clients what they want, but it often comes at a price. Boras
has (in)famously advised several top picks to sit out their first summer in
order to secure better deals and several have gone unsigned into the following
year’s draft. Boras
also orchestrated the Manny Ramirez saga that led to him leaving Boston
and the soap opera that ensued this past winter until Manny was signed after
the start of spring training. A holdout
this year seems far less likely. By all
accounts, Strasburg should be in the Show by July or August and whoever drafts
him will be more likely to submit to his contract demands quickly, especially
if it’s Washington. They need pitching, they need star power, and
they need anything to draw fans and positive publicity to their club.
It appears little is in doubt as Strasburg finishes his
spring training of sorts by mowing down overmatched college hitters and trying
to stay healthy. He’ll be picked number
one, sign for $50 million plus, and be racking up wins en route to Cooperstown
before summer turns to fall. However, I
think he’ll face more speed bumps than many people think. The list of highly touted pitching failures
has been rundown enough for most fans to call off the roll easily; Mark Prior, Todd Van
Poppel, et al. Strasburg is better,
experts say; he won’t break down like Prior (I remember countless reports that
with his “perfect” mechanics, incredible work ethic, and mature build, Mark
Prior would never break down either, hmm), and his stuff is better than most
back end starters already. How sure can
we really be though?
It’s obvious this kid can handle his three pitches, but
against his current competition he can rely heavily on his fastball that is in
the glove before you blink. His
reputation precedes him and many hitters can begin racking up Ks before he
takes the mound. It will also precede
him in the Majors, where no matter how hard it’s thrown, hitters will relish
the opportunity to tee off on it. He’ll
have to show that he can really pitch and not just throw once he starts seeing
Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, and Hanley Ramirez on a regular basis.
He’ll also be looked at as the savior of a franchise, one
that is as far down as can be in the cellar of Major League Baseball. By spring 2010 they’ll want him to anchor
their rotation against a tough NL East where even the fourth place team is
miles ahead of them. They’ll monitor his
innings and make sure they bring him along slowly, but will he be able to hold
up to the grind of a six-month season.
This summer is a great opportunity for him to get his feet wet and get
10-15 starts in with relatively low pressure and no worries of a
postseason. He’s been gunning all spring
to meet expectations and will certainly be trying to prove himself worthy of a
king’s ransom. The mental makeup of a
pitcher is as important as anything he throws and we’ll get to learn a lot
about Strasburg this summer. I hope he
doesn’t let Boras drag his negotiations
out longer than necessary and I look forward to seeing how he fares against
disciplined, unafraid, professional hitters.
He’ll be tested and he’ll give up some shots off his fastball. It will be revealing to see how he handles
success, failure, and the media crush of expectations and hype. Adjustments are the name of the game in big league
baseball. Even the absolute elite cannot
remain stagnant. Strasburg has faced
almost no adversity in his career yet and it will be telling to see how he
handles it on a grand scale and in front of millions.
From all we can gather, this kid looks like he’ll be
throwing vapor trails for years to come.
However, given the fragility of both a pitcher’s arm and his psyche I’d
like to see him wear a number on his back in the Show before we retire it. This summer’s sneak preview of a career to
come will give us a much better idea of where he may be headed and it won’t
just be his ERA or K total. Look for his
ability to adjust to hitters, teammates, fans, and media as the true indication
of what may lie ahead.