Sam Clay had tempered his expectations heading into free agency. With the coronavirus pandemic cooling an already languid market, the left-handed reliever didn’t expect a major league contract to come his way.
He’d never pitched at that level, after all. Clay spent seven seasons in the Minnesota Twins organization, but the closest he’d ever gotten to a debut was as a member of last season’s 60-player pool.
So when his agent called with a big league offer on the table from the Washington Nationals, Clay was in disbelief.
“My agent had hinted at it, and suggested that maybe it could happen,” Clay said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “But I was shellshocked. I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless, honestly. It was just an incredible feeling.”
Clay gives the Nationals a much-needed left-handed arm out of the bullpen, and he comes with a sinker and a pedigree of keeping the ball on the ground and in the yard. He led the minors in 2019 with a 71.3 percent groundball rate.
The 27-year-old also has a slider and changeup he said he’s comfortable throwing in any count.
Even as batters swing for the fences — and send towering fly balls over them — at higher rates than ever before, Clay’s arsenal and tendencies have enabled him to stifle that trend. In 188 2/3 innings since the beginning of the 2017 campaign, Clay has only given up one longball.
That seemed conducive to him receiving a chance at the highest level. It never came with the Twins, though, even when accompanying the team on a long road trip in 2020 as part of the taxi squad.
“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’d be moved up, or I thought I’d be this, that and the other,” Clay said. “It’s not something that discourages me. It’s something that makes me want to work harder.”
Clay has done “pretty much everything you can do in the pitching world.”
Unlike some southpaws, he’s not designated as a left-handed specialist. In 2019, 17 of his 45 appearances lasted at least two innings. He’s been an opener before; he’s pitched in high-leverage innings; he’s picked up saves.
That wide-ranging experience offers the Nationals a versatile arm out of the bullpen. Washington also gets a pitcher who shies away from statistics — such as wins, losses and ERA — because they don’t tell the full story.
When Clay made his 2017 season debut in High Class A, he pitched two-thirds of an inning and gave up six runs. He was shelled, and his ERA ballooned as a result.
“And if I would’ve just looked at that, I would’ve discouraged myself immediately,” Clay said. “It’s two-thirds of an inning; it’s basically nothing.Then I went the next 27, 28 innings scoreless and knocked my ERA down and I didn’t even know what my ERA was at the time, because it’s not really something I pay attention to.”
Instead, Clay focuses on analytics, studying release angles and spin rates. In that sense, he may fit into a Nationals organization that has a manager and pitching coach who both stem from the Tampa Bay Rays — one of the preeminent analytics-based franchises.
In the immediate aftermath of Clay’s signing, the pitcher’s phone flooded with messages from well-wishers. He has never pitched in a major league game before, and he didn’t expect to receive that phone call from his agent with a major league offer.
But now that he has it, Clay is determined to prove he belongs at this level.
“In the past, it’s always been just something off in the distance. It’s not been something that’s within grasp,” Clay said. “Now, getting this contract, it’s within grasp and it’s time for me to take full advantage.”