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Mike Clevinger’s near no-no was bound to happen

The young Tribe hurler doesn’t give hitters much to hit. Throwing more strikes led to a brilliant afternoon.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The way Mike Clevinger has pitched in his young major league career, being told he threw a no-hitter wouldn’t be that surprising. The key word, of course, is "hitter".

Prior to his start on Saturday, Clevinger was very good at missing bats, but also one of the best in baseball at missing the strike zone. I expected more of this trend when he faced the Houston Astros this past weekend. Coming into Saturday, it looked like this would be his greatest test so far this season. The Astros have proven themselves to be contenders at this point in the season, possessing the best record in baseball and able to outpitch, out-hit and out-defend other teams with ease. They found themselves stymied by Clevinger, who was utterly sterling all game. Surely, something was different about Clevinger’s game. Surely.

At first blush, you might explain his success thus far by his not seeing too many lefties, or at least many good ones. But he’s seen his fair share. In his two previous starts, Clevinger faced five lefties against the Minnesota Twins (two switch hitters, three normies) and three lefties against the Kansas City Royals. Against the Astros, Clevinger saw three lefties including the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran. You’d think it would make sense that Clevinger is having better outcomes by facing more hitters who are at a disadvantage split-wise.

In reality, Clevinger has some pretty absurd reverse splits. Though it’s only a 70.1 inning career at this point, right-handed hitters have a .843 OPS against him, basically 2017 Chris Owings every single right-hander. Or Chris Davis, if that pops for you a bit more. Lefties are way, way down at .484, which is 2017 Mike Zunino/Yandy Diaz territory. Many of Houston’ right-handed hitters are much better than an .843 OPS, so they’re operating at a theoretical floor that should only boost their numbers. Clevinger was coming in at a disadvantage. Nobody told him that though. He pitched without fear, and worked all those righties (and the lefties too) like this:

Now, some of those pitches are less than a great idea. And Clevinger did get lucky on a few. But he pounded the zone, for him at least, hitting it a season high 43.2 percent of the time. I’ve written in my previous Clevinger dispatches about his pitching with a seeming lack of confidence, trying to dance around hitters as evidenced here:

He decided to try something different, probably because Cleveland Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway was having a minor aneurysm over all the walks. Even if they don’t really matter if nobody’s getting hits, managers hate them. So he pounded the zone, still didn’t allow hits, and was very successful.

Clevinger got a good deal of swinging strikes (season high 13.2 percent) and used his breaking stuff to great effect. The Astros broadcast was raving about his slider, which apparently they didn’t know about. He threw it a season high 20.75 percent of the time and generated a whiff on seven of those 22 pitches. It didn’t cut into his curve usage either, which also experienced a bump to 15.09 percent, and generated five whiffs on 16 pitches. Seemingly the Astros were coming in expecting fastballs and Clevinger simply threw the fewest he has in a start in his entire career.

That mixing of speeds is really what helped him. The Astros never looked that comfortable. They’re about league average in offensive aggression early in at-bats, swinging at the first pitch just over 30 percent of the time. League average is 28 percent. As a team they don’t get themselves out, and they wait for something to occur. But look at how Clevinger varied speeds, even early:

There was no trend for the Astros to glom onto. Not only was he working with wildly different velocities, he was using multiple planes of attack with a slider, curve, change and fastball. Any pitcher tries to do this to keep hitters off-balance. Clevinger is not blessed with any one amazing pitch and relies on pretty good pitches all around to make all the others better. His greatest time of struggle was late, when he stopped varying the speed as much (and got tired, of course) and ended up in the stretch. Even late, though, when his fastball was barely 90 mph, he got by with the other stuff.

That must have been the whole plan, to use the fastball as a ruse, not a main weapon. Generally a hitter can expect a couple fastballs in an at-bat, but Clevinger wasn’t having any of that. It’s like that relief outing he had back on the 16th write large. That day he threw three pitches, none of them a fastball. It was brilliant. He just did it again but for seven innings, and it was smart to do so because of who he was facing. The predominance of hitters on the Astros are younger guys who love to hit fastballs but struggle with breaking stuff. While Pitch Values on FanGraphs aren’t an exact science, of Astros hitters with at least 60 plate appearances only Evan Gattis, Brian McCann (who Clevinger didn’t face), and Nori Aoki have a positive rating against sliders, and only Gattis has anything resembling a positive rating (0.5 Runs) on curveballs in 2017.

It does make sense that most any hitter would have similar trouble on pitches that aren’t straight, but it tells a piece of a story around Clevinger’s plan. He threw plenty of fastballs, more than half of his 107 pitches, but not consistently enough. It wasn’t enough for Astros hitters to get a feel for.

It’s a very real chance, quite likely in fact, that this was less a trend and more an anomalous data point. But I’ve said before that Clevinger has a nice mix of pretty good pitches that could keep hitters off-balance. It’s right to lose your head over this one a bit because it was an excellent start. He did show some definite skill in handling great hitters. If Josh Tomlin can make a viable career out of just throwing strikes, someone with better stuff than Tomlin does could make more than just a career. Fewer walks will mean more hits, of course. Clevinger just needs to keep learning and growing.

Silencing a very hot lineup in a very offensively friendly stadium (especially with all that right-handed power and those absurd Crawford Boxes) is nothing to downplay. He showed the right trends — attacking the zone and using his full arsenal to great effect. He should do it again.