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Mike Clevinger, and figuring out “figuring it out”

What would it look like if Mike Clevinger has actually figured out what it takes to be a major league pitcher?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made in the last couple days about Mike Clevinger finally “figuring it out” the last couple starts. Meaning, of course, that he's starting to make some sort of leap to full time major league starter. He does have the raw stuff, but many pitchers do. For a young pitcher though, each start is a “prove it” outing, the expectation being that success needs to be consistent, strung together. But that clicking, that becoming suddenly very good, is something the Cleveland Indians have experienced firsthand several times in the last decade. Perhaps something in the recent past could portend the future.

In terms of a sudden click, I mean pitchers like Cliff Lee or Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco. All three were some sort of also-ran or failed prospect. Lee got left off a playoff roster, then won a Cy Young. Kluber was stupendously average, then won a Cy Young. Carrasco was a headcase, and now only repeated fluke injuries seem to stand between him and a Cy Young. Or at least some votes. What connects these three men?

Cliff Lee: The value of hard work

Of our three subjects, Lee is hard to understand simply because the adjustment he made was so subtle, but so incredible. Also the video is harder to find, but that’s not that big a deal.

The key to Lee’s click was consistency really, consistency of release and motion of all his pitches. He never had truly elite velocity, just good, and solid movement. What separated him and made him so amazing for about six years was the most pinpoint location I have ever seen in a pitcher. His ability to locate low to 90's right on the outside or inside corner, simply perfect pitches that accounted precisely for the movement all his pitches had, it was otherworldly. He didn't always do that, and that's why he had a 6.29 ERA in 2007, and why he wasn't on the playoff roster.

It wasn't until that winter and spring, where he committed himself to physical fitness and working with his pitching coach to keep the same release point no matter the pitch that he put it all together. The following two graphs show his release point by game in 2007 and then 2008. The first is his vertical release point:

As opposed to a wildly varied release elevation in '07, he was much more consistently planned in 2008 outside of to blips. The first is a game against the Detroit Tigers where he lasted only five innings, gave up six hits and two walks and struck out five. The second was the All-Star Game. Now here's his horizontal release point:

Again, he was all over the place each start in 2007, then was suddenly masking his pitches much better in 2008 from a horizontal angle. he got even better at it too - here's a plot of his release points from 2008:

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and here's 2009:

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We don’t have release point data from this site for 2007 sadly, but this trend continues. His release point kept compressing as the years went on and he moved from Cleveland to Philadelphia to Seattle to Texas to Philadelphia. By the time he and Roy Halladay were pairing to be the greatest 1-2 punch in a rotation since Schilling and Johnson, it's like everything was coming out of a pinhole.

He didn’t do anything special, except pitch perfectly. One day in the winter of 2007, after missing out on October baseball, perhaps he committed himself, or refined his mechanics, or something. Pitching coach Carl Wills did reportedly suggest he try making everything come from one place for deceptions’ sake, and it also resulted in Lee’s being able to spot fastballs like he’s Bullseye, as played by Collin Ferrell. But like I said, it’s hard to pin down what he did to leap from middle of the rotation starter to best in baseball. He simply committed to the process, and the results were brilliant.

Corey Kluber: Firmware updates, and throwing his best stuff

This is where it gets a bit easier. With Kluber, at first glance it’s about what he stopped doing more than what he started doing. Specifically, throwing changeups:

As that shows, he’d already been phasing it out,but what’s really remarkable is the parallel disappearance of his four-seam fastball. Though only for one year. Simultaneously to this, Kluber developed one of the best sweeping curves (Brooks Baseball calls it a slider, he calls it a “breaking ball”) in the majors. It s a simply savage pitch, and only get better every year. This year he’s throwing it more than ever, and he’s been as savage as ever to hitters. Prior to Nomar Mazara homering of it the other day, hitters had a .123 slugging percentage on Klubers breaker. It’s simply as good as it gets.

Kluber is an interesting case, though. Ever since breaking out and winning a Cy Young in 2014, he’s tweaked and tinkered his approach to hitters. As you can see, he’s folded in more four-seams to mix with his sinker, increasing his cutter usage, and in particular this year really leaning on his curve. That’s led to a career high 12.6 percent swinging strike rate, a career high. What he seems to have done is just leaned more and more on the pitches he’s best at. Of the three men I’m looking at, his breakout is perhaps the most trackable. Lee did get Cy Young votes two years prior to his actually winning the award, and Carlos Carrasco always had the stuff, but Kluber in 2013 looked great, he just wasn’t getting the strikeouts. By eliminating his worst pitch, getting better at throwing the curve, and locating better:

He just got more consistent and threw harder-to-hit pitches. It's more than just that, though. I decided to take a peak at how he looked on the mound in 2013, and in 2014. First, here's a snapshot of Kluber on August 5, 2013, a day he was excellent against Detroit in a loss with 7 2/3 innings, no runs allowed and six strikeouts:

Now here's Kluber on July 30, 2014, in the midst of shutting out the Seattle Mariners and out-dueling Felix Hernandez:

There's a distinct move to the left side of the rubber in the second one. These are the smidges that make the difference, like Lee refining a release point or Rich Hill playing with his arm angle.

Of the three men examined here, Kluber is the one that most “got better”. Unlike Lee or Carrasco, he didn’t refine, he just learned how to get more break out of his pitches and how to pitch, not just throw. And he’s constantly tinkering too, each year featuring one pitch over another. It’s why I think he’s going to be very good even in his twilight years. But he’s more than very good now, and he did so much of it himself.

