His first two pitches of the night started on the inside corner and darted several inches inside, with one of them almost hitting Angels’ right-handed leadoff man Brandon Phillips. Such is life with Mike Clevinger and his embroidered denim jacket.1 A jerky delivery cedes way to pitches that fly in all directions, seemingly, and serves as the perfect prelude to the ensuing pitches- they could be headed anywhere, which is both a blessing and disguise.
The overwhelming movement on his pitches creates command problems. Allowing four and a half walks per nine innings makes it difficult to be trusted in a postseason series, where any additional base runner allowed could send a team home early. The only other pitcher even being considered for a postseason start with such command issues is the Rockies’ Tyler Chatwood, but his 60% ground ball rate is a solid counter. Clevinger, on the other hand, redeems himself by missing bats at an elite clip.
Tuesday night’s showdown on the left coast with the Los Angeles Angels was a playoff audition, of sorts. While Clevinger has been an incredible, productive member of the 2017 rotation, the walks make it a more difficult decision than it should be. The walks were on display throughout, but so were the whiffs.
It was an efficient outing. Six Angels reached base. One due to catcher’s interference. Another erased on a fine pickoff move. The most encouraging part of the outing was the whiff train kept rolling. Out of his 89 pitches, Clevinger manufactured 10 swings and misses (11.2%). This number is slightly below his season rate but well above league average. None of these came in his final inning, which brings to light an important caveat with Clevinger’s playoff status.
Seemingly a lock to be Cleveland’s fourth starter in October,2 Mike Clevinger’s role needs to be slightly adjusted. When the lineup turns over to face him a second time, command of the strike zone becomes an even bigger issue with a 15% spike in walks per nine. This accompanies an on-base percentage increase of about 15% as well. The premium that is placed on playoff baserunners, given the uptick in the quality of pitching across the board, introduces an interesting conundrum for how to approach Clevinger’s usage.
The Indians should hand him the ball in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. It should be, however, in a limited capacity of three-to-four innings while paying close attention to his command. At that point, you can hand the ball over to Josh Tomlin or Danny Salazar, depending on how Salazar looks over the final week and a half of the regular season.
Another important consideration for Clevinger’s usage in October should be handedness of the upcoming hitters. Perhaps if several left-handed hitters are due up in the fourth inning of a contest, it might be wise to give the ball to Tyler Olson or another member of the elite Tribe bullpen for an inning. In 2017, he has allowed a weighted on-base average of 0.353 against versus lefties, compared to a mere 0.259 mark for right handed batters. Score and situation will be the critical indicator.
Indians fans should find solace in the fact that Mike Clevinger is the fourth option in the rotation for next month’s playoff run. He is effective, but efficiency will be key. Limiting baserunners and finding the strike zone will allow him to pitch deeper into these important games. If his starts go anything like last night’s audition in Los Angeles, he will be perfectly suitable to play the short starter role. Of course, an Indians series lead at the time of his start will make all decisions much simpler.
As an aside, Clevinger was not the postseason auditioning player from the Indians to make a favorable impression last night. Center fielder Greg Allen was a late inning defensive replacement for Jason Kipnis and delivered a five-star Statcast catch to close out the game.