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Mike Clevinger is the best, actually

Like, almost literally

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Minnesota Twins Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night, as he’s done so many times this season, Mike Clevinger utterly silenced a major league offense. That it was the White Sox bears little meaning, since that team has a solid core of young pre-stars that can do a lot of damage, and they’ve been one of the hottest hitting teams for a month. He was electric as he has been so many times this year, keeping runs off the board completely for the seventh time in his 20 starts this year, which he’d done only 11 times in his previous 63 starts. It was routinely amazing. It turns out, Mike Clevinger is actually the best.

It’s a big word for being just four letters. Hard to argue in its favor. We don’t really have a lot of bullets on this one. After all, we’re talking about a guy who’s only thrown 120.1 innings, with one more start looming on Sunday. He’s not going to qualify for any kind of award, and yet you’d be hard pressed to find someone demonstrably better as a pitcher. Just that number earlier — seven zero-run starts in just 20 chances — stacks up surprisingly well against the top five pitchers in fWAR.

Clevinger and Cy Young candidates no-run outings

Pitcher # Starts # No-Run outings
Pitcher # Starts # No-Run outings
Clevinger 20 7
Verlander 33 5
Cole 32 5
deGrom 34 7
Scherzer 27 4
Lynn 34 2

That’s pretty impressive. Obviously Clevinger, given the chance to have seven more starts, could just not have any more no-run outings. Chances are he’d squeeze at least one more out though, and seeing as it’s baseball he does it 35% of the time this year. That would get his number to nine-ish, maybe 10 with a couple starts against the Tigers. It’s also not a record, or even a high mark across baseball. The Cardinals’ Jack Flarhety has done it 10 times in 32 starts this season, which makes his merely rather excellent 2.85 ERA a bit more surprising. Still, Clevinger, in fewer stars than anyone on that list, or anyone with that many zeroes, is living in lofty company.

But posting zeroes can happen to anyone. Again, Flaherty is good, very good even, but not exactly a household name. Consistent dominance is what matters, which luckily is what Clevinger’s done. That list earlier, of the top 5.0 fWAR starters, their wins above replacement ranges from 6.2 for Verlander to 7.3 for Cole. Clevinger - again, in 80 fewer innings than Cole - comes in at 4.6, 13th among all starters. Prorated out to a 200-inning season, a mark he hit just a year ago, comes out to 7.6, or the highest number in all of baseball. It’s fudging with numbers, but that’s pretty rad, isn’t it?

But even barring that hypothetical, among starters Clevinger ranks fifth in strikeout rate (34.5%) and K-BB rate (27.4) first in ERA at 2.39 and FIP at 2.37, fourth in HR/FB with 9.5 (better than any Cy Young contender by a fair margin except Lynn’s 9.8), the numbers kind of go on like that. So maybe I’m a bit bold, calling him the best, in a literal sense. He’s merely top five in all of baseball while getting over an upper back injury. Rate stats can deceive and suggest things that aren’t there. Sample sizes can twist, but 120 innings is enough to make me think Clevinger has made some kind of leap this year.

Actually, it’s more than just this year. If we did look at his last 200 innings — 204.1, going back to July of 2018 — his ERA is just 2.47, FIP at 3.04, his strikeout rate a dazzling 32.3% while walking just 7.8% of batters. Those rates rank third, seventh, sixth and eighth respectively across all of baseball. We talked a lot last year about what a breakout looks like, whether we were seeing one with Clevinger. At this point it’s fourteen months of baseball, even it it’s interrupted by a stint on the IL. As far as I can tell, he’s a Cy Young contender going into next year, a front-runner type even.

If that doesn’t mean he’s basically the best, we’re either splitting hairs too finely to define “best”, or just don’t know what we’re talking about.