The Washington Nationals noted in a press release, after signing left-handed reliever Sam Clay to a major league contract earlier this month, that the southpaw, “... led all of Minor League Baseball in ground ball rate (71.3%),” in 2019.
Selected in the 4th Round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of Georgia Tech, Clay pitched at both Double-A Pensacola and Triple-A Rochester in Minnesota’s system in 2019, and was part of the Twins’ 60-player pool during the 60-game 2020 COVID campaign, but never got a call up to pitch in the majors in seven years with the organization that drafted him.
Clay told reporters in a Zoom call after the Nationals’ deal with the 27-year-old, now-former Twins’ prospect was announced, that his ground ball rate was, “... the third-highest ground ball percentage in all of baseball,” actually, “... behind [Aaron] Bummer and Zach Britton, so it’s something I do very well.”
“I am a sinker-ball pitcher,” Clay said. “I throw it down in the zone very well, and I get a lot of ground balls.”
He hasn’t always been so sinker heavy, however, as he explained during an interview with SiriusXM MLB Network Radio hosts Steve Phillips and C.J. Nitkowski on Tuesday morning.
“The sinker was kind of a recent development,” Clay said. “Within the last — I want to say — three seasons.
“When I came up to Chattanooga, Double-A, in 2017,” he explained, “I had worked with some left-handed pitchers that were up there, and I’ve always had good arm-side movement on my two-seam [fastball], but they showed me a couple of different grips that I could use, and I just kind of messed around with it. I didn’t really use it in 2017, I used it a little bit more in 2018, and 2019 I went full-force, all into it, and the numbers reflected that that was my pitch, and I talked to a bunch of different pitchers, see what they did — I actually watched videos on Zach Britton to see how he threw it because that was kind of the guy that I wanted to emulate, having that big power sinker.”
Clay, the Nationals also noted, in addition to generating ground balls, has managed to keep the ball in the yard too.
The reliever, “... did not allow a home run in 2019 and has surrendered just one home run in [188 2⁄3] innings pitched (122 games) since the start of the 2017 season,” they wrote.
“In 187 outings across six Minor League seasons, he has allowed just six home runs in [405 1⁄3] innings pitched.”
The MLB Network Radio hosts asked Clay if he remember who the one guy who got him in the last three years was?
“I don’t remember who hit it,” Clay said, “but I do remember that home run. I was pitching in Chattanooga, and I threw — in Chattanooga the right field line is pretty shallow, I was facing a righty, and I jammed him — I felt like I jammed him, he may have gotten all of it and just tattooed it, but just nice, easy, home run to right field, it was not a big deal.”
It was actually Jason Morozowski, a 2015 13th Round pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks, on August 12, 2018, who hit the only home run off Clay since 2017, in Chattanooga’s AT&T Park.
“I like to think I jammed him,” Clay added, when the show’s hosts noted that most pitchers do tend to think that way.
“I like to think I threw that home run, not he hit it,” he sort-of-joked.
Asked why he thought he got a major league deal from the Nationals, the lefty, who was not expecting a big league deal this winter, said he has a skill set that’s in demand these days.
“I have always been a guy that works incredibly hard,” Clay said. “I’m a sinker ball pitcher, and I’ve got a great slider from what people have told me, so I get a lot of ground balls.”
“I do a very, very good job of getting ground balls, and I feel like that’s at a premium right now, especially with the way that the baseball is and how many home runs are getting hit, so the ability to keep the ball on the ground is very, very important.”