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.
Despite the new Ice Age that has settled over most of the country, apparently we really are going to have a spring this year, at least in Arizona and Florida. Today begins the grand spectacle of Spring Training and many greater writers than I have pontificated upon this marvel of American sporting life. It’s a time when Alfonso Soriano can still run and hit, when Zack Greinke can single-handedly drag the Royals to the playoffs, and when Stephen Strasburg is all potential and promise.
For the next six weeks we’ll be able to drool over veterans who’ve recommitted and rebuilt their bodies (or decommitted and rebuilt their bodies, a la Jose Guillen) and nameless studs with jersey numbers in the mid-nineties. Every team has added the pieces that will transform them into a winner or has invited to camp the kid who will blossom into a star. Even Ben Sheets has a locker with his name on it. Now we can officially begin scouring the newspapers (er, websites) for box scores and rotation battles and begin chalking up victories in our heads. Everyone’s magic number is the same and every lineup looks dangerous.
The excitement will build gradually: a successful ‘pen session for the rehabbing starter, a long blast by the newly signed free agent, a scoreless inning by the young flamethrower. Eventually we’ll get to pink slips and narrowed rosters and our teams will take focus. Good springs will surely transfer to great regular seasons and bad springs are nothing but slow starts and all will be well when the games really count.
Hitters will blast the ball out of parks in the desert air of Arizona, and pitchers will blast the ball off the tee of golf courses across Florida. Players will regain their leathery tans along with their fastball timing. Everything will begin to unfold slowly and gain steam throughout the summer. By the time the leaves turn and fall most of what we know now will be proven wrong and we’ll be left again to wonder how we didn’t see it coming.
For now though, we’re confident in what we see and feel. Everything is going to turn out right this year. This is going to be the greatest season ever and the summer of our lives. So let’s get out the bats and balls and get this thing going. Turn off the hot stove and forget about the transactions page and hypothetical lineups; it’s time for some real baseball and it couldn’t come a moment too soon.