The Indians have too much starting pitching. It’s the type of problem that most teams would kill for. Usually a season demands something like seven or eight pitchers making a significant number of starts to get through the season — but the sheer talent level the Indians have presents roster challenges, specifically with Mike Clevinger. Amid the excellence throughout the rotation, Clevinger repeatedly impressed whenever he was given a chance this year. There has to be a way to get him near 200 innings.
As Clevinger himself said to MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, that 200 inning mark is his goal in 2018. That means making, by Clevinger’s own count, 32 starts going about 6 1/3 innings on average. He threw 5.4 innings per start in 2017, so he’s got a bit of a hill to climb, and with twin tough paths. The increased workload shouldn’t be a problem since including the minors he threw over 150 innings of work. Throwing a full inning more per start on average is a bit of a leap, though if you toss out one or two of his stinkers — Clevinger lasted three innings one game and four in two others — you start to visualize it a little better. From August on he had only one start where he didn’t at least face a batter in the sixth inning. Even with that, he’s going to have to be a bit more effective, a bit more durable. He showed a strong curve early in the year (plus 3.6 pitching runs by FanGraphs’ pitch value) and a great slider later (plus 10 pitching runs), but all that has to come together to let him achieve his goal.
The other obstacle standing in his way comes in the form of Josh Tomlin. Well, Josh Tomlin and the machinations of a franchise to maximize cheap talent and keep it cost-controlled for as long as possible. Josh Tomlin is fine. He’s everything you’d want out of a fifth starter — he’s cheap, he gives the the Indians half a chance to win most games he starts, he’s cheap, and he can supply something like 150 innings each year. And he’s cheap. That all combines to be a very useful tool for a team that pinches pennies. Between that and the fact that Clevinger still has a minor league option left, that means Tomlin has a leg up just because he either has to be on the team or he gets released. Which, again, is not ideal for the Indians.
In playing the control game, the Indians are simply robbing themselves of a pitcher who was the third, at worst fourth best pitcher on the staff in 2017 by several measures. In a rotation that includes Corey Kluber, that’s like being second best among humans.
Mike Clevinger 2017 stats, rank among Indians starters
Where he was fourth, Danny Salazar topped him but was substantially less durable. The only thing that crushes Clevinger in advanced stats is his insane walk rates, but the fact that he gives up hits approaching that of Corey Kluber (6.8 per nine this year, Kluber was a 6.2) makes for a much more decent 1.25 WHIP. He was something just short of fantastic this year, and by his own admission he was all out of sorts as the year wound down. Analysis of his pitching motion showed Clevinger he was “diving” on his release, he told Bastian, but “But this year, this offseason, it was, I think I can [refine my motion], and repeat that at throwing 96 [mph] still. So, I’m finding how to get back into my body and using it ... and I think that’s going to pay huge dividends.”
That velocity threatened to be problem for Clevinger. I wrote about it back in October. And yet despite that, he was still missing bats quite impressively, his 12.4 percent Swinging Strike rate the third best among Indians starters. But sitting in the low 90’s and walking a lot of batters not a tenable position long-term. If he can get back to that mid-90s stuff he flashed in 2016 and out of the bullpen in 2017, he can solidify his place in the rotation. Or could, if the Indians would let him.
The real problem is the Indians are just shooting themselves in the foot if they really plan on saving Clevinger for later. I’m all for careful development of young pitchers — I just read about the abbreviated career of Jaret Wright the other night. Even more so than Clevinger, he was a young fireballer that burst upon the scene with the Tribe in the late ‘90s. But unlike with Clevinger, the Indians didn’t have the luxury of this dominant rotation. They foced the issue wiht Wright, who could have used some time refining his mechanics in the minors, take some violence out and saving his shoulder. So if the Indians feel it’s right for his health, by all means save Clevinger. But the clock has started for free agency, and the team is here to win now.
Maybe having Tomlin instead of Clevinger in the rotation for a while won’t be too painful. A couple starts in April, maybe May, that the team can survive. Especially with the hideousness of the division in general. But it’s still wrong. Clevinger has proven to be a major league pitcher, and a damn good one. He’s committing himself to being a dominant starter this winter, and should get the opportunity to prove it. The Indians want him around as long as possible of course, and that can mean sending him to Columbus for a while and purposely impairing the team. If Clevinger really shows up in Arizona he can force the issue. Tomlin will still pitch for the Indians this year, but the time is now for Clevinger, no matter what the smart roster move is. There just comes a time where the best talent should see the field more often. This is one of those times.