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The best and worst of Mike Clevinger

A look at the roller coaster three months of Mike Clevinger.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians have shipped Mike Clevinger back to Columbus, dealing a brutal blow to those of us who enjoy luxuriously coiffed pitchers. To keep the dream alive, it may be time to become a San Francisco Giants fan for Jeff Samardzija, or pray for the swift return of Noah Syndergaard and more Jacob deGrom starts.

But for the Indians, it’s just a bit of a bummer, especially with Danny Salazar on a 10-day DL sabbatical. Clevinger was incredibly good at times this season, and incredibly bad at others. He silenced the AL West leading Houston Astros, and was blasted by the NL West leading Colorado Rockies. Two great teams, two opposite outcomes. What, if anything, went differently?

It’s difficult to judge Clevinger’s outing in Denver against any other simply because he’s a man with a great curveball who was pitching in a stadium that doesn’t allow curves to do that. But Houston is rather hitter-friendly too, albeit for different reasons (it’s smaller) and it’s rather less of an outlier as far as offense goes. But Colorado still happened, and it was ugly, and he got shipped off to the farm immediately after. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and pitchers have to perform everywhere.

Let’s look at that Astros start, and what went so well with it. First off, Clevinger only walked two batters; up to that point, he’d walked nine hitters in 10 innings. Against the Astros, though, he matched his season high for pitches in the zone at 43.4 percent, equal to his work the following start against the Kansas City Royals. It’s not an incredibly high number in general, but it was good for Clevinger.

He also mixed his pitches more than he has all season, via Brook’s Baseball:

Game Fourseam Curve Slider Change
Game Fourseam Curve Slider Change
@ TX (3/15) 50.00 7.14 14.29 28.57
@ KC (5/7) 53.85 12.09 17.58 16.48
vs. MIN (5/13) 54.65 10.47 12.79 22.09
vs. TB (5/16) 0.00 33.33 33.33 33.33
@ HOU (5/20) 50.94 15.09 20.75 13.21
vs. KC (5/26) 46.99 9.64 19.28 24.10
vs. OAK (5/31) 48.15 18.52 12.04 21.30
@ COL (6/6) 75.00 6.58 18.42 0.00

Against Houston was the only time he threw at least 15 percent of any pitch. This can keep any team off balance. Houston was also very hesitant, and swinging at only 43 percent of his pitches, despite his being in the zone more than ever. That’s the thing about young pitchers — there’s not much book on them so they can do a new thing and look great, even if they weren’t really. He was pretty good though, let’s not take away anything from him. He was just acting outside his expected norms. Aside from the strikeouts, and a corresponding season high 18.6 percent swinging strike rate, Clevinger got a grounder on half of all ground balls. Those grounders went to the right places, too. Unfortunately for Clevinger, that became a problem a few weeks later in Colorado.

That was the real killer for Clevinger in Colorado was a couple ground balls that snuck through. One drove in two runs early in the game as it snuck over first base, and another from Gerardo Parra got between the first and second basemen to set up a rally. In all, his groundball rate was 44.4 percent against the Rockies, which is bad news in that park. The comparative boost in fly ball rate led to a booming homer from Carlos Gonzalez and a few other lasers, including from Antonio Senzatela. Clevinger gave him a meatball. In fact, he gave a lot of guys meatballs:

That’s a lot of pitches in the middle of the zone and a bit more up than you’d like. Days like Tuesday it would have almost been better for him to be wild as he was early in the season. Compare that zone map to how he worked against Houston:

It’s a lot less pitches up and in the middle. Keep in mind, he threw considerably fewer pitches against Colorado because he got hit so hard. His work against Houston was still up, some of them at least, but they avoid the nice swinging part of the zone. That's a dangerous place for any good hitters, which the Astros have many of and Clevinger avoided. Even the ones that were hittable had Houston looking because he was being so unpredictable. Colorado was much more aggressive, and a ball up is a dangerous place for any hitter in Colorado, where league average hitters look like Ted Williams in the box score. Aggression and grooved pitches lead to things like five earned runs in four innings.

Sometimes though, in fact a lot of times in baseball, it's just about luck. Yes, Clevinger didn't do as good a job of keeping the ball down against Colorado, and got comparatively fewer ground balls. But those ground balls he did allow ended up where fielders weren't, and the fly balls drifted too far, and Antonio Senzatela is secretly awesome at hitting. But also, that haunting spectre of BABIP.

For his first four appearances including Houston, Clevinger had a .171 BABIP. For the next three including Colorado, it was a more troublingly normal .316. That's about 20 points higher than league average (and Coors Field allows an unnaturally BABIP on its own. somewhere around .325 or so) so his having an elevated BABIP the last couple games would be driven by that. Even so, balls poked through that hadn't’ in the past. It could be his early goings were a ruse, and we saw the real Clevinger.

Like with the Astros game, Colorado wasn't a data point. He'd had a few rougher outings, and it culminated in the worst way. Same with the Astros, you could kind of expect it was going to happen for Clevinger that day, because he'd been so good. Confidence is untrackable, but you wonder if he was just feeling better one day as opposed to others. And not having your good curve when you rely on it can be a killer.

Clevinger will be back. He's better than he showed just before he got sent down, and probably showed his absolute best in Houston, at least for a rookie. The Indians are just need to stay flexible. It looks worse that he got shipped off just after struggling in Colorado of all places. That's a park where even Clayton Kershaw has a 4.58 ERA. Clevinger has taken his lumps. Hopefully he grows, and becomes more consistently the Houston version of himself. Or he stays how he is and is a very good back end starter. It’s hard to find a real negative in his 2017. He’s good, and has shown he can be better. He just needs to make a little luck to get him on his way.