Though the Indians lost this past Sunday, it was heartening to see starter Mike Clevinger rattle off 6.2 innings of very strong pitching. He allowed a pair of runs on four hits and four walks along with seven strikeouts, his best start this month. In his last three he’d allowed 12 runs in 18 innings and hitters posted an .869 OPS against him. No pitcher is consistently perfect, but as the youngest of the Indians’ regular starters, any step back is surrounded with worry. Pitching is a constant evolution, a constant battle to refine your motion, your release, your process between games to be the best you can be. Clevinger’s season is no different. As the season has worn on, he’s finally found his curveball as a true weapon.
He’s only been throwing it 10.7 percent of the time this year, a smidge off his mark from a year ago. The fastball is still seen more than half the time at 53.5 percent, but such is the evolution of the pitcher. But even if he’s not throwing the curve a lot, when he does throw it hitters aren’t squaring it up very well. In fact, he simply hasn’t allowed a line drive on his curve in over two months:
This rate of no line drives at all actually stretches back to mid-May when he faced the Yankees, but these month splits illustrate best the trend. It seems a little incredible, context or not. But there’s a big reason for it. He’s simply locating the hell out of his curve. Before June 1st, he was simply hanging a few too many curves:
He’s settled down some though, and is pounding the bottom of the zone since then:
This no doubt has a lot to do with the utter lack of line drives along with the massive leap in swinging strikes he’s achieving with the curve. In April and May hitters swung through the curve 32 and 41 percent of the time respectively, then down to 33 percent in June. In July, it’s an astounding 50 percent of the time, on a sample of 40 curves. On Sunday he did exactly that, throwing eight against the Rangers and getting a swinging strike four times.
The only real frustrating part about all this – and that might even be too strong a word – is that Clevinger is only throwing the curve 10.4 percent of the time this year, and less than 10 percent of the time since June started. Which could be part of why he’s having success with it in terms of swings and misses. Yes, he’s locating it very well at the bottom of the zone, but pitching is very contextual. If hitters are simply sitting on his fastball or slider or change, they’re bound to whiff hard on a slower, more hideously breaking pitch.
There’s more good news there though. Clevinger is progressively throwing his fastball harder as the year winds on – 93.4 mph in April, 94.7 in July – and he’s throwing it higher in the zone:
This take special advantage of his curve, taking a path of snappy curves that tunnel off fastballs to create confusion in the hitter and zeroes on the board. Which is good. It’s just a little bothersome that he’s throwing the curve less than he probably could. Especially if he’s doing a good job of creating that location to work off of.
It could well be a mountain I’m making out of a molehill. Still, it can take time for a pitcher to find a pitch, whether within a year or within a career. And a curveball in the middle of the zone is simply dangerous, especially if you don’t have high, mid-90’s heat. Clevinger has that, he just needs to utilize it correctly with his curveball. He’s continued to flourish beyond anyone’s expectations his entire Indians career. Whether or not this is another piece of that, it sure is neat.