One of the pleasant surprises of this 2018 Cleveland Indians campaign has undoubtedly been the long-haired, floppy right-handed pitcher they call “Sunshine.”
Following a breakout 2017 season, Mike Clevinger has only built upon that solid foundation, blossoming into one of the best starting pitchers in the American League and solidifying the middle of the Tribe’s rotation. With Carlos Carrasco’s so-so season and Josh Tomlin’s trainwreck year taking the club by surprise, the third-year starter has filled a void in the rotation that many did not expect to be there. Heading into this weekend’s series against the Oakland Athletics, he sports a 3.03 ERA in 16 starts with a 2.5 fWAR.
A key to Clevinger’s success this year has been his incredible ability to limit home runs. His home run to fly ball rate has dropped by over five percent from 2017 and ranks third best in the MLB, while his 0.61 HR/9 rate ranks fifth. The league leader in both of those categories? Clevinger’s rotation-mate and noted acquaintance, Trevor Bauer.
By avoiding the long ball as well as Clevinger does, he limits his potential for a disaster start. He’s not going to keep the opponent off the board as much as other elite pitchers (he “only” has two scoreless starts this season), but he’s not going to singlehandedly lose a game, either. The 27-year-old has just one start this season in which he allowed more than four earned runs, a May 24 outing against the defending champion Houston Astros, going five-and-one-third innings with five earned runs on seven hits.
For a starter who didn’t get the call to the MLB until his age-25 season, this has turned into more than just a feel good story, though. It’s time to start thinking about an all-star bid for Clevinger, who – between he, Corey Kluber and Bauer – is a part of the best three-man group of starters that MLB currently has to offer (sorry, Houston Astro fans).
With the Mid-summer Classic less than three weeks away, there appears to be a a group of shoe-in’s at the top of the American League starting pitcher field. Luis Severino (12-2, 2.10 ERA, 4.1 fWAR), Bauer (7-5, 2.44 ERA, 3.9 fWAR), Justin Verlander (9-3, 1.82 ERA, 3.7 fWAR), Chris Sale (7-4, 2.56 ERA, 3.6 fWAR), Gerrit Cole (9-1, 2.56 ERA, 2.9 fWAR), and Kluber (11-4, 2.54 ERA, 2.5 fWAR) all seem to have punched their ticket to the nation’s capital this July, barring any major changes. With only a couple more starts before the rosters are released, it’s tough to envision enough statistical movement where one of these names falls out of contention.
The number of starting pitchers that the American League takes on its roster has varied in recent years. In 2017, there were nine on the roster, while in 2016, only six. With that in mind, it makes it a bit harder to predict what the final American League starter field will look like, but for the sake of sanity, we’ll expect manager A.J. Hinch to go with the standard amount of eight starters.
With the previously mentioned names penciled in the first six starting pitcher spots, only two empty spaces remain on this hypothetical roster, and Clevinger certainly appears to be in the mix.
Outside of the names already listed, only James Paxton (2.6) ranks higher than Clevinger (2.5) as far as Fangraphs’ measurement of WAR. And don’t let Paxton’s relatively high ERA (3.65) fool you, his FIP of 3.04 suggests that his defense might have let him down more than the average pitcher. The Twins’ Jose Berrios (8-5, 3.15 ERA, 2.5 fWAR) sits right next to Clevinger on the fWAR standings, but has a slightly higher ERA and FIP. Blake Snell (10-4, 2.31 ERA, 1.8 fWAR), Tyler Skaggs (6-5, 2.69 ERA, 2.0 fWAR) and Charlie Morton (10-1, 2.54 ERA, 1.7 fWAR) have also put up fine seasons thus far and will likely be in the running, though advanced metrics don’t like them quite as much.
Separating this pack of starters is like separating grains of sand; they’ve all been great this season. But, the right picks here should be Paxton and Clevinger. Paxton has held down the rotation for a surprisingly good Mariners team this season thanks in part to a gaudy strikeout rate (11.63 K/9) and solid peripheral statistics (sixth in the A.L. in FIP and fWAR). The case for Clevinger boils down to impressive consistency and an ability to avoid home runs at an elite level. His home run rates all rank towards the top of the MLB, while his ERA has held steady below the 3.40 mark all season. His competitors, particularly Snell, Skaggs and Morton, have advanced metrics that suggest that their 2018 season has not been quite as great as their ERA might suggest.
Of course, with a few weeks remaining before the All Star Game takes place at Nationals Park, there is still time for this race to play out, but Clevinger’s hot start to the 2018 season has thrust him to the forefront of this discussion. With the potential for three All-Star starting pitchers and Carrasco nearing a return to the lineup, the Indians yet again have to feel comfortable with its starting rotation as they sit atop the A.L. Central division.