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Mike Clevinger vs. Ryan Merritt: The Battle for the Cleveland Indians Rotation

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One of these two young arms will (most likely) get a shot to start for the Cleveland Indians this season. Who should it be?

Can Mike Clevinger's hair pitch for the Cleveland Indians?
Can Mike Clevinger's hair pitch for the Cleveland Indians?
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the 2016 season, the Cleveland Indians were picked by a lot of folks to be the top team in the American League Central. Those who did choose the Indians to win the division pointed to the starting rotation as the dominant force that would take the Tribe into October. To start the season, the Cleveland Indians had:

  • Corey Kluber, the 2014 Cy Young winner and staff ace
  • Carlos Carrasco, the starter-turned-reliever-turned-starter who was giving Kluber a real run for his money for the title of "staff ace"
  • Danny Salazar, who electrified crowds and the radar gun in 2013 on his way to pitching in the Wild Card game against the Tampa Bay Rays
  • Cody Anderson, the rookie who came up and shocked everyone with how efficient he was
  • Josh Tomlin, the workhorse who finally looked to have fully recovered from his TJ surgery in 2012
Those five don't even take into account Trevor Bauer, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft who has the arsenal and the potential to be a legitimate ace. In short, the Cleveland Indians started the year with a formidable rotation and fairly good depth. Now, a month into the season, the rotation has become less of a certain thing with the loss of Carlos Carrasco to an injury and Cody Anderson falling off the face of the earth. With Bauer now back in the rotation, the Cleveland Indians will need to find someone to take Anderson's rotation slot should they decide that he isn't cut out for the major league rotation anymore. To do this, the Tribe is left with two options:
  1. Bring someone in (either via trade or FA signing)
  2. Promote someone from within the system
The available options outside of the organization aren't necessarily great options (aside from Tim Lincecum, I don't even really know who is still unsigned), and a trade would most likely take away some of the Tribe's best prospects.  So if the Indians are looking to promote from within, I think that they must make a choice between two pitchers: Mike Clevinger or Ryan Merritt. In a two-man race, who should get the call to the show? Here are some stats in a box for both pitchers:

Mike Clevinger

  • Age: 25
  • Level: Triple-A
  • LGT 2016 prospect rank: 3

At the beginning of the season, Clevinger was the pitcher in the Indians system who was most likely going to be called up if the Tribe needed a spot starter; based on MLB's prospect rankings, he was the first Triple-A pitcher on the list, which would indicate that he was closest to being major league ready. Last September, John Sickels wrote up a nice piece on what to expect from Clevinger in 2016 (you can read the full article here); here's an excerpt:

Clevinger can hit 96 MPH, both his slider and curveball flash plus, he's made good progress with the change-up, and he throws strikes. He has a workhorse body and while it took some time to make the full recovery from Tommy John, he's shown no problems with stamina this year, finishing the season very strongly (20/2 K/BB in last 20 innings, just two runs and 11 hits allowed).

Clevinger has gotten off to a solid start this season, but he has some competition in the form of Ryan Merritt:

Ryan Merritt

  • Age: 24
  • Level: Triple-A
  • LGT 2016 prospect rank: n/a

Merritt was not on a lot of people's top prospects to watch list coming into 2016. In fact, after looking over some of the pre-season rankings, I didn't see his name pop up really anywhere. In 2015, our own community here at Let's Go Tribe voted Merritt as the #19 prospect in the Tribe farm system (he was not in the top 20 for 2016). Katrina Putnam of Wahoo's on First wrote about Merritt in November of 2015 (full article can be found here):

Merritt is not a flashy pitcher by any means. He was drafted in the 16th round of the 2011 draft, and he doesn’t throw very hard. In 2014, Baseball America rated him as having the best changeup in the Carolina League – the same year he made the Tribe’s Top 30 prospect’s list, at number 27.

After facing some struggles in Triple-A after a late-season promotion, Merritt was looking to bounce back in 2016 in order to get back into the discussion of the Tribe's top pitching prospects. With names like Rob Kaminsky, Brady Aiken, Justus Sheffield, and Adam Plutko all dominating headlines in terms of pitching prospects, it's easy to see why Merritt has flown under the radar.

So, which pitcher should be called up when the Indians need a fifth starter? Pre-season rankings and projections are a good start, but how has each pitcher done so far in 2016? Here are their stats thus far for 2016:

Player ERA IP H ER HR BB K WHIP BB/9 K/9
Clevinger 3.03 29.2 25 10 1 15 29 1.348 4.6 8.8
Merritt 2.54 39 32 11 2 6 31 0.974 1.4 7.2

Merritt, in the small sample that is the 2016 season, has pitched better than Clevinger. That's not to say that Clevinger has pitched poorly because he hasn't; but when comparing the stats, Merritt has thrown more innings, walked fewer batters, and has a lower ERA and WHIP. Merritt has given up more hits, but his H/9 is actually better than Clevinger's, but not by much (7.4 to 7.7).

The biggest knock against Clevinger is his inability to minimize free passes. His 4.6 BB/9 is inflating his WHIP, and if he's struggling with command in Triple-A, it's difficult to imagine that it will drastically improve as soon as he moves up to the majors. This has been an issue that Clevinger has struggled with at every level of the minors (except AA). On the flip side, Clevinger has done a really good job throughout his career when it comes to striking batters out. His lowest K/9 rate came in Class-A ball when it was 7.5 K/9.  This high strikeout rate can be mainly attributed to Clevinger's upper-90s fastball as well as his plus secondary pitches.  Clevinger is the perfect example of a power right-hander (his Baseball-Reference page lists him as 6'4" 210lbs) and, again, he has pitched well for Columbus so far this season.

Ryan Merritt, despite being off to a better start this season, is very much an antithesis to Clevinger. He's a left-handed pitcher who relies on accuracy and precision instead of trying to overpower hitters (his fastball sits in the upper 80s to low 90s). This good control can be seen in his low BB/9 rate, which he has consistently sustained throughout every level of the minors (his highest BB/9 came in A- ball when it was 2.3). If you're looking for a comparison, I would say that Merritt most closely resembles Josh Tomlin in that he doesn't beat you with velocity, but rather with pinpoint control and good pitch sequencing.

At the end of the day, you are left with two pitchers who are finding success in very different ways. This is a good problem to have because no matter which pitcher gets the call, the other can rest easy knowing that he should be on the way up soon. If I had to choose one over the other, I would give the nod to Clevinger over Merritt based solely on the fact that Clevinger is a power righty who has the ability to blow pitches past hitters if his stuff isn't all there. Merritt has excellent precision, and I believe that he will be a great back of the rotation guy at best and a LOOGY out of the pen at worst. My main concern with Merritt is that, when he transitions up to the majors, if he struggles with command, he won't have the arsenal of pitches to fall back on that Clevinger has. But, like I said, the argument could be made for either pitcher, and you wouldn't be wrong either way.