Never forget the date August 7, 2014.
That was the day the Cleveland Indians traded right-handed reliever Vinnie Pestano to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for a then Class-A pitcher named Mike Clevinger. The Angels released Pestano less than a year later, and he announced his retirement in the summer of 2018 after bouncing from the majors to the minors to the Atlantic League.
But the story here is Clevinger. In the five years since that trade, he has worked his way into becoming one of the best pitchers in the game, with 2019 representing a huge leap forward for the 28-year-old right-hander. He produced career bests in ERA (2.71), FIP (2.49), WAR (4.5), strikeouts per nine innings (12.07), and walks per nine innings (2.64).
Most impressive is that his career year was nearly erased by a strained muscle in his upper back, suffered in his second start of the season. Before exiting that game, Clevinger had pitched 12 scoreless innings, surrendering two hits and four walks and striking out 22.
There was no clear timetable for his return, but Clevinger was back on the mound in mid-June for two rough starts that seemed to spell doom for the Tribe starter. Fortunately, when the calendar turned to July, Clevinger turned it on. From July 3 through September 24 — excluding a season-ending blow-up against the Nationals — he made 16 starts and pitched 102 innings for the Indians, racking up 134 strikeouts and producing an 1.76 ERA over that span.
It was easily the best stretch of Clevinger’s career thus far, made possible by career-low walk and home run rates and a career-high strikeout rate. One of the keys to this stretch of success was his four-seam fastball, which we’ve already identified as the most valuable pitch thrown by the Indians in 2019. The velocity on his fastball has been increasing with each successive season, according to Baseball Savant, from 92.5 MPH in 2017 to 95.4 MPH in 2019. In a 2018 interview with The Athletic, Clevinger attributed the rise in his fastball velocity to retooled mechanics, and the results speak for themselves. Opposing hitters batted .192 against his fastball in 2019 (compared to .263 in 2018) and his whiff rate was up to 30% (20.4% in 2018).
But I’d be negligent in my duties if I did not also mention Clevinger’s elite slider. For much of his career, his slider has been his most lethal pitch. In 2019, it was as good as ever. On average this season, Clevinger’s slider moved 17 inches away from right-handed batters and dropped 44 inches, according to Baseball Savant. The league average in horizontal movement was 6 inches and 37 inches drop. With more horizontal movement than in previous years, the improved depth made his slider the perfect partner-in-crime to his fastball.
Clevinger may have been overshadowed by the emergence of Shane Bieber and the fact that he missed the first two months of the season, but make no mistake, he delivered ace-level production for the Tribe when he was healthy. And he has at least three more seasons under team control to continue paying dividends on that trade from August 7, 2014.