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Mike Clevinger’s velocity drop

Mike Clevinger didn’t throw as hard this year. What, if anything, does this mean?

MLB: ALDS-New York Yankees at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Clevinger was a delightful development for hte Indians in 2017. While the walks kept being a problem, the hits stayed low as they did in 2016, he struck out a very ood 27.3 percent of hitters, and he was one of nine starters worth more than 3 Wins Above Replacement that threw less than 140 innings. His own teammate Trevor Bauer was worth about the same number of wins and threw over 50 more innings. Given the chance, he was a very solid major league pitcher. It’s neat to think what he could turn into, especially if he could cut down on the walks. One problem though - his fastball velocity fell off in 2017, down to 92.8 mph from 94.5 in 2016. As good as he was, as good as his slider and curve and whatnot are, this is potentially a problem. At the end of the day, velocity is everything. What if this year was the best we will see of Mike Clevinger?

There’s a couple things to look at here. First, Clevinger took a big leap in innings pitched this year, up to 121.2 from 53 last year. But that’s a bit muddled since those are only his numbers with Cleveland. All told in 2017, he threw 155.2 between Columbus and Cleveland compared to 146 last year and 158 in 2015 in Akron. Certainly pitching in the majors is harder, the better thing to look at would be pitches thrown. W don’t have hard numbers, but based on the higher walk rates he’s had so far in the majors it stands to reason he’s throwing more. So he could just be tiring out more, and come back stronger in 2018.

The other thing to consider is his role this year compared to last. He started 21 games this year in 27 appearances, compared to only 10 starts in 17 appearances last year. He was expected and probably hoped to go deeper, so he couldn’t go balls to the wall. That could lead to reduced velocity, and this is just a small blip before he re-assumes the level we saw from him in 2016.

The thing about pitchers though, they always lose velocity. Eno Sarris wrote about this at Sports on Earth a couple years back. A guy’s debut is generally the hardest he throws and it’s all worse every year afterward. We already saw Clevinger fall off some. What could his age 27 season hold? Well, perhaps not so much bad news. I looked at 10 starters who, between 2013 and 2017, had seasons where they pitched at 25, 26, and 27. Here's the chart I made you:

This is a little encouraging. At the worst, there was little fade from 25-27 for most of these guys. All of which benefit from some level of the most advanced modern pitcher care. Clevinger came up at 25 and we just saw him at 26. If he hold steady from this year and simply throws 50 more innings, he could be a 4.5-5 win player. That’d be amazing. But as Sarris noted, and as we've all seen from just watching baseball, velocity drops. Even Trevor Bauer, who works very hard to increase and maintain his velo, saw his fade just a tick from 2016 to '17, his average fastball falling .3 mph to 94.3.

Clevinger is in Bauer's sphere of influence, and was brought to those pitching wizards at Driveline Baseball last summer while they were in Washington facing the Mariners. I don't know if Clevinger trains with them, but that could have planted a seed. I do know firsthand the Indians use similar training techniques since I saw Clevinger actually using weighted balls and long toss to warm up against the Orioles this past summer. He knows velocity is king. He wants to put the work in. That, in conjunction with that chart above, gives me some hope that he won't suddenly become Tomlin Mark 2. That, and this chart:

It's not an incredible spike, but he was throwing as hard or harder in September as he was in April. And that uptick in October - based in large part from him going back to the 'pen - is a bit encouraging at least. He didn't fade. We have seen guys like Charlie Morton have a big leap in velocity because they decided to throw harder. Clevinger has shown mid-to upper 90's ability at times, could it be intent that leads to his leap? An offseason of conditioning to be able to better handle 25-30 starts could be the key to his becoming yet another ace in the Indians rotation.

He's in the right place, at least. He just has to take advantage of it.