Circumventing the Closer

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With the signing of Rafael Soriano the Nationals did something important. They are now able to both have a non-traditional closer pitch in the highest leverage situation of the game while still having a traditional closer for the save situation. For you see with Clippard, Storen, and Soriano all having experience closer and career ERAs at or around 3.00 and all being strikeout pitchers the Nationals will have closer level talent pitching in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings whenever they have the lead. So far in the season both Clippard and Storen have pitched four innings and have essentially split the seventh and eighth inning with Storen having pitched in the eighth inning in all four of his outings and Clippard pitching the eighth in two out of his four appearances with the other two coming in the seventh.  

When both Clippard and Storen have appeared in a game it is with Clippard pitching the seventh and Storen pitching the eighth. It is both clear that they are near equal talents and that Davey Johnson favors Storen slightly more as the set-up man. That should come as no surprise as Storen is the more talented pitcher and would have been the Nats closer had Soriano not been signed. There is an important off-shoot of this that goes back to how Davey Johnson used the bullpen in 2012. With Clippard as the closer, Burnett as the set-up man, and Stammen as the clear third most talented reliever in the bullpen Davey Johnson used Stammen mostly as a long reliever in games that were close. In essence Stammen was the Nats bullpen Ace or fireman. He came in to clean-up the mess left by starters and was often given the highest leverage situations and asked to pitch more than one inning.

In total Stammen averaged 1.5 innings pitched as he made 59 appearances and pitched a total of 88 1/3 innings. Stammen inherited 27 runners and allowed only 19% of them to score, by far the lowest on the team of any reliever who inherited at least 20 base runners. For comparison Sean Burnett inherited 29 runners and allowed 41% to score. In 2012 Craig Stammen was the Nationals relief Ace, but with the acquisition of Soriano and a healthy Storen his role has changed, and it is time for Clippard to reestablish himself in that role.   

In 2010 and 2011 Tyler Clippard pitched a combined 179 1/3 innings over 150 appearances averaging 1.2 innings pitched an outing. Clippard was often called on to get the team out of the trouble a struggling starter left them in and it didn't matter if it was in the six, seventh, or eighth inning. With Storen being the clear favorite in 2013 as the set-up man Clippard is going to be the man in the seventh so if a starter can only get an out or two in the sixth why not bring in Clippard earlier. The question becomes who would you rather see on the mound: a reliever with closer potential or a less talented reliever in Stammen or Mattheus? The answer is an easy one. A team should always want its most talented reliever pitching in the highest leverage situation, but teams also want to have pitchers with defined roles. As the seventh inning man and being a reliever with only marginally less talent than Storen or Soriano, Clippard is uniquely well adapted for this role.  

In his best season of 2011 Clippard inherited 46 base runners and allowed 10 to score. That is an exceptional percent. His career average in allowing inherited runners to score is 31%. Clippard has shown the ability in the past to pitch a lot of innings, pitch multiple innings, and to limit the damage done by inherited runners. Clippard is also one of the most talented relievers in the bullpen and if the Nationals are going to use Storen and Soriano as a traditional set-up man/closer tandem then Clippard should be the roving bullpen Ace ready whenever needed to come into the highest of leverage situations and get the team through it. Even if he isn't used for the seventh after that giving a clean start to Stammen or Mattheus for the seventh isn't the worst thing the Nationals could do.

A look at Clippard's stats when compared to the other five main relievers in the Nationals bullpen gives us an even greater understand of why Clippard should have this role. Clippard has a career K/9 of 10.1 and has struck out 27.5% of the batters he's faced. Compare that to Mattheus (5.12 K/9, 13.9 K%), Stammen (9.17 K/9, 24.1 K% (as a reliever)), Storen (8.45 K/9, 23.2 K%), and Soriano (9.44 K/9, 26.1 K%). Of the Nationals relievers Tyler Clippard is the best strikeout pitcher and the one the Nationals should want in in a jam with a runner on third and less than two outs. Because of his ability to miss bats he is the reliever with the greatest chance to get the team through the situation unscathed.  

If this is the role Clippard ends up in as the year goes along it is due mainly to the signing of Rafael Soriano. Without Soriano being the ninth inning closer the Nationals would not be able to have a roving bullpen Ace as good as Tyler Clippard. Clippard was good enough to be the Nationals closer last season saving 32 games, but with Soriano and Storen ahead of him as the Nats closer that job is lost to him, but he can have even more value to the team doing what a closer should do and pitching in the high leverage situations the Nationals face before the eighth or ninth inning. By having three pitchers with the talent and ability to close the Nationals both have a traditional closer and have circumvented the traditional closer's role and have a more important high leverage closer, because sometimes the save comes a whole lot earlier than the ninth inning.

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