We got to experience another Mike Clevinger outing this past weekend, and sadly for the Cleveland Indians it didn’t quite go as well as the first time out. Some of that could be chalked up to a scintillating outing by Jose Berrios, but Clevinger had to face an offense that isn’t almost utterly inept this time around. Still, he was pretty good and he’s an interesting piece of the Indians’ now and future, so I like to take a look back at how he did.
Now if I told you a young pitcher with only 12 career starts had a 1.3 WHIP and was striking out 25 percent of batters while showing a solid arsenal, you’d take this limited information and assume I was talking about some kind of phenom, or at least top prospect. But that’s the thing about walks. Right now, Clevinger is walking 22.5 percent of hitters. In a vacuum, and even in context, that’s kind of crappy. But they haven’t hurt him as we expect walks to, because he’s also never giving up any hits. Through ten innings this season with Cleveland, he’s allowed four hits. This is for two reasons. First, he throws several good pitches, and keeps the ball down. Second, he pitches like this:
He’s just all over the place. The term “effectively wild” has become memetic at this point in baseball, used as a joke to describe guys who throw the ball to the backstop and the title of possibly the most popular baseball podcast out there. But it’s a thing, and Clevinger is that thing. So far it’s worked for him even if he’s upsetting people with free passes
Here’s the thing about walks — they’re not as bad as they are made out to be. Traditionally they are viewed as a failure by the pitcher more than anything else, a gift to the hitter who didn’t even have to work. As Carlos Santana and even more amazingly Roberto Perez have proven over their careers, earning walks is at least at some level a skill. There’s the dreaded “leadoff walk”, which is supposed to be a death knell for a pitcher, sign of a big inning. But they don’t score any more often than any other walk, at least not enough for it to matter.
In calculating many Sabermetric stats, particularly wOBA and wRC+, various offensive happenings are weighted based on the expected value of that run. A home run, for instance, is generally worth about 1.4 runs, since there’s one sure run and probably a guy on base more often than not. A walk is worth .3 runs above average. A single is .44 runs. On paper then, it’s actually “better” to walk rather than allow a single. It’s just that a walk also means more pitches, a more tired pitcher, a shorter outing and possibly worse performance in following at-bats and a floated slider or what have you that ends up a majorly damaging pitch.
That’s what happened to Clevinger. He only lasted 4 ⅓ innings, despite looking very good. In the fourth inning, when all the runs he allowed scored, he did let the first two guys on with a walk, and a wild pitch did allow Robbie Grossman to move to second. But it was a bunt single and his fielding effort, not a pitching issue, that allowed one run to score. Then he got a strikeout and two groundouts. It was the kind of inning that just kind of happens to even the best of pitchers, and if he’d had a lower pitch count I wouldn’t have been surprised to see him work well into the sixth inning and earn a quality start. The Indians offense took most of last week off so it wouldn’t have mattered, but that’s not his fault.
The real issue I had with Clevinger was that he seemed almost afraid to actually pitch to the Minnesota Twins at times. Walking Miguel Sano is fine, even if the style was a bit bothersome. In the first inning, Clevinger got him down 1-2 then ended up walking him three pitches later. But Sano can hit a ball out of space-time if you aren’t careful. It’s players like Jorge Polanco, he of the career 100 wRC+, and the slower than that start to the season. He’s there for his glove. But Clevinger pitched him like this:
This shows both the good and bad of Clevinger. He can work the edges of the strike zone and avoid getting barreled up, but as yet he doesn’t quite have that true out pitch. He didn’t give Polanco anything to really swing on but he could have had a shorter at-bat. He could have stood to challenge Polanco with a fastball or something. Not a stupid pitch up in the zone, but maybe get him inside. I wrote last week about his curve, which he again used at a decently high percentage, and he did drop one on Polanco. It’s that dot at the bottom of the zone above, and it was a filthy pitch. But this effective wildness could turn into being afraid of contact over time if he’s not careful. That doesn’t mean pitch to contact, but it does mean pitch inside. Most of his misses on Saturday were away or low. Pitching like that mitigates contact and damage, and he’s got decent enough swing-and-miss stuff that he’ll get strikeouts. It just means he’s not long for the mound each start if nothing changes.
At some point Clevinger will get these walks down, though if he keeps not giving up hits it might not be necessary. He could be the face of a new world of “starters” that barely go five innings. The Indians used Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer this way in the postseason.
Clevinger hasn’t gotten hammered on Second/Third Time Through The Order Syndrome like Tomlin does, he just throws too many pitches. All his strikeouts were swinging though, which means he’s got the stuff to get out good hitters. He just needs to be more fearless, I suppose, and challenge hitters. That might make for some ugly stat lines, and that’s the real problem. For a player on the bubble that’s not something he wants to do. He needs great outings to stick around, something to point to. All the walks and pitches out of the zone are because he wants to stay in the majors, make the perfect pitch all the time and not get wrecked with home runs and gappers.
One wonders what he’d look like without the specter of Corey Kluber’s return and the rest of the rotation already being filled out. Perhaps there’d be more aggression. He needs to be a starter because he has such great stuff. But for now he’s got a standing reservation on the Columbus shuttle, and that’s just too bad.
There’s more than just the fringe to Mike Clevinger.
Clevinger pitched in relief for a batter late in the game Tuesday night, and it was a truly odd experience. Odd because Clevinger is known, at least to a degree, as someone who lives off the fastball, and like most pitchers uses it as a springboard to other pitches. Against Evan Longoria though, Clevinger threw precisely zero fastballs. He went slider, curve, changeup. The fastest pitch was about 87 mph. This was fun for two reasons. First, in a sense he still used that fastball, even without using it. You know Longoria was sitting fastball because its’ a young pitcher pressed into relief duty on short notice, so of course he’d throw a fastball. Clevinger (or possibly Gomes) simply out-thought Longoria. Second, it showed that Clevinger, as well as the coaches and catchers, do trust his off-speed stuff to an immense degree, enough to execute that next level type of pitching. If anything, I think that outing, as brief as it is, showed that Clevinger belongs in the rotation rather than the bullpen. Three very good pitches that got a very good hitter looking. . And in typical Clevinger fashion, only one was actually in the strike zone. That was some impressive stuff.