Closing out a high school career with a bad senior season makes it hard enough to move on and play professional baseball. But ending a high school career with no senior season makes it virtually impossible.
That was the path that Tyler Clippard had to face when he was suspended for his senior season at J.W. Mitchell High School after being charged with misdemeanor DUI. As a junior, he was one of the top pitchers in the baseball-rich Tampa area, winning all-conference honors with a 1.18 ERA.
Following his dismissal, however, Clippard was on his own to make himself noticed.
"I was making phone calls every day to a lot of different teams and a lot of different scouts sending my schedule out when I was throwing bullpens and when I would have some simulated BPs," Clippard said. "I was going to showcases as much as possible to get myself out there since I didn't have a senior year of high school baseball and people didn't see me throwing in real games."
Losing a full season of organized baseball may have hurt Clippard's draft status, but he didn't completely lose his audience. In the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, the Yankees selected him in the ninth round -- after nearly a year without high school ball.
Now, three years after joining the professional ranks, Clippard is among the top right-handed pitching prospects in the Yankees system. This season at Double-A Trenton, he has 128 strikeouts in 128 innings with a 3.80 ERA.
Reflecting back on the roadblock of missing an important step in his baseball career, Clippard says there may have been some value in the independence.
"Honestly, that was a bad experience, but I think it worked out for the best for me in terms of my development as a pitcher," Clippard said. "It gave me time to work on my mechanics to where I maybe was more ready than if I had played another year of high school. I think it even gave me a head start on some other guys in getting ready for the pros.
"It was a rough experience, but it probably helped in the end."
Clippard's breakout season came last year, as a member of the Yankees' Class A Advanced affiliate in Tampa. He earned a berth on the Florida State League All-Star team after notching 169 strikeouts in 147 innings; opponents hit just .219 against him, and his 181 strikeouts over the entire 2005 campaign placed him fifth among all Minor Leaguers.
This year, after a promotion, Clippard got off to a slower start. He dropped his first four decisions and six of his first seven. But after that stumble, he seemed to come around and has won his last five decisions. Twice, he has recorded 11 strikeouts in a game during that span.
"Over this stretch, I have been able to work off my fastball and have been able to locate it," Clippard said of his recent success. "That has been the biggest thing. That has opened up the option of throwing offspeed pitches in trouble spots for strikes."
Clippard has become a strikeout pitcher without blowing away hitters. While he stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 195 pounds, his fastball averages in the high 80s. But his control and knack for pitching have given him an edge.
"Being able to know how to pitch really helps with the strikeout numbers," he explained. "I'm not a pitcher that can blow guys away, but if I can set them up where my 89 mph fastball looks a little harder or I can get them to chase up in the zone, I can strike some guys out. I think that is what I do best, knowing how to pitch."
His feel for the game is surprising, given his relative inexperience. At 21, Clippard is the second-youngest player on the Trenton roster, behind only top prospect Phil Hughes.
"I grew up in Florida and there are a lot of really talented baseball players in the Tampa area," Clippard noted. "I developed late, so even as a 12- or 13-year-old kid, kids developed and blew past me. During those years of my life, I really needed to learn how to locate, because I was young and wasn't real tall. I had to learn how to locate in order to just get by."
Clippard's background makes him a perfect fit for the Yankees system. The organization, which has several facilities in the Tampa area, allowed him to stay close to home.
"I didn't really have a preference in terms of what team I was drafted by," Clippard said. "I knew the Yankees were a possibility, but like any kid I just wanted to play pro ball. I knew their complex was in Tampa and it was going to work out great since that was my home. It turned out to work out perfectly for me."