DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Toronto Blue Jays have signed right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard to a minor-league deal. He reported to Blue Jays camp Wednesday, passed his physical, and will now join a crowded bullpen competition in major-league spring training.
Clippard had been working out at the MLBPA free agent camp in Bradenton, Fla., this spring. The Blue Jays had a pair of scouts in attendance at the camp last week when Clippard pitched against East Japan Railway Company, a Japanese industrial team that played a pair of games against the MLBPA free agents.
Clippard, 33, was traded twice and pitched for three teams last season, ending up with a 4.77 ERA and 10.7 K/9 over 60.1 innings. He’s been an extreme fly ball pitcher over his career, and holds the third-highest fly ball rate (53.6 per cent) of any qualified MLB reliever over the last five seasons.
Allowing so much fly-ball contact is a dangerous game for a reliever to play, and Clippard has been burned by it each of the last two seasons, allowing 1.43 HR/9 in 2016 and 1.49 in 2017. However, Clippard’s HR/FB rates in those seasons are almost double where they were in the two seasons prior, suggesting he’s been the victim of some bad batted ball luck.
Of course, Clippard’s stuff also plays a role, as his velocity has declined since his best seasons with the Washington Nationals. Clippard saved 32 games for Washington in 2012, featuring a fastball that averaged 94 m.p.h. But his fastball averaged only 91 m.p.h. in 2017, a season he split between the New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros. He relied mostly on a fastball and changeup mix last season, while also working in a slider and splitter.
Clippard’s 4.62 BB/9 last season also didn’t help. But his walk rates were much lower in the five seasons prior (3.4 BB/9 from 2012 through 2016), and the Blue Jays will hope 2017 was an aberration and not a trend.
Clippard joins a crowded group of veteran non-roster invitees battling for the final two spots in Toronto’s bullpen. John Axford and Al Alburquerque had been the competition’s frontrunners, with Luis Santos, Craig Breslow, Deck McGuire, Rhiner Cruz and Jake Petricka on the outside looking in.
Assuming health, closer Roberto Osuna, set-up men Ryan Tepera, Seung-hwan Oh, and Danny Barnes, and left-handed specialist Aaron Loup are presumed locks to head north in the Blue Jays bullpen.
Interestingly, Clippard has pitched to reverse splits over his career. He’s held left-handed batters to a .190/.271/.325 line, while right-handers have batted .202/.292/.368. If Clippard makes the team, and can replicate those splits in 2018, it would decrease Toronto’s need for a second left-hander in the bullpen after Loup.
"You’d like to have that second lefty, for sure," Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said Wednesday morning before the Clippard signing was announced. "I think that makes our job easier. But you also want to break camp with the best arms that you have. Guys who can bring some versatility, some different looks, different angles — different arsenals from those relief pitchers is important. It gives you some different ways to attack certain lineups late in the game.
"There’s certainly some opportunity for these guys for the next two and half weeks to show what they can do. And they’re going to get the ball consistently."