Will Clevinger be the sixth man of the year for Tribe’s rotation?

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Spring Training 2017 is full bore. The World Baseball Classic is set to begin, and games in Arizona and Florida are as well. For fans of the Cleveland Indians, it means potentially removing some of the worries being tracked. Despite having a set five-man rotation on a team that is projected to win 93+ games, the biggest worry is with the rotation as the most consistent part of pitching is that arms get injured.

The set five-man rotation might prove to be one of the best in MLB, but depth will still be needed at some point to navigate the 162 game season. With Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco coming off injuries, the Indians are wise to use Spring Training to see if any of their young arms will be up to the task. Unfortunately, Cody Anderson- the most experienced of the starters outside the rotation- is rehabilitating from an offseason surgery. That leaves Fabio-haired Mike Clevinger and ALCS-hero Ryan Merritt as the most likely sixth man candidates. As fantastic as it was to see Merritt shut down the Toronto Blue Jays in the postseason as fans bought him wedding gifts, he is still a soft-tossing lefty who would likely struggle if the Indians needed him to attempt to eat major innings. The true upside candidate is Clevinger.

Some promise in 2016 with major caveat

Clevinger’s first forray into MLB last May was an utter disaster. He gave up 14 runs in 14.1 innings pitched over three games started. He was much better when called upon later in the season as he started seven games and came out of the bullpen seven times. In those 14 appearances, he managed a 3.96 ERA in 38.2 innings pitched.

The then 25 year old mixed a 94 mile per hour fourseam fastball with a 83 mile per hour slider and 87 mile per hour changeup. Each pitch was effective in spots though his attempts at using a twoseamer, cutter, and curve did not go well- so he scrapped their usage. Clevinger did have a bit of an over-reliance on his fastball as he pitched it 54% of the time, but such usage is not uncommon among young starters as they refine their secondary offerings.

Clevinger struggled with his command of the strike zone and/or getting batters to chase his pitches off the plate. He wound up with a 9% K-BB%, which is almost half of the elite 16% K-BB% he demonstrated in both Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus over the last two seasons. The drop in this ratio was almost entirely due to issuing far more free passes as his strikeout rate remained near the same lofty heights.1

Velocity maintenance issue
Eno Sarris of Fangraphs pointed to another huge issue from Clevinger in 2016.

What they did have last year was trouble with stamina. Between the first and sixth innings, Harvey and Lamb (and Dylan Bundy) lost over a tick on their fastballs. (Mike Clevinger lost almost two ticks.) That’s much more than the average, which is only around one-third of a mile per hour.

He was losing two miles per hour on his four-seam fastball by the time he made it to the third time through the order. Digging deeper into the data shows he lost a similar two miles per hour on his change up and slider. He abandoned usage of the cutter and curve. Clevinger became more predictable and less dangerous as his pitch counts rose, which is a horrible combination.

Facing opponent as a starting pitcher
First time through the order = 133 sOPS+ against
Second time through the order = 79 sOPS+ against
Third time through the order = 232 sOPS+ against

Pitch count 1-25 = 124 sOPS+ against
Pitch count 26-50 = 75 sOPS+ against
Pitch count 51-75 = 68 sOPS+ against
Pitch count 76-100 = 214 sOPS+ against

From the above data, it is seen that 2016 Clevinger only had 75 or so pitches before he fell off a cliff. Given his control issues, that was anywhere from three to five innings of effective work.

courtesy of brooksbaseball

courtesy of brooksbaseball

The upside
Clevinger had a 5.26 ERA (4.86 FIP) in 2016. The peripheral statistics, minor league numbers, and age all suggest that he will make a progression in his development this year. Projection models have him anywhere from 4.14 to 4.61 ERA (4.15 to 4.47 FIP). Clevinger was also only inducing a 38% ground ball rate and 18% soft contact rate. If he can find a way to increase those aspects of his game with some better control (and perhaps a better secondary offering), then he can make an even bigger leap than the projections suggest.

Mike Clevinger and Tyler Naquin have not gotten the “best shape of their lives” stories written about them, but both players have visibly been stronger in Spring Training. Clevinger has been noted by many – including manager Terry Francona- to have been hitting 100 miles per hour consistently with his fastball. He is an early high-speed guy (in Spring Training 2016, he was hitting 96 to 97 before settling down to 94-95 in-season), but it is still marked increase in velocity.

If Clevinger has also found a way to extend his endurance during games, then the upside is ridiculous. He could become the next Danny Salazar for the Indians. He has shown an ability to refine his control in the minors, so he should be able to continue to do so. While he works on improving his secondary pitches, a fastball in the upper 90s will mask a bunch of issues.

Last word
The Cleveland Indians are going to need a starting pitcher outside their current five-man rotation to step up in 2017. Someone from outside of Kluber, Carrasco, Salazar, Bauer, and Tomlin might even be likely starting for the Tribe should they make it back to the MLB postseason. Mike Clevinger has first dibs on becoming the sixth man of the year for the Indians, and early indications from Goodyear are that he is not going to concede those rights.

  1. Note: Clevinger also struggled with command in High A for both the Los Angeles Angels and Indians but it was thought to be due to his rehabilitation from surgery. []