Back in March, I wrote, as part of WFNY’s outstanding positional preview series, that what set Cleveland’s rotation apart from its competitors for the best staff in North America was its depth. Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco were two amazing pitchers, I figured, but other teams could match their production at the top. What really stood out was that no team could match the bottom 60%..
Well, that vaunted Cleveland Indians rotation hasn’t quite lived up to its gaudy expectations this year, although no member of said rotation is really to blame. Instead, the entities most at fault have been a line drive by third baseman Brian Anderson and some nasty, mutated white blood cells, which forced Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, two of the most consistent top-end starting pitchers in all of MLB, into extended stays on the injured list. Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber would have to fill in as the top three pitchers, and while each of those pitchers seemed like they could be above-average MLB pitchers, only Bauer had a convincing enough track record to anchor the rotation.
And yet, months later, despite Kluber and Carrasco’s continued absence and Bauer’s donning of a Cincinnati uniform, the Cleveland Indians rotation has thrived, ranking fifth in MLB by FanGraphs WAR. On August 31st, the team with the best rotation in baseball coming into the season was missing its supposed top three pitchers, but remained one of the best rotations in baseball. That’s remarkable!
With all respect to Zach Plesac, Adam Plutko, and Aaron Civale, each of whom has filled in admirably, those guys would be filling out the rotation of a middling team were it not for a couple of surprising contributions at the top. Between being predicted as 2019’s breakout player by my favorite writer, winning the All-Star Game MVP, and garnering some high profile comparisons, the Thane Shane Bieber has received accolade after accolade this season, and deservedly so. In his first full season in the big leagues, the SoCal product ranks third in innings pitched, tenth in FIP, 16th in ERA, and eighth in fWAR. He’s been outstanding, but his leap forward merely marks the second most impressive on this year’s squad.
|Clevinger||2.72||2.24||2.63||1.06||44.6 %||10.7 %||0.324||36.3 %||7.7 %||28.6 %|
|Mystery||2.33||2.38||2.97||0.98||36.2 %||10.2 %||0.300||37.2 %||6.5 %||30.7 %|
Whether you’d take Clevinger or the mystery player is a matter of preference. The sizable gap in ERA is likely due to Clevinger’s .324 BAbip, far greater than his .284 career average. Meanwhile, Clevinger has produced superior FIP and groundball rates, while our mystery man has the stronger walk and strikeout numbers. This comparison, of course, is designed to make Clevinger look great, so with that in mind, any guesses as to the identity of the man behind the curtain?
Trick question. Maybe this will help:
Our mystery man is actually a group of mystery men; specifically, they’re the ten best relief pitchers of 2019 by fWAR: Josh Hader, Kirby Yates, Felipe Vazquez, Liam Hendriks, of course Brad Hand, Aroldis Chapman, and a few other equally effective but less known players. That’s right, this isn’t just any ordinary solid season. Mike Clevinger is putting up the numbers of a relief ace, except he’s a starting pitcher.
. . .
If Mike Clevinger hasn’t improved the most of any pitcher this season, it’s only because he was already so good. By FanGraphs WAR, he was merely the fourth most valuable Cleveland pitcher of 2018, hidden beneath the shadow of Bauer, Kluber, and Carrasco. But, if you expand your domain to the entire big leagues, Clevinger finished the season as the 14th most valuable pitcher, throwing exactly 200 innings of 3.02/3.52 ERA/FIP ball. He would have made him the best pitcher on 20 out of the 30 MLB teams. And yet somehow, Clevinger has drastically improved this season.
|2018||3.02||3.52||3.86||25.6 %||8.3 %||74.2 %||52.9 %||94.2||21.0 %||40.5 %|
|2019||2.72||2.24||2.63||36.3 %||7.7 %||65.4 %||50.3 %||96.2||26.0 %||44.6 %|
There’s nothing Mike Clevinger hasn’t improved in 2019: Among starting pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings, Clevinger ranks second in FIP, first in xFIP, second in K%, and third in contact rate. He’s walking fewer and forcing more grounders. He’s throwing his best pitch, his slider, nearly 20% more often. Even his recovery from a nasty teres major strain was impressively quick. Were it not for the breakout of Lucas Giolito, perhaps the worst qualified pitcher of 2018, Clevinger would have a claim to being the Most Improved Pitcher of the Year.
Whenever you have a dramatic improvement in results, you want to see a corresponding change in some aspect of the underlying performance, and with Clevinger, that change is readily apparent in his fastball velocity. In 2018, Clevinger’s four-seamer averaged 94.2 MPH, certainly a mark that was well above-average. This season, though, he’s taken his fastball to a whole new level, increasing his velocity by a full two ticks. Mike Fast, before becoming a member of the Astros front office, found for Hardball Times that a two MPH increase in fastball velocity alone would, on average, result in .5 drop in ERA. Similarly, a 2016 study by Whiteside et al. in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that a 2 MPH fastball velocity increase would, on average, lead to a .26 reduction in FIP.
Clevinger has hyped his training last offseason, so I examined his delivery to see if there are any notable changes. Turns out, the difference in Mike Clevinger’s mechanics between 2018 and 2019 is stark enough that they can be seen with the naked eye. This is like one of those “spot the difference” games you played as a kid:
Both of these pitches took place at Target Field with the bases empty, meaning that the view in each video is identical. I tried my best to pause at the exact same point in each delivery. See how much more of Clevinger’s jersey is visible in the 2019 version? His body is more turned, meaning he’s been getting increased rotation, and therefore greater force, behind his throw. Here’s the same view, but later on in his delivery:
Same concept here. Clevinger is about to release the ball in each of these stills, and in 2019, his hips are further cocked back, meaning there’s more rotational force on his throw. Finally, let’s check out the actual point of release:
Check out Clevinger’s left leg in each of these photos. In 2018, the landing leg is hidden by the push-off leg. In 2019, on the contrary, his landing leg is visible, meaning he is rotating further upon release. Altogether, the increased rotation in Clevinger’s delivery is likely responsible for the increase in velocity.
Additionally, not only has Clevinger altered his mechanics to increase velocity, but it also seems like he has an easier time repeating the new windup. The 2016 Whiteside study also found that pitchers are far better off releasing all of their pitches from the same spot. The less variance between release point, the theory goes, the more difficult it is for the batter to discern which pitch he’s about to see. Luckily, this is the 2010s; we have the technology to look at release points (this is the last one, I promise):
See how much smaller the variance is in 2019’s release points? See how flush the scatterplot looks, compared to the jagged edges of 2018? Clevinger’s improved delivery has not only led to increased fastball velocity, but it’s also simply easier for him to control. I’m just guessing here, but that could also have something to do with his improvement in his walk-rate.
On Thursday, Mike Clevinger dominated Detroit, slinging sliders for strikeout after strikeout. He finished the day with eight shutout innings, whiffing ten with nary a walk. Now, the Tigers aren’t exactly Murderer’s Row; in fact, they stink. But, I’m not sure any team could have hit Mike Clevinger that day, considering his release point chart:
In 2016, Andrew Miller made waves around baseball for revolutionizing the role of relief ace in the playoffs. In 2019, the Indians have Mike Clevinger, who’s every bit as good as a relief ace, but for 110 pitches at a time. When Bob Melvin or Kevin Cash sees Mike Clevinger warming in the Cleveland bullpen, you better believe they’ll be praying for rain.