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Where are Mike Clevinger’s strikeouts?

Sunshine isn’t the punch-out artist he was last year, but he’s making it work anyway.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Clevinger is having the best season of his career, and it’s not even close. If not for the fact that he’s on a team that employs Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer, he’d be the emergent ace of his team and the talk of some city not named Cleveland. He’s got an ERA under 3, his walk rate has fallen over three points from last year to 7.7 percent, and his grounder rate has leapt to 47.6 percent, an eight point bump. The only real blemish to this sterling season? The strikeouts. Or rather, the lack of them. A year ago it was a core part of his repertoire. Where’d they go?

In 2017 Clevinger struckout 27.3 percent of batters. If he’d qualified for the ERA title (he only threw 121 innings in the majors) he’d have been tied with Yu Darvish and Jimmy Nelson for 11th in baseball, and was nearly seven points better than average. This year it’s fallen back to what we saw in his rookie year, 21.3 percent. Taken at face value, this is not ideal. Especially as league K rate has gone up to 21.8 percent. Clevinger suddenly finds himself trailing the pack in strikeouts. Adding the confusion, he’s throwing harder this year, 93.9 miles per hour on his fastball compared to 92.6 last year. That’s quite a leap. And yet, fewer punchouts.

Perhaps it’s simply that he’s throwing more strikes, so there are more chances for hitters to make contact and make outs in the field. One knock, if you wanted to call it that, is that Clevinger threw too many unhittable balls last year. This meant more pitches out of the strikezone, more deep counts — he went 3-0 on hitters 6.1 percent of the time last year, just 4.2 percent this year - and less hits. It also led to that 12.1 percent walk rate that made everyone nervous, even if he made up for it by giving up less hits. This season he’s putting the ball in the zone 44.4 percent of the time, a three point bump from a year ago.

It’s led to a spike in every plate discipline stat:

Mike Clevinger Plate Discipline 2017 vs. 2018

Stat 2017 2018
Stat 2017 2018
Zone% 41.5 44.4
Swing% 42.2 47.6
O-Swing% 27.2 31.7
Z-Swing% 63.3 67.6
Contact% 70.5 75.5
Z-Contact% 80.1 85.1
O-Contact% 54.6 58.9

More balls in the zone, more swinging, more contact. You’d think this would be a bad thing for Clevinger, since balls in play are a bad thing. Worse than a strikeout anyway. Well, for one thing, that earlier mentioned grounder rate is a great thing for him, helping to tank his home run rate from 11.1 percent of fly balls to just 5.5 this year, and that is all stemming from his simply pitching the ball in tougher places.

Last year he just threw it out of the zone a lot:

This season? It’s all on the edges:

This is all about refinement and turning into a pitcher. It seems almost counter-intuitive that more pitches in the zone are a good thing (and that glaring red patch in the center of the second chart is a bit disconcerting), but Clevinger is pitching more innings than he did in his previous seasons and is way more effective. Hitters simply can’t get the ball in the air like they’d like — the exit angle of batted balls off him has dropped nearly four points to 9.7 degrees, meaning less extra bases, and more easy outs. It’s evident he’s put the work in, even in something so simple as his release point.

I tweeted about that few weeks back, and it holds strong:

So the strikeouts have fallen away. It’s bound to happen when you throw more strikes and have yet to find that lethal out pitch that Kluber or Bauer or Carrasco have. But the more you pound the zone, the more damaging those breaking and offspeed pitches become because hitters have to honor your ability to work the edges. As he continues like this, we may well see an explosion of strikeouts out of Clevinger. It would be the final step in his development into a true fourth ace for the Indians, which would be nice.