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Finding diamonds in Mike Clevinger's rough starts

The young Tribe starter hasn't had the most stellar of starts to his career. But it's not all bad, right?

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

We are three starts into the Mike Clevinger Era for the Cleveland Indians, and to say it’s been forgettable is an understatement. Through those three starts, spanning a brief 14.1 innings, Clevinger has given up 14 runs -- which is good for an 8.79 ERA and 4.63 SIERA -- struck out 13 with seven walks, and given up three home runs. The Indians won the first, a bomb fest in Cincinnati, then lost the next two as they couldn’t recover from the young pitcher’s rough start.

The hype wasn’t Lindor-ian, but people were excited to see what the kid could do. And the team needed some pitching with Carrasco down and Anderson terrible. While it’s not been pretty, there is some solace to be found in what Clevinger has shown us, even if it took a bit of digging.

First off, and most obviously, the stuff he brings looks legit. Clevinger has hit 95 with the four-seam and sits at around 93 with both it and his cutter, both of which have decent life. But it’s the offspeed stuff, that changeup and curveball he’s able to locate, that make him already so savage. FanGraphs’ Pitch Values rates both those pitches as positive. They’re each only about +1, so it’s not a lot, but it’s a start. He mixes the pitches well, too, showing confidence in throwing the changeup to hitters on both sides of the plate and using the curve smartly, dropping it after hammering the top of the zone with high velocity. It’s led to some of his prettier strikeouts. So the material is there for him to move forward, and that alone is the glimmer of hope we wanted. It’s what was missing from the guy he replaced, Cody Anderson, earlier in the year.

Then we go deeper. As the below chart from Brook's Baseball demonstrates, Clevinger keeps the ball low in the zone.

It’s a simple thing, but for a young pitcher, it’s paramount to future success. As Trevor Bauer has shown us time and again, not being able to keep the ball down consistently can lead to bad news in the long term. Here’s his zone from last year.

You’ll see nothing particularly red, save for that lower corner near the foot of lefties. That’s likely when he’s tried time and again to paint the corner and ended up walking guys, or sweeping sliders that hitters would spit at.

Clevinger has worked the bottom half of the zone in his early goings, and if h can keep it up over the long haul it’ll do him well. His last start against the Orioles he was getting squeezed down there, and it led to walks and eventually a very loud hit by Mark Trumbo. That should all normalize, though. It’s not like he’s missing wide and high, or constantly bouncing balls everywhere. He throws his curve for a strike quite often, and that makes him dangerous. As the game wore on he got better, more confident, peaking with an eight-pitch third inning where he looked unhittable. He’s just got to stretch out those times, and limit the damage quite so much.

His swinging strike rate gives hope to those searching for it, so do his contact profiles. First, he’s getting a swing and a miss thus far on 11 percent of pitches. That’s exactly what Giants ace Madison Bumgarner logs, though Bumgarner is left-handed so that changes some things. However, it’s better than Chris Archer (10.6%), Ian Kennedy (10,6%) and even Jake Arrieta (10.4%). You could say that this only means swinging strike rate doesn’t tell anything, or that Clevinger’s sample size is woefully too small, and at least on the second thing, you might be right. But it’s a start. To what, we’ll have to see.

Clevinger’s Contact Profile, according to Fangraphs, tells us of the batted balls he’s allowed, 34.8% have been Hard Hit, 45.7 percent Medium Hit, and 19.6 percent Soft Hit. Or Softly Hit, whatever. These ratings are kind of vague, and it could be grounders or fly balls or liners, but the key is to not allow a lot of hard hit balls. More often than not those end up being hits. But if he can keep similar numbers, he’s in the same league as Liriano, Jose Fernandez, Gio Gonzalez, and Ian Kennedy. Take a look:

Soft Medium Hard
Liriano 18.8% 45.5% 35.8%
Fernandez 18.0% 47.7% 34.4%
Gonzalez 19.1% 46.6% 34.3%
Kennedy 20.9% 45.6% 33.5%

Even Liriano, who is having the worst year among those four, would be a nice ceiling for Clevinger since when on he’s ace material. Sample size, as with any of this, is an ever-looming spectre, but there’s something to all this. Missing bats and causing soft contact, that’s the goal of the pitcher, and in limited time, Clevinger has shown a knack for that.

It’s still a wait and see approach for Clevinger, I for one hope they don’t send him down when Carrasco returns. Though maybe it’d be good for him, now that he knows what it takes in the majors he can hone that in Columbus for a while and come back and buzzsaw these guys. Despite all these sad outcomes in his young major league career, there’s something here for us to look at. Once he puts it together we could be seeing a key piece in the Tribe’s 2018 World Series run.