Carlos Carrasco: Starting like a reliever

Sometimes when a pitcher is bad, there’s nothing really physically wrong with them. It can translate to being bad, whether in inconsistency some such thing, but sometimes you’re just a bit of a headcase. That was what was wrong with Carlos Carrasco. Remember when he got suspended in 2013 for throwing at Kevin Youkilis? Or that incident in New York City where he was headhunting a bit back in 2011, I believe it was? There was a history. The suspension was unsurprising. He was taken under Mickey Callaway’s wing to try to squeeze some results out of the young pitcher, and it took a while for it to take. Heck, the real “click” didn’t even happen between two seasons. IT may have just happened between games. Or at least mid-season.

In 2014, Carrasco was slotted as a starter out of Spring Training. It didn’t go well - in April he owned a 6.46 ERA, a .341 wOBA Against, and was simply very bad. He lost his job, and for the next three moneths turned into a fantastic releiever. It all culminated in an August return to the rotation, dominance, and the rest is history.

The big talk around all this was that Callaway wanted Carrasco to pitch in his starts the way he did when he was in the bullpen. He wanted Carrasco to go max effort, to just focus on the “now”, to not worry about the next guy or the next. One tangible result of this was a bit of a velocity bump, that maintained when he returned to the rotation:

It’s amazingly simple that this worked, but a lot of modern pitching coaches preach this idea of max effort. The forward thinkers at Driveline Baseball, who work with Trevor Bauer among others, feel velocity and intent to throw very hard is the key to it all, and only going with partial effort is actually detrimental to a pitcher’s health. The Indians seemed to agree with that, and it certainly helped Carrasco. Another adjustment was his shifting his release point.

Here’s where the ball was coming from in April:

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And here’s where he was coming from, from June onward:

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It’s not some drastic shift, though it could be that removing all the levering and fiddling of a full pitching motion let him become more in control. It’s definitely a tighter set of plot points, especially considering it’s four months rather than one. He just tried to make everything look more similar, focused on the process. Sort of like what Cliff Lee did to make himself unhittable. Did he actually look different, though? Here’s him on the mound from his first start of 2014, facing the TwinsBrian Dozier:

Dozier would homer a pitch later. Now, here’s Carrasco in mid-August against the Orioles, where he was getting ready to pitch seven shutout innings:

First, he’s pitching out of the stretch. There’s a guy on first, Nick Markakis having singled, but Carrasco came out of the stretch to open the game, as well. That’s been his approach for years now, to only come out of the stretch in an order to simply things. It allows him to assure his foot’s place on the mound and make each pitch more mirror-like. Other pitchers, Stephen Strasburg come to mind, do that as well. But he’s also throwing about six miles per hour harder (faster?). Granted, it’s mid-August rather than early April, and he’s in mid-season form and whatnot, but that’s a massive leap. That’s how you separate from middling/garbage and borderline elite Cy Young contender.

As he’s moved through this part of his career Carrasco has started throwing his curve ball more, getting into double digit percentage points in 2015, and counting on his slider more. Starting in 2015 he threw more sinkers. But his leap was built around a mental rebuild in the Indians pen and the whisperings of Mickey Callaway, and of simple things like just trying to throw like he’s a reliever. He just happens to be able to do that for a whole game.

A look back to the flow

So what does this mean for Clevinger? We have three Indians examples of a leap being made, all built in different ways. Lee changed himself, simply relying on an otherworldly work ethic to refine the things he was good at to a microscopic level. Kluber and Carrasco took different paths, but both had the hand of Callaway behind them. Clevinger has that same opportunity, coming up fully under Callaway in the Indians’ quietly incredible pitcher development program. Has anything actually changed though? His release point has held steady this year, if anything loosening up a bit.

Here are the first three months of pitching:

Here’s it since June:

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That’s not a bad thing, the location itself hasn’t shifted too much, just some new, erratic dots that can be waved away with sample size. Last year his release point looked like this:

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There’s been some refinement there, that’s a good thing. He isn’t drifting up quite as much, and has certainly maintained his horizontal release much better. His velocity on the fastball has actually fallen this year, though of late he’s edging back toward 94:

But I think more than anything, it’s just that he’s locating better:

This could be related to the release point refinement, and that could lead to figuring it out. Consistency is key in a starting pitcher, and by doing the same thing over and over, he creates that. It could also be something I wrote about a couple weeks ago of course, his not wanting to get hit hard and therefore avoiding giving up walks. But when he struck out nine Rangers on Tuesday, he was certainly the aggressor. And he only walked two.

Clevinger doesn’t need to turn into 2014 Corey Kluber, or 2008 Cliff Lee, or any kind of Carlos Carrasco. He needs to be himself, and get better at what he does well. That’s the key to all these guys. Along with shaking off some minor crazy. He’s good at a few things, like throwing hard, dropping dirty curves, and avoiding hard contact. He’s shown he can do that, and is doing it more and more. Like with Kluber or Carrasco, and to a degree Lee, he’d be just another Indians pitcher to come from nowhere and become very good. Somehow it’s the first round pick in the rotation, Trevor Bauer, that causes the most frustration. Perhaps it’s the pedigree, the expectation. But for Clevinger, he’s growing and getting better while we watch.

He showed his own best (and benefited from some luck) his last start. He just needs to keep doing it. Keep hitting that release point, keep locating and trusting in his own process. Maybe he’ll become something amazing. Or just stick in the rotation and help the Indians win. Pitching is strange and fraught with tiny, hard pitfalls. He at least has the structure around him to help him succeed, whatever that may look like.