Signed to a big league deal in November of 2020, after six seasons in Minnesota’s system in which the Twins’ 2014 4th Round pick never made it to the majors, left-handed reliever Sam Clay made his MLB debut with the Washington Nationals in April 2021.
Clay, 28, ended up making 59 appearances out of the bullpen for the Nationals, finishing his first season in the big leagues with a 5.60 ERA, a 4.61 FIP, 22 walks (4.40 BB/9), 34 Ks (6.80 K/9), and a .296/.383/.409 line against over 45 innings pitched.
After four months in the Nationals’ bullpen, Clay was optioned to Triple-A Rochester in early August this past summer, and manager Davey Martinez talked after the southpaw got called back up about what they were focusing on as they tried to get Clay on track.
“I talked to him just about attacking the strike zone,” Martinez explained. “The walks with Sam were the big issue, and being more precise against left-handed hitters, knowing what he wants to do against left-handed hitters. We need him to get outs, especially against left-handed hitters.”
Left-handers had a .261/.329/.362 line against Clay before he was optioned, with right-hand hitters putting up a .338/.426/.475 line against him.
His manager was clear when the Nationals sent Clay to Triple-A that he was down there with a plan and things to work on.
“You haven’t seen the last of Sam,” Martinez said, and just a few weeks later he was back up in the Nats’ bullpen.
“His balls were sinking, he was throwing a lot more strikes,” Martinez said, relaying reports he got from the Nationals’ top minor league affiliate. “His slider, which he threw a lot more to lefties down at Triple-A, which we wanted him to do, and he did that, so for me, — for him it’s getting that slider down in the zone, getting his sinker, which — he throws a heavy sinker, down in the zone — and they said he did a lot better, so I’m anxious to see him in there in action today and see where he’s at.”
“For his first stint in the big leagues, he did fine, he really did. And like I said, he’s another guy that we believe that he can help us in the future.”
In 12 games and 9 1⁄3 IP in August and September, Clay put up a 4.82 ERA, a 3.49 FIP, six walks, nine Ks, and a .270/.386/.351 line against.
In early July this past season, after a few months playing in the majors, Clay told reporters it wasn’t much different for him pitching in bigger parks, in front of bigger crowds, because he was focused on each pitch and not his surroundings.
“I’m just trying to focus on this pitch, this one pitch, and nothing else matters. Not paying attention to the crowd, to really anything, it’s just focusing on making one pitch at a time,” he said.
The Tennessee-born, Georgia-raised and educated pitcher made his debut in the majors on April 7th against the Braves in Atlanta, and he talked that night about working his way up to the big leagues after six years in the minors with Minnesota. His mantra as he waited for his opportunity?
“Keep working hard,” Clay said.
“Overcome any adversity. I’ve had to overcome a lot of adversity these past couple years.
“That’s kind of my mantra. Just keeping pushing forward, keep moving forward, adjust, overcome.”
He’ll have to make some adjustments this winter.
Clay finished the year with a .250/.330/.345 line against vs lefties and a .333/.425/.461 line against vs right-handed hitters. He threw a sinker (65.8% of the time) which averaged 92.3 MPH, with the hitters he faced putting up a .325 AVG on the pitch, and he mixed in a slider (24.4%, 84.4 MPH) on which hitters had a .186 AVG, and a changeup (9.8%, 87 MPH, .350 BAA).
One of three lefty relievers currently on the Nationals’ 40-man roster (along with Evan Lee (a 24-year-old, 2018 15th Round pick who pitched at High-A in the Nats’ system in 2021), and Francisco Perez (24, and claimed off waivers from Cleveland after making his MLB debut this past August), Clay should have an opportunity to contribute significant innings to the Nats’ cause this season.