In the Cleveland Indians rotation, it is easy to be overlooked, following a two-time Cy Young Award Winner, a Cy Young contender in Carlos Carrasco, a rubber-armed competitive fiend named Trevor Bauer, the man with the best split-change in baseball — Danny Salazar— or the machismo carrying “Little Cowboy”. Mike Clevinger, much like the gin and tonic in the modern cocktail scene remains refreshingly underrated. Of course, underrated remains a tiring phrase which is used in the lede of click-bait articles about that your teams sixth best player. Perhaps overshadowed is more apt or perhaps Clevinger’s position of appreciation on the Cleveland Profession Baseball Club is irrelevant. Nevertheless, Clevinger had a major breakout in 2017 which may have foreshadowed the future of the Cleveland rotation.
Clevinger’s surface level performance was exquisite, a 3.11 ERA against and his FIP of 3.85 while suggesting a bit of cluster-luck was still strong considering the league’s elevated run scoring. However, in order to cast long-term expectations on Clevinger, a late breakout at 26, it is important to answer or at least address three questions about his 2017 campaign. First, is his elevated strikeout rate spike sustainable? Second, can Clevinger continue to succeed with an abysmal walk rate? Third, does Clevinger have the contact management to sustain a below-average BABIP against?
1. Is the 2017 surge in strikeout rate sustainable?
In 2017, Clevinger struck out 27.3% of batters despite never before having cleared a 26% strikeout rate, even in the minor leagues. Part of Clevinger’s leap was an increase in whiff% from 10% to 12.4%, with league average whiff percentage being 10.4%. Thus, Clevinger is certainly better than average at inducing swing and miss. The next level question is whether any development or adjustment occurred that might explain the major increase in K%. And while MLB’s K% is increasing across the board due to a variety of factors, it does not entirely explain Clevinger’s leap.
The improvement was not the result of a velocity leap with his velocity sustaining a slight drop if anything.
One potential piece of the puzzle is that Clevinger decreased his overall fastball usage and increased the diversity of his secondary pitch mix.
The most significant adjustment is the increasing usage of his curveball. In a limited 2016 sample, Clevinger’s curveball was abysmal, allowing a wRC+ against of over 200 and a K% of just 10%. In 2017, it was devastating a wRC= against of just 33, and a K% of 42%. One of the reasons was curveball command. Below is the ISO against Clevinger’s curveball based on location. You can see that mistakes in the zone are punished.
In 2017, curveball had significant command gains on his curveball, burying it down instead of hanging it as he had prior.
While it cannot explain the entire strikeout rate surge, increased usage and command of the curveball was a major gain for Clevinger in ramping up his strikeout rate. In this sense, it is reasonable to suspect that a sum of Clevinger’s gains will be sustained.
2. Can Clevinger sustain success with an abysmal walk rate?
Above are the top 10 in walk rate in Major League Baseball in 2017 with at least 120 innings. This is not binding, as can be seen, Robbie Ray was able to succeed with a similarly horrific walk rate. Of course, K-BB% was still 7% better than Clevinger’s. This leaderboard illuminates that success for Clevinger will always be a narrow line unless his control of the strike zone can improve. Nothing here is set in stone but for Clevinger to succeed as he ages and sees velocity decline, it will happen eventually, he has to improve his control.1 It starts with simply not throwing a high enough volume of strikes. The league average pitcher throws about 45% strikes, Clevinger has thrown 40.7% in his big league career to date, his minor league walk rates suggest it is a long-term issue.
The answer to this question is that while Clevinger has made important strikeout gains that allow his control issues to be hidden, his ability to perform at an average to above average big league rate is a tightrope walk until the control improves. Mechanically, expecting his control to improve may ultimately harm his largest advantages: deceptive mechanics.
Clevinger hides the ball for a significant period of time in a herky-jerky motion towards home plates which involves an aggressive sweep of his front leg that would irk many a pitching coach. The sweeping action and unbalanced finish make it difficult for Clevinger to repeat his release point and ultimately control the baseball. However, the deceptive value of hiding and sweeping the baseball in is important for him in terms of getting swing and miss. Clevinger mechanics are a reason why his perceived velocity is at least one MPH higher than his actual velocity. Therefore, adjusting Clevinger’s mechanics to improve control while not ceding his advantages is a significant challenge for Carl Willis.
3. Does Clevinger have above average contact management skills?
In terms of hard contact percentage and soft contact percentage, Clevinger is ostensibly a league average pitcher. Clevinger does get a solid amount of infield fly balls which is one important contact management skills but not at an elite rate, more like above average. Nor does Clevinger get an exceptional ground ball rate with it resting a little below league average. With limited ground balls come the more valuable contact for hitters, fly balls and liners, especially in the “juiced ball” era. Clevinger was good at avoiding barrels, allowing very few per plate appearance. Further, he also had a low exit velocity on fly balls/line drives which is the most important exit velocity to limit, the exit velocity on ground balls also indicated contact management skills.
Clevinger allowed a favorable BABIP (batting average in balls in play) against of .273, which is significantly better than average. Andrew Perpetua’s xStats based on batted balls project him at .290 for 2017. This is essentially average to a tick above contact management, though the xOBA suggests as does the exit velocity on fly balls/line drives that Clevinger has a solid contact management profile.
While Clevinger has some strong components in the contact management department, none of them are elite. One would like to see more ground balls but he did limit barrels which is a skill and one that limits adverse outcomes. Thus, it is fair to assert that he has average to above-average contact management skills.2
Clevinger broke out in 2017 with a huge strikeout rate surge. This surge can be partially credited to improved curveball command and this elevates his floor to average big league starter. Yet, the control for Clevinger like for Salazar remains an imposing flaw. In order to make the leap from mid-rotation or back of the rotation starter, the control has to improve and his mechanics make a substantive improvement in that area difficult. The contact management skills are good and paired with his strikeout gains, it is worth celebrating his 2017 gains and looking forward to what is to come from Mike Clevinger.