Mike Clevinger is, and has been for the extent of his short career, a truly excellent pitcher. Each year he’s gotten better, each season added a new wrinkle, whether velocity or a better pitch or new shoes, that help him dominate the competition. That alone should be enough.
There’s so much more to it, though. He happens to be on a team with one of the richest pitching histories in baseball, from Bob Feller to Luis Tiant to Sam McDowell, and in this century from Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia to the murderer’s row they put together the last few years. Even in that context, the way Clevinger has started is near-unprecedented. Since the game was integrated, only one pitcher stands above Mike Clevinger: Herb Score.
This is august company to be in for someone like Clevinger. Unlike Score, he wasn’t particularly heralded coming to Cleveland. Nobody ever felt like calling him the right-handed Bob Feller. That’s what Score had going for him. And in his first four years he was frightful. Over 553.1 innings Score logged a 149 ERA+, struck out 25.4% of batters faced in an era where the league average was just over 10%, and looked every bit the Second Coming of Rapid Robert.
Those dominant numbers obscure a pair of injury-shortened seasons though, a period that would change the course of Score’s career forever. On May 7, 1957, he was struck in the head with a batted ball in just his fifth start, putting him out of commission for the rest of the year. From then on he was never the pitcher he showed in those first two electrifying years. Some suspected that he changed his motion to avoid more liners, but Score himself said in The Curse of Rocky Colavito that he tore a tendon in early 1958 after coming back from that head injury, ending that season.
Nearly 65 years later, it looks like we’re getting a glimpse of what that would have looked like. Like Score, Clevinger’s debut season was strikeout filled as much as it was rife with walks. In 2016 Clevinger walked 12.5% of hitters while striking out 21.5%. Compare that to Score’s 15.8% walk rate and 25.1% strikeout rate, and you get an idea of who came out of the gate truly steaming. The leap Clev took in his strikeout rate was wild — up to 27.3% in his second season, and now 33.9% this year. All while carving consistently away at his walk rate, sitting at just 7.4% this season.
When you see a pitcher like Score debut, you hope he refines himself like Clevinger has done. It’s wild what Clev has done with his strikeout rate though. He’s jumped from “some guy” to elite through hard work. In his first four years he’s posted a 141 ERA+, second highest among Indians starters over that span. Yes, even better than the paragon of Indians pitching, Bob Feller or Tiant or Addie Joss. Anyone. He’s good in a vacuum, but in the context of Cleveland baseball history Clevinger might be on a path to legend status.
He does have a bit of the injury question, though not looming like a constant specter of encroaching doom. In a smaller sense the back issue this past year leave a bit of a “what could have been” in the air, and any time a guy tweaks anything remotely near his shoulder you can’t help but be worried. Especially with his major velocity spike. If he could have gotten a full 200 innings this year we’re talking about nearly 270 strikeouts, a number only Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander topped, and if he threw the same number of innings as Verlander we’re talking about a 300-strikeout season. While it was abbreviated, it was a goddamn filthy year. That it was a piece of a historic start to a career certainly flew under the radar.
Clevinger is more than likely going to have a better career than Score — by this time in his career Score was already hurt and on a downward trajectory, and at Clevinger’s age he’d already found himself on the White Sox for two years. Clevinger isn’t going anywhere for a while, and will find himself climbing the all-time lists of Indians pitchers in short order. It’s august company, and day after day that he takes the mound he proves he’s supposed to be there. Who’d have thought that would be the case when we saw a long-haired string-bean fidgeting and barely topping 93 with any regularity. What happened with Score was a sad state of affairs.
It’s pretty cool that fate decided to bless Cleveland with an unlikely successor, even if it took half a lifetime.