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Tyler Clippard earned his first All-Star selection last summer.
Even rarer is the setup man who can sustain that kind of dominance over multiple seasons. Which is precisely why Tyler Clippard wants to be able to put himself in that loftiest of echelons among relief pitchers.
"It's nice," the Nationals right-hander said of the track record he's established over the last two seasons. "It was a goal of mine, to have this kind of success at the big-league level. But I still think it's a small sample size of what I want to do. I mean, I want to be around for a long time. I'm still young -- I'm only 27 -- and I don't even have three years of service time yet. If you really look at the nuts and bolts of it ... yeah, I've done some good things, but there's still a long way to go."
There's arguably no reliever in baseball who can match Clippard's remarkable combination of dominance and endurance the last two years. No one has pitched more than his 179 1/3 innings. Only Cubs closer Carlos Marmol has recorded more than Clippard's 216 strikeouts.
And no one has made more bullpen appearances of at least two innings than Clippard, who has done that 27 times the last two seasons. His ERA in those 27 long-relief appearances: a microscopic 0.33. His strikeout-to-walk ratio: a ridiculous 77-to-8.
That level of dominance over multiple innings makes Clippard one of the most-valuable relievers in the sport. It certainly makes him the most-valuable member of the Nationals' bullpen, even if he doesn't hold the more prestigious closer role.
"He's so invaluable to use at times for two innings, and he was so dominant against right- and left-handed batters," manager Davey Johnson said earlier this spring. "The starter gives you six [innings], and he can get you to the closer? That's almost irreplaceable. That's almost more important than the closer. Drew Storen did a great job last year closing, but you almost need two guys to replace what Clip can do."
The Nationals rely so heavily on Clippard to pitch them out of late-inning jams and protect slim leads, they shudder to think what might happen if he got hurt or suddenly lost his touch.
Unfortunately, the lifespan for most relievers is minimal. So many can't sustain their success over a full career, and so many can't keep their arms intact over the long haul.
Clippard and the Nationals are well aware of the history, and they know they're going to have to take steps to try to diminish the odds of injury or flat-out collapse. That's one major reason general manager Mike Rizzo signed veteran right-hander Brad Lidge to a one-year contract over the winter. Lidge, once the Phillies' All-Star closer, will serve as another seasoned setup man in Washington.
That should take some of the workload and pressure off Clippard, who admittedly believes he's more effective the more he pitches but understands the need for help.
"I realize that if I go out there and throw 90-100 innings out of the bullpen every year, my career's not going to be that long," he said. "So yeah, I want to be out there, and there's times when the more reps I've gotten, the better I've gotten. But at the same time, I've realized that it's not a standard that's really going to equal out to longevity. So in that sense, I'm OK with not pitching as much."
The addition of Lidge, and the emergence late last season of flamethrower Henry Rodriguez, should help keep Clippard's arm fresh. But what can he do to ensure his stuff remains effective as ever?
He doesn't feel the need to alter an arsenal that already features four different pitches: four-seam fastball, changeup, cutter and slider (though he throws either the fastball or changeup 85 percent of the time). He would, however, like to alter his approach from at-bat to at-bat.
"I don't really need to change my repertoire as much as staying on top of patterns I get into sometimes," he said. 'The league knows what I have now, so I think it's up to me to kind of keep them on their toes as much as possible. Change my timing. Change the look of what they expect to see from me. And I think I've done a good job of that."
If Clippard can keep this up and continue his run of dominance another season, two or more, he might be tempted to wonder if he can land a closing job somewhere else. It's a common path for relievers: Establish yourself in a setup role for a couple of years, then hit the big payday as a closer.
The Nationals, though, are happily committed to Storen as their ninth-inning guy for years to come and don't really consider Clippard a closer-in-waiting. Truth be told, if something happened and Storen wasn't available to close at some point this season, Johnson is more likely to use Lidge or even Rodriguez in the ninth than Clippard.
Not that the organization doesn't understand Clippard's importance to the greater goal, and isn't willing to reward him for his work. He saw his salary jump to $1.65 million from $443,000 over the winter, and he's sure to receive more raises over the next three years through baseball's arbitration process.
That may seem like a lot for a setup man. But as Clippard knows, sometimes the guy who pitches the eighth inning is more important than the guy who pitches the ninth.
And the Nationals may just have the best eighth-inning guy in baseball.
"We're fortunate here. We've got a lot of guys here who could close," Johnson said. "Not many could do what Clip does."