The best fastball you’ve never heard of

Blazing fastballs. High cheese. Gas. These are terms that you will commonly see in descriptions of the fastballs thrown by Justin Verlander, David Price, Ubaldo Jimenez and Matt Thornton.

Another name that you should be aware of is Tyler Clippard. In contrast to these more hallowed heaters, Clippard does not throw exceptionally hard. This is not to say that he’s a soft tosser; this year he is averaging 92.6 mph on the fastball, which is pretty common for right-handed relievers. This lack of elite velocity, combined with playing for the Nationals, causes his fastball to go unrecognized by many.

Don’t be fooled.

In the past three years, Clippard’s fastball ranks first in whiff rate among all pitchers who have thrown at least 300 four-seams. Ever since he converted to relieving full time in 2009, his fastball has been very effective and very hard to hit.

To help us explain why his fastball is so nasty, we can turn to the research of Mike Fast and Matt Lentzner. Their work presents two new values for Pitchf/x: Vxf and Vzf, the latter of which is of interest to us here.

Vzf is the final velocity of the pitch in a vertical direction, where a positive value indicates that the pitch is actually rising and a negative value indicates the pitch is sinking. Although no pitch has a positive Vzf value, fastballs have larger (read: less negative) values than breaking and offspeed pitches. The pitches with the highest whiff rates usually have either lots of downward velocity, like breaking balls, or have very little downward velocity, like heaters up in the zone.

Tyler Clippard‘s fastball has a Vzf of -10.3 feet per second this year. Of course, this means nothing without context. The average Vzf of right-handed pitchers’ average four-seams is -12.04 with a standard deviation of 1.06. Using this information, we can tell that Tyler Clippard‘s average fastball is 1.64 standard deviations above average, meaning that it’s in the 95th percentile. Below is a graph that helps to demonstrate this point:

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This graph indicates swing and miss rate by Vzf for fastballs, with gray bands indicating confidence. As you can see, Clippard’s fastball is right where we would expect it to be, looking only at Vzf values. You should also notice that the pitches with the lowest swing and miss rates are pitches with Vzf values of around -12 to -15. This is because these pitches are mainly sinkers thrown low in the zone.

A large component in these final velocity values is location. As Mike and Matt explain in their presentation, a fastball that’s thrown up in the zone has less downward velocity than a pitch thrown low in the zone. Clippard’s fastball provides an excellent example of this characteristic. He spurns the traditional advice of pitching low in the zone completely; in the past three years, he has the highest average pitch height, with his fastball, among all pitchers who have thrown at least 300 four-seams. You can his extreme approach to both lefties and righties below:

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In these graphs, we see the difference in pitch locations of Clippard’s fastball and a random sample of four-seams thrown by right-handed pitchers. Blue indicates locations where Clippard threw his fastball more than the league, and red indicates where he threw his fastball less. The graph is from the catcher’s perspective, so the right side of the graph is close to left-handed batters and the left side of the graph is close to right-handed batters. The dotted box indicates the strike zone.

Clippard attacks right-handed batters with ample aplomb. As you can see, Clippard loves to challenge right-handed batters up in the zone much more than the league does. This approach helps to explain his Vzf value, and thus batters’ inability to make contact with the pitch. Against lefties, he is much less brazen; compared to the league, he sticks to hitting the outside black.

Clippard’s fastball allows him to do more than just induce whiffs. Due to his extreme approach, he has a batted ball profile that should allow him to sustain above average batting averages on balls in play. According to Baseball Info Solutions data, he allows very few line drives; he has a career rate of 14.3 percent, which is much better than the league average of around 19 percent. He also garners a very high proportion of flyballs, many of which turn into pop-ups; he has a career infield flyball rate that is almost double the league average. While it’s very unlikely that he will sustain his current BABIP of .207, he should continue to post above average values in the future.

Tyler Clippard has an excellent fastball which allows him to pick up whiffs by the dozen and to suppress BABIP. The pitch, along with his good changeup, should keep batters on their heels for years to come.

References and Resources

*PITCHf/x data from MLBAM through Darrel Zimmerman’s pbp2 database
*Fangraphs
*Final plate velocity research of Mike Fast and Matt Lentzner

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Comments

  1. Dave Studeman said...

    Excellent profile, Josh.  Welcome to THT!

    So Clippard is an extreme rising fastball pitcher—the Sid Fernandez of his day? I wonder what other pitchers match his extreme combination or rise and location?

    BTW, I’d recommend switching the colors on your heat maps.  Hot colors, like red, typically mean “more,” while cool colors, like blue, typically mean “less.”  Remember ROYGBIV for most to least.

  2. Bryan said...

    I have always liked Clippard since he was in the Yankee farm system.  Figured he’d be better in the pen rather than as a starter.

    Quick question… Has Clippard’s fastball and/or approach in game changed this year versus years past… ie showing a learning curve, philosophy change or has this been a consistent pattern for him during his career, but maybe now getting better results?

  3. Josh Weinstock said...

    As a starter he certainly didn’t pitch like this, but ever since becoming a reliever he seems to have adopted this approach. He has gained some velo though in recent years, so I’m sure that’s helped. He’s also started using his breaking pitches less and leaning more heavily on the fastball-change combo.

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