When the New York Mets acquired Tyler Clippard on July 27, the relief pitcher had allowed three home runs through 38.2 innings with the Oakland Athletics. Over his last five appearances with he Mets, he has gift-wrapped three long balls.
This isn't a fluke or passing slump; it's regression to the mean. A trustworthy reliever for seven seasons with the Washington Nationals, the veteran Clippard has a 2.67 ERA this season. Yet all the advanced metrics portray him as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode, which is precisely what is happening.
As a result of his lowest average fastball velocity since 2009, Clippard has generated his worst K/9 rate (8.19) since 2008. Meanwhile, he's issuing a troubling 4.08 walks per nine innings. How has he kept his ERA so low with a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio? A .206 BABIP, the fourth-lowest among all qualified relievers, has certainly helped limit the damage.
To be fair, Clippard boasts a .232 BABIP over his career, suggesting individual skill at inducing weak contact. Unfortunately, that's not the main problem. His 61.7% fly ball percentage hovers above all other relievers. It makes sense for someone routinely allowing fly balls to see more float over the fence.
For the most part that hasn't happened for Clippard, who still has a below-average 6.2 HR/FB percentage. Even with his recent woes, he's probably in line for more regression. Looking at his 4.26 FIP and 5.38 xFIP, we're not talking a minor slide, but rather a substantial collapse. While it's tempting to say some pitchers can always outrun their pessimistic peripherals, ask Johnny Cueto how that's working out lately.
From the second he arrived in New York, Clippard has served as the eighth-inning guy. Given the 30-year-old's 2.85 career ERA, it's clear manager Terry Collins trusts him the most after closer Jeurys Familia. Strip away his track record, though, and he's not the best guy to use in high-leverage situations.
While Hansel Robles holds a .235 BABIP, he also boasts a promising 9.7 K/9 as well as a 2.55 ERA after the All-Star break. The superior trade acquisition, Addison Reed hasn't surrendered a run since joining the Mets, notching 11 strikeouts and two walks over nine innings. Both have suspiciously low HR/FB percentages, but Erik Goeddel and Sean Gilmartin have better strikeout and walk numbers than Clippard with ERAs and FIPs below 3.00.
Clippard's best skill is one uncommon for a right-handed hurler: Over his career, he has limited lefties to a .179/.265/.303 batting line, and they're hitting .127/.225/.198 off him in 2015. Too often managers play the lefty-righty game without examining a pitcher's particular splits, which means Collins will keep testing Clippard against powerful righties. If his struggles persist, the Mets' optimal bullpen would feature Robles and Reed as the most prominent bridges to Familia with Clippard reserved for potent lefty bats. But don't count on Collins using a high-profile righty as a LOOGY.