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What’s next for Mike Clevinger

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The Tribe righty has shown excellence for two years. What can be next?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

In an interview with his teammate Trevor Bauer on Bauer’s new project Momentum, Mike Clevinger talked about comfort level and how tough it was fitting in when he got to the Majors a couple years back. Clevinger talked about how he was a bit closed off when he got to Cleveland, not wanting to stand out too much or be too demonstrative on the mound in fear of being thought he was showing hitters up and things like that. You know, all the weird unwritten rule stuff that surrounds baseball.

Two years later and a second dynamite year in the books, Clevinger is well established, and looking for more. It makes you hopeful to watch him flourish, and find his place in the game. It also has to bring the question, what next?

An interesting thing about Clevinger too, besides finding his place socially and mentally in the game, he’s steadily refined his game the last couple seasons, finding what works and what doesn’t and making those adjustments. To wit, his pitch selection as the months have worn on:

There’s a settling, a learning of what works and what doesn’t on display here. It’s a typical process for any pitcher early on, from Clayton Kershaw -

... to Corey Kluber...

...to anyone. Of course, any pitcher continues to evolve, just look at the rest of Kershaw’s or Kluber’s career to this point. Kershaw really tacked away from throwing the fastball, in part because he’s simply lost the zip that he had early on, and Kluber found a dominant slurve.

That’s not something I expect to see out of Clevinger, at least not in the next year or two. He should just improve on what he’s already got a solid base. If anything he’s added a bit of zip from 2017 to ‘18, gaining more than a mile per hour on his fastball as he elevated it from 92.8 to 94.2, nearly the level of his brief stint in 2016 at 94.4. The velo should hold to some degree, meaning he gets to hone his craft, as he mentioned in that video on Momentum.

But what does that look like? Can he make some kind of other leap? In The last two years, Clevinger has compiled 8.4 WAR, averagin a 147 ERA+ over that span between his age 26 and 27 seasons. It’s decent company:

Clevinger age 26-27 comps

Pitcher WAR ERA+ Innings K% BB%
Pitcher WAR ERA+ Innings K% BB%
Clevinger 8.4 146 321.2 26.2 9.7
Adam Wainwright 8.8 146 365.0 20.0 6.6
Jacob deGrom 8.3 140 331.1 26.5 6.2
Kyle Hendricks 8.9 170 329.2 22.3 6.4

Three other recent (one slightly less so) Cy Young contenders, ace pitchers and, again, great company for a young pitcher to find oneself in. How’d they do the next year?

Clevinger comparison target age-28 seasons

Pitcher WAR ERA+ Innings K% BB%
Pitcher WAR ERA+ Innings K% BB%
Adam Wainwright 6.3 160 230.1 23.4 6.2
Jacob deGrom 4.4 117 201.0 28.9 7.1
Kyle Hendricks 3.5 125 199.0 19.8 5.4

This is, of course, what hitting one’s athletic peak looks like. We always talk about a player’s peak being that 28-to-32 stretch of time, these three are just living proof of that.

Of course there are some things to point out. Like the fact that Wainwright missed all of his age-29 season with Tommy John surgery, or that deGrom’s age 29 season was this past campaign, where he earned 8.8 WAR and posted a 1.70 ERA en route to a Cy Young award. So literally the two exact opposite paths. We’ll have to wait what that age-29 season has in store for Hendricks in 2019.

As to Clevinger, it’d be nice to say that deGrom is the perfect comp here. After all, they have similar pitch mixes, and both own a solid fastball. But deGrom has what you’d call a “margin of error” on that fast ball, with his 96 mph velo this year about three percent higher than the league average of 92.8. Clevinger’s 94.2 is about 1.5 percent higher than league average. It’s still better than Hendricks’ sub-90 fastball, or the 90.1 that Wainwright clocked in 2008. That was actually below the 90.7 league average. What he - Clevinger - doesn’t have is that hammer of a curve that got Wainwright out of so many insane jams.

The sample size is still kind of small for Clevinger for us to really extrapolate anything real. He should be better than his projections suggest, that being 168 innings with a 3.38 ERA and 175 strikeouts against 65 walks. Even if his numbers the last two years are very similar, that alone is good evidence that he could make a real leap in 2019.

He talked about maturing and becoming more himself the last year or two. It’s an underrated part of the game. Between that, entering his prime, and making a great friend in Trevor Bauer to work with, it could be Clevinger and not Carlos Carrasco that’s the dark horse Cy Young candidate on this team. He cut his walk rate by a third between 2017 and 2018. These incremental steps are what can get him to that 6 or 7 win mark. That, and a bit more length in games. It’ll be fun to see what his winter work turns into in April.