An excellent spring outing against the Dodgers Monday sealed the deal for Mike Clevinger making the starting rotation. It was basically a sure thing anyway, only injury or some kind of weird Steve Blass Disease type of thing threatening to derail his steady rise. The Indians’ regular season success across the board and Corey Kluber’s Cy Young campaign was impressive, and rightfully garnered any pitching attention that Andrew Miller's general dominance didn’t, but what Mike Clevinger did was something approaching historic.
On paper, maybe a 121 inning, 3.11 ERA season isn’t too mind-blowing. It’s very good of, course, and prorated to a 200 inning season Clevinger looks great with 5.1 WAR and 226 K’s — tied with Carlos Carrasco for 7th in baseball — along with an admittedly hideous 99 walks, which would lead baseball. But that’s not safe math. It means adding 80 innings of fatigue and batter familiarity to his season, so who knows how it would actually shake out.
In what he actually did, Clevinger placed himself in rather august company. In fact, only eight players including Clevinger have had the kind of second season he did.
Check it out, courtesy of Baseball-Reference:
Pitcher’s second year similar to Clevinger
All these guys appeared in at least 100 innings, had an ERA+ over 130, a strikeout rate above 25 percent and a walk rate above 10 percent. It may seem weird to select a player’s second season, but Clevinger’s 53 innings his rookie year where he came in and out of the rotation and didn’t have consistent work kind of muddles things. If we wanted to be fair, though, and look at a player’s first two years with at least 100 innings pitched and an ERA+ over 120, you still only get five pitchers:
Career starts similar to Clevinger
Once again, Baseball Reference is too powerful. And by the way, Bob Feller misses the limits I set by .3 percent in strikeout rate.
Two years in and Clevinger has shown himself to be in the same realm of pitchers that either turned into something great, or else in Ankiel or Score’s case looked to be before being waylaid by injury and mental blocks. Of course there are caveats — Clevinger is older than all save Yu Darvish on these lists, and in the single season chart the other pitchers that threw near his number of innings were mostly relievers at that point. Between the impact of another 60 or 70 innings and the age factor, it’s hard to just look at that and say Clevinger is going to be another Corey Kluber.
On the flip side of that, the control has already gotten better from 2016 to ‘17. Yes, the walk rate only dropped half a percent from a year ago, but his release point has refined quite nicely. Here’s 2016:
His fading release point as games wore on was a knock on him coming in, it’s nice to see it being fixed. Getting stronger and more used to starting will only improve that. Plus his first-pitch strike rate bumped almost two points to 62.8 percent, which is the right trend you want. His weird low hit/high walk tendencies work out for the moment, but baseball history suggests walks will kill you. Or maybe he’s breaking the mold and wants to give his manager heart attacks. It’s not an ideal approach, but it might just work for him.
Even if he shows no growth except endurance, 2018 is shaping to be an excellent year for the well-haired right-hander. Nobody follows the same path to baseball, so just because he’s older than most of those other guys he was listed with doesn’t mean Year Three can’t be an era of refinement and walk reduction. It would certainly help with his longevity in games. Whatever happens, Clevinger has already shown a propensity for excellence, is walking a path other quite excellent pitchers have trod in the past. What the future holds, well, that’s up to him and the fates.