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Improved curveball key to Mike Clevinger’s successful 2017 debut

Mike Clevinger used his curveball more — and more effectively — than he has in the past, and he’s not the only Indians pitcher to do it.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Clevinger started and was brilliant on Sunday. He was the driving force in a combined one-hitter against the Kansas City Royals, even if the Royals do to have work for a month to score more than 40. That's not really true — it's 80, or roughly 2.5 a game, because they're trying some sort of novel "score as little as possible" offense, maybe to create tension and make the games more exciting. If so, it's a stroke of genius by the marketing department.

As for Clevinger, it wasn’t always pretty (four walks in less than six innings) but he still got major league hitters out and didn’t allow a run. We saw a lot of him last year. Let's see if there are some hints of a new Flow.

It goes without saying (even though I’m writing it), that this is all dealing in small sample size. That said, we’re looking at a young pitcher trying to prove himself to the big club and earn himself a place on the team, and in the receiving line for those fat MLB checks, for as long as possible. He’s going to go all out and show everything he has. It’s not like he has to tantalize and leave something on the back burner. There’s only half a book on him anyway, might as well show the other half and baffle some hitters.

I think it’s a little amazing that only 31 percent of his pitches were in the strike zone on Sunday. That seems almost impossible. Despite that, he got a first pitch strike two thirds of the time. That just sounds wrong, and yet, nope. That zone percentage is down from last year, while the first strike rate is up six from 2016. Another couple starts and maybe I’ll get interested if it doesn’t change. It would be weird if the new wrinkle on him is “don’t throw strikes”, but maybe he wants Francisco Lindor to get more double play opportunities. Working on plays that demoralize the opponent, playing the psychological game like Dallas Keuchel. It’s a novel idea; not sure I trust Clevinger with it yet.

In terms of plate discipline, Clevinger is right in line with where he was a year ago. His contact rate dropped two tenths of a percent to 76.5 percent, the swing rate was down less than three points to 40.7 percent. Even the swinging strike rate was similar, 8.8 percent versus 9.3 percent last year. Which is all a little disappointing, I was hoping for a bit of growth. It’s not to say he hasn’t grown, but in one start nothing popped out. Except that zone percentage. Wow.

There was one thing that is interesting, though, if this one data point is the beginning of a trend anyway. On Sunday Clevinger threw 11 curveballs. That’s a number he’s only hit once before, his third start in the majors last year against Chicago. It was quite unlike his outing this past Sunday — five innings, seven hits, six earned runs and two home runs. Maybe it scared him off for a while, because he never threw more than eight in a game after that, preferring his change and slider. They’re both easier to throw, and at least somewhat similar to the fastball in motion. But all of a sudden, in his second chance for more than a cup of coffee, to drop 11 of the again? And located so well. Look at this!

That’s where you want it, down and in fact out of the zone. For comparison, here’s where he put curves last year:

He did it right on Sunday, that’s for sure. Especially for a kid with a live fastball like that, with some good run. Six of those curves were in the zone, one was whiffed on, and six were fouled off. That’s not bad, and again, he located expertly. High curves turn around quick. He buried them on Sunday, makes you curious about what he’s been working on.

In reality, there wasn’t much to Clevinger’s outing that was ]surprising. He walked more than one would like, he got some strikeouts but we would have like one or two more, and this time he got lucky and got out of trouble time and again. It helped that he was facing a historically bad offense.

But this is more about that curve. It’s something I’ve noticed in a lot of Cleveland Indians pitchers. Obviously Cody Allen uses one a lot, but Corey Kluber throws a savage sweeper, Josh Tomlin used it to perfection last postseason, and Trevor Bauer drops an amazing 12-6er a few times a game. It, too, was vital last October. Kluber, Salazar and Carrasco are in the top 25 in curve usage in the American League among starters, Allen is first among relievers.

Some teams have a focus of some kind in teaching pitching, or want a team to work on a certain thing. The Tampa Bay Rays have their changeup cult. The Philadelphia Phillies, on purpose or not, have brought on a ton of curveballers. It’s a comparatively rare pitch, and younger hitters in the majors haven’t seen it much the last decade as it’s fallen out of favor. The Chicago Cubs struggled horribly against curveballs, mostly their younger stars. It’s interesting to see a prospect like Clevinger bring it out so early. Either it’s a confidence in the pitch that he’s been working on, or a lack of confidence in his other stuff, and he was trying everything to skate past the Royals hitters. But the outcome suggests the first.

We’ll see him again soon, and it’ll be something to watch. For the most part it was the same Clevinger we knew last season, but maybe he’s on his way to something more.