It’s hard to hate Mike Clevinger. He’s risen from total anonymity (or at least the mid-20’s of the team prospect rankings) to be receiving consistent major league minimum paychecks and looked like a total bad ass doing it. Or at least, like a little brother trying to make his older brother’s friends think he’s a bad ass. His stuff is potentially unassailable, but that keyword is the potential.
After being pressed into service due to injury and ineffectiveness of others, Clevinger's first stint as a major leaguer was... assailed. But after a break, he came back in early August and has been pretty good. Is this the real Mike Clevinger? Is the other one? Is either real? What is real?
We’re messing with something dangerous here known as small sample sizes
But that’s nobody’s fault but Clevinger’s for not pitching enough innings. Anyway, it’s fun to just look. His first go with the Tribe he started three times, all in May. There was a two-inning appearance in July, allowing a hit and no runs, but we’ll just chuck that out and focus on his consistent times in the majors. So for his first 14.1 innings, he pitched like a rookie who was seeing major league hitters for the first time. The walks were high, though they’ve stayed high, and the 8.79 ERA is ugly. He was around to cover some starts until Carlos Carrasco came back, among other things, and he plainly needed a breather afterward.
So when he came back in August, it was expected he’d be a bullpen arm. Which didn’t happen, instead he’s been the spot start/long man, always showing up for at least two innings and starting five games since August 4th. In that stretch, he’s dropped his ERA four runs, and more than anything he’s looked better on the mound. He’s lasted longer than anyone expected him to in a couple different games, and he’s also dropped his BABIP each month, from over .300 to .264 in August and .200 in September.
While BABIP is often used to judge luck and unluck of pitchers and batters, it can also be a way to judge softly hit balls. Pitchers can control it by pitching correctly. Clevinger’s hard-hit ball rate in the second half has dropped six points from his May rate 34 percent to 28 percent. While it’s not concrete and there are many other moving parts in that, check out this graphic of first-half to second-half pitch location by Clevinger.
Obviously, missing the middle of the zone is important. Clevinger started doing that. That also means he's been putting the ball in more difficult places to square up. This is going to make it harder to put the ball in play. This, combined with his drop in hard-hit rate, could explain the dip in BABIP. Meanwhile, his walks have actually climbed, 13 percent of batters compared to 10% in his May starts. This could explain why his FIP has stayed in the low to mid-4.00's. But it seems as though he’s decided to go the Danny Salazar route, just throw unhittable pitches not in the middle of the zone. It works, albeit in limited time and only over four innings max. Combine that method with high velocity and some good offspeed stuff that can find the zone still, and hitters will get overanxious and get themselves out as much as Clevinger gets them out.
Even with the limited innings, Clevinger has evolved over the season
I’d hoped to see some sort of change in repertoire usage in digging into Clevinger’s year, and to a degree, he’s been relying on his slider more since August began. In May when he was bad he threw it 15.79 percent of the time, and in August when he was good he threw it 25 percent of the time. This makes sense since the slider is usually the hardest pitch to hit when thrown correctly. It’s been his main strikeout pitch this year, throwing it 154 times and getting a strikeout out of it 25 percent of the time, and batters pack a 72 wRC+ off it. This compared to 142 off his fastball and 143 off his curve. What’s strange is the atrophy of his change, which was the best in the ALos Angeles Angels minor league system when he was a young prospect.
One other evolution from May to now is the horizontal release point. As this graph demonstrates, he’s changed where he lets the ball go considerably:
A couple feet back toward his body like that gives more depth to pitches that rely on x-axis breaks. Specifically his slider, which he's been throwing more. In real terms, that looks something like this:
Yes, it’s a rough approximation, and CSN Chicago somehow moved its cameras between mid-May and mid-September. The grey uniform shot is the most recent one, as evidenced by Hawaiian Shirt Day on June 1st. You’ll notice Clevinger is more to the middle of the rubber, though, which is huge. You can tell in part by the location of the scraper and SOX logo. He's also releasing the ball a bit higher, and he’s not as low in his release of the pitch. He's changed the angle on guys, not allowing his slider to end up in the middle of the plate and get hammered. These are the smidges that make all the difference.
Maybe it’s all for naught, and he’s just been lucky. But I can’t be the only one who’s recognized a better Clevinger the last couple times out. He’s got the raw stuff, he’s got the persona, and he could be legit for the Cleveland Indians. There’s been talk that he’s picked up his pace on the mound, which was on full display in his last start in Chicago, and that could help him just pitch without getting caught up in thinking too much. They do need him to be pretty good, because if Salazar can’t get healthy, we may see Clevinger in a key spot come October. If this recent run of goodness isn’t all a ruse, that might not be such a bad thing.