Mike Clevinger is perhaps the most pleasant surprise in the Indians’ recent history of starting pitching development. Assuming we’re not surprised by Kluber’s continued dominance anyway. Considered the fourth best pitcher on the league’s best rotation — even if he does lead the “third best” guy in WAR by a couple points — he’s proving that an excellent 2017 wasn’t a fluke. He’s showed improved control, he’s throwing fewer fastballs, and his average four-seam velocity has bounced up too.
Unfortunately for the last month, he’s been quite sub-par. His ERA has bounced from 3.03 before his start on July 1st to 3.48 coming into Wednesday. Over that stretch he’s owned a 4.79 ERA in 35.2 innings, while averaging less than six innings and 97.3 pitches per start. While his strikeout rate has leapt from 22.4 percent to 29.3 in that span and his walk rate has fallen nearly a percent to 7.2 percent in that stretch, his groundball rate has cratered from 44.5 percent to 27.7 since July 1st, and his line drive rate has bounced ten full percentage points to 28.7 percent. So while you might try to take solace that he’s been unlucky by pointing to his BABIP rising from .290 to .341 over the last month, that’s exactly what happens when you allow more line drives.
It’s fun to fiddle with samples, and you can cherrypick anything to tell your story. Just because it’s a bit more than a calendar month doesn’t hold a lot of weight. Maybe this is nothing, merely noise that will even itself out. After all, 3.48 is a great ERA especially for your fourth best starter, and his 3.40 FIP tells us he’s a bit better than he’s been. But outside of that Texas game on July 19th, he’s been pretty consistently bad this whole stretch. Prior to the July 1st start, Clevinger completed 104 total innings in 2018, beginning to push up on where he was last year when he pitched 121 innings in 21 starts for the Indians. This doesn’t account for the 34 innings he pitched in Columbus, which is why I was bullish on his being able to push comfortably toward the 30ish start, 175 or so inning mark in his second full season. He may still hit those marks, as long as he doesn’t miss a start. But maybe he should.
Earlier I mentioned his velocity uptick. This isn’t really a normal thing for a pitcher — usually their velocity peak is early in their career if not their rookie season, then trending down from there. We’ve seen people like Charlie Morton break that trend, doing so by literally just trying to throw as hard as they can. It could be that Clevinger is simply going a bit more max effort this year and it’s leading to more velocity, more break, but also a bit more tiredness as the season wears on. Of course, this could just be his learning about velocity training from the Indians pitching staff as well as his good friend Trevor Bauer and the evidence of a lot of hard work in the offseason. But it’s something to think about.
Clevinger did have a stretch like this last year — in a six game stretch from July 25th to August 21st he posted a 7.66 ERA over six appearances, then bounced back with 29.1 innings over five starts that saw him post a 0.61 ERA. Still, he’s approaching the most innings he’s ever pitched in a season, and is two starts past his previous high for major league innings.
The Indians don’t exactly have a tough road ahead of them the next few weeks, so a skipped start here or there could help save Clevinger for a big Game 4 start in the ALDS. He’s made such strides this year, there’s no reason to think he’ll slide back. A break is nice now and again, though.