In a press release announcing that they had signed left-handed reliever Sam Clay to a major league contract, the Washington Nationals noted that the 27-year-old sinker-baller, “... led all of Minor League Baseball in groundball rate (71.3%),” in 2019.
“I had the third-highest ground ball percentage in all of baseball,” Clay said, “behind [Aaron] Bummer [of the Chicago White Sox; 72.1% GB%] and Zach Britton [for the New York Yankees 77.2% GB%], so it’s something I do very well.”
How does he do it? Or what’s he working with on the mound?
“I am a sinker-ball pitcher,” the southpaw said in a Zoom call with reporters on Wednesday afternoon. “I throw it down in the zone very well, and I get a lot of ground balls.”
And his repertoire, for anyone not familiar with Clay, a 2014 4th Round pick by Minnesota, who spent six seasons in the Twins’ system, reaching Triple-A in 2019, but never getting a shot in the majors, even when he was part of the 60-Man roster in 2020’s COVID season.
“I got a sinker. slider, changeup,” Clay said.
“I use those pitches at any point, in any count, against anybody. It’s one of my biggest tools, that I can throw all of my pitches for strikes at any point.”
In addition to generating a high rate of ground balls, his new team also noted, Clay uses his sinker effectively down in the strike zone to keep the ball in the yard.
“Clay did not allow a home run in 2019,” the Nationals wrote, “and has surrendered just one home run in 188.2 innings pitched (122 games) since the start of the 2017 season.
“In 187 outings across six Minor League seasons, he has allowed just six home runs in 405.1 innings pitched.”
“I think to be able to keep the ball on the ground,” Clay said, “... and being able to have the opportunity to get an out is huge in baseball.
“You can’t get an out if they hit it over the fence. So, I think it’s a huge thing.”
“When someone told me I had not given up a home run,” he added, “... or had given up one home run in the past three seasons it was kind of a surprise, but then I looked back into my numbers all the way back to college, and if you don’t count the stint where I was a starter in professional baseball, I’ve given up, I think, one home run as a reliever since 2013.”
“It’s not something that I focus on, it’s just something that’s a byproduct of how I pitch.”
Considering the success he’s had getting ground balls, and avoiding home runs, and the fact that he’s (24–24) with 20 saves and a 3.97 ERA over 187 games and 405 1⁄3 IP for the Twins’ affiliates he’s pitched for, was it frustrating and/or disappointing he never got the opportunity to be part of Minnesota’s big league bullpen?
“It’s a little disappointing, obviously,” Clay acknowledged. “I went on the 60-man roster for the Twins [in 2020].
“I was up in St. Paul working there [at Minnesota’s Alternate Training Site], and then went on a taxi squad with them for a long road trip. I thought it might happen at some point during that road trip, and it just wasn’t in the cards.
“It was disappointing, but my entire career has been filled with stuff like that where I thought I would get a shot and I didn’t or I thought I would get moved up, or I thought I would be this, that, and the other, and it wasn’t, it’s not something that discourages me, it’s something that makes me want to work harder.”
Finding out that the Nats wanted to sign him to a major league deal, Clay explained, was a surprise, but an opportunity he jumped at.
“It was not exactly something I expected coming into this free agency,” he said.
“Obviously, my first time going through free agency — and with this year being what it was, what it is — with COVID and everything and the shortened season, we didn’t know what the free agent market was going to look like.
“So, I didn’t expect a major league contract. I expected a regular minor league contract.
“Luckily, the Nationals wanted me and were willing to put that up and I’m very, very excited to be here.”
His reaction to hearing it was a major league offer?
“It was disbelief, honestly,” Clay said. “It was not something I expected. My agent had hinted at it, and suggested that maybe it could happen, but no, I was shell-shocked.
“I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless, honestly. It was just an incredible feeling.”
Having some clarity early in the offseason is always a positive as well, and getting the major league contract, Clay said, and being another step closer to his major league debut is really important.
“It just feels more real,” Clay told reporters. “In the past it’s always been just something off in the distance. It’s not been something that’s within grasp. And now getting this contract, it’s within grasp and time for me to take full advantage.”