Before Major League Baseball's lockout began, the Kansas City Royals made a free agent signing. Right-handed pitcher Taylor Clarke, who was non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks, inked a one-year deal with the Royals on Wednesday. The contract is for just the 2022 campaign and is worth $975,000 with a $200,000 Minor League assignment split.
Clarke, who had pitched in three seasons with the Diamondbacks prior to becoming a free agent, owns a career 4.99 ERA in 171.1 innings pitched. A lot of those innings came as a starter, but now he's a full-time reliever. In 2021, he posted a 4.98 ERA with a career-low 3.54 FIP but a career-high BABIP of .350. The peripherals indicate he was better than his ERA this past season.
A shoulder injury caused Clarke to miss nearly two full months of action, and the difference between his pre- and post-injury numbers is staggering. Before it, he posted a 3.41 ERA (3.23 FIP) with a K/BB ratio of 9/32 in 33.2 innings pitched. Opponents hit just .256 off him. After returning, his ERA ballooned to 9.31 (4.62 FIP) and his K/BB ratio was 5/7 in just under 10 innings of work. Opponents saw a beach ball every time he delivered a pitch, hitting a scorching .391 against him.
On the year, even with the terrible post-injury numbers, Clarke posted a K/9 of 8.1 and a BB/9 of 2.91. He lowered his walk rate significantly (his BB/9 was 4.36 in 2020), as well as his HR/9 (1.66 in 2020 to 0.83 in 2021). When combining that with consistent velocity regardless of the injury, it's easy to see how there was likely more to Clarke's season than appears on the surface.
In terms of value as a potential bounce-back candidate, the proposition of Clarke on a deal worth just under $1 million is a solid one. At 28 years old, he should be in the prime of his career. He also doesn't have a ton of wear and tear on his arm, so the shoulder injury very well could be a thing of the past. His numbers paint the picture of a player who had poor luck in 2021, the Royals are known for reaching their hands in the bargain bin and seeing what they can find.
Clarke's four-pitch mix includes a mid-90s fastball and a plus slider, as well as a cutter and changeup. The fastball sits around 95 mph and because of his release point and overall extension, the slider makes up for slightly below average horizontal and vertical break and is a solid out pitch. Clarke lives in the margins more than the average pitcher, as his amount of pitches landing on the edge of the zone was more than five percent higher than the MLB average in 2021.
While Clarke's post-injury struggles could easily doom him in 2022 and turn out to be more of who he is as a reliever, it's also possible that his early-season improvements this year turn out to be legitimate. He's a tall righty with a solid fastball-slider combination, as well as some recent data to suggest his game is trending upward. If things work out, Kansas City will have yet another bullpen arm to go to when needed. If Clarke flops, the club's minimal investment and his one remaining option make it nothing more than an unfortunate outcome. Only time will tell which version of him the Royals will get next season but either way, finding out is worth it.