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Mike Clevinger’s Baltimore portent

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A brilliant day last April might have told a story of the future

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

On April 21st of last year, Mike Clevinger pitched the best game of his season, totaling an 84 Game Score while shutting out the Baltimore Orioles. In fact, by that metric it was the finest performance of his entire career to this point. The Orioles were dreadful in 2018 which helps take some of the shine off his brilliance. But this was when they still had Manny Machado, and a couple guys were at least having a decent start to the season before everything cratered. Clevinger’s line was 9 innings, 2 hits, 2 walks, 3 strikeouts, with the first hit coming in the 4th off Machado’s bat. It wasn’t a strikeout binge like he had against Cincinnati in July when he punched out 11 Reds in six innings, but the results spoke. Was he doing anything special at all?

The reason I thought about this was, while trying to forecast his 2019 and see if Clevingercould see some kind of second leap to true superstardom, Jacob deGrom’s own leap stood out. deGrom was basically unhittable this past season, and it’s not a level one can realistically expect out of Clevinger. He doesn’t throw as hard as deGrom for one thing, and that 2 or so mph is a big separator. deGrom did see a boost in his velo this past season after trimming his hair though, his 96.7 mph average on the fastball a career high. It could be something Clevinger could look into. The lessons of Samson suggest otherwise, but if it gets him an extra couple ticks on the gun, maybe it’s worth it.

Anyway, deGrom did make a small adjustment in how he attacked hitters, besides the haircut. He backed off on the fastball a smidge, but threw about 30 percent more change-ups than the previous season:

Jacob deGrom pitch usage

Year FF SL CU CH
Year FF SL CU CH
2014 61.5% (93.5) 16.5% (87.0) 9.9% (79.4) 12.1% (83.8)
2015 61.8% (95.0) 15.8% (89.7) 9.7% (81.8) 12.6% (85.5)
2016 59.5% (93.4) 18.5% (88.6) 10.8% (80.4) 11.1% (85.7)
2017 55.4% (95.2) 22.7% (89.3) 9.5% (81.2) 12.4% (87.7)
2018 52.1% (96.0) 23.9% (91.1) 7.9% (82.7) 16.1% (89.0)

So he was throwing harder — whether by haircut or by simply putting more into it, more intent — and threw more change-ups. Truly a devilish mix. Clevinger’s mix in 2018 was pretty similar to deGrom’s:

It’ effective, and evidence of a pitcher's growth that he trusts four pitches to throw them that often. But more important is how he attacked the Orioles on that day where he was his best:

Obviously I mean the heightened use of the change-up. The O’s were off-balance all day, making weak contact despite being very aggressive, and gave the defense some easy opportunities.

Now, this is not to say that it’s an effective strategy long-term for Clevinger. After all, he did only have three strikeouts that day. That’s not great for nine innings of work regardless of era, but especially this one, and especially with a lineup featuring Chris Davis, Pedro Alvarez and a handful of quad-A players that’s quite low. The hope here is development of that pitch. As the season wore on, Clevinger backed off on the change, dropping from a 16.5 percent peak usage in May to just 9.1 in September, but part of that was just how effective his slider was for him. In 2019, perhaps that pitch can be the change up, too.

It worked for deGrom, it’s worked for many pitchers in the past. Springing a third (or fourth) effective pitch on the league to keep these swing-for-the-fence maniacs in the batter’s box uncomfortable can do major damage, and it’s what I will watch for in 2019 to see if it helps Clevinger make a leap. These small tweaks in usage - and obviously developing the pitch more - can be such a huge difference, and he’s right at that age where he can use it to just explode on the scene.