Pitcher Spotlight: Mike Clevinger’s Breaking Point

You have your guys. The ones you’ve followed through the years, have watched struggle and defended at each stumble, the ones you feel are this close to showing the world what you know is inside them.

Mike Clevinger is one of my guys.

It’s been a journey since his 2016 MLB debut, a game where he allowed 4 ER to the Reds in 5.1 innings. Many saw a young arm that didn’t deserve a second glance on the wire. I saw a 13.2% whiff rate, a near 95mph fastball velocity, and a trio of strong secondary pitches. I was hooked.

The entirety of 2016 was a disappointment, accruing just 53.0 IP and a 12.5% walk rate that led to a ghastly 5.26 ERA and 1.49, but 2017 gave Clevinger another chance. He danced in and out of the rotation and produced 121.2 quality frames of 3.11 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, and a whopping 27.3% strikeout rate. These numbers should dictate a pitcher highly revered in a team’s rotation, yet Clevinger was demoted to the bullpen in favor of Josh Tomlinand it was frustrating. Cruel. UNJUST.

But here we are in March 2018 and the stage is set. Danny Salazar will enter the season on the DL with shoulder soreness and Terry Francona has come out to say that Clevinger owns a spot in the starting rotation. The door is open for Clevinger to steal the spotlight and demand its focus until the bulb bursts, a dream scenario relying heavily on the production of three stellar secondary pitches.

That trio consisting of sliders, changeups, and curveballs are Clevinger’s bullets in the chamber and you should understand just how effective they are.

Slider

Mike Clevinger’s Slider
Thrown % Velocity Zone % O-Swing % Whiff % BAA
19.0% 84.0 mph  33.3% 35.5% 23.4% .101

That 27.3% strikeout rate is rooted in this slide piece, while a .101 batting average allowed is pristine for a pitch thrown near 20% of the time. When we talk about elite upside arms, they all have that one pitch that adds rungs to the ladder – Luis Severino‘s slider, Aaron Nola‘s curveball, Luis Castillo’s changeup. This slider is that pitch for Clevinger, earning a massive 23.4% whiff rate and I expect him to throw it more often in 2018. Let it be the guide to the top of the mountain.

Changeup

Mike Clevinger’s Changeup
Thrown % Velocity Zone % O-Swing % Whiff % BAA
16.0% 87.0 mph 32.2% 45.8% 19.0% .225

Despite its impressive numbers, Clevinger’s changeup is the weakest of the trio, with its .225 BAA well about the other two. It’s still a valuable weapon and makes me skeptical of his LHB splits that spark worry in others – a .349 wOBA across 45.0 IP despite a .259 mark against right-handers. There’s a bit of precision still lacking, but as a third option, it’s more than serviceable.

Curveball

Mike Clevinger’s Curveball
Thrown % Velocity Zone % O-Swing % Whiff % BAA
11.6% 80.3 mph 24.4% 45.4% 20.7% .176

It’s not a pitch Clevinger often turns to, but it’s used primarily to put away batters (42.3% strikeout rate), especially with its sub 25% zone rate. I wonder if he can transition the hook into a strike-getter early then save it for the putaway pitch later, but currently, it’s saved for a devastating final blow.

These three pitches all carry a 19%+ whiff rate and seem to create the backbone of an ace, but they need the context of their leader…

Fastball

Mike Clevinger’s Four-Seamer
Thrown % Velocity Zone % O-Swing % Whiff % BAA
53.3% 92.5mph 49.5% 14.8% 4.8% .261

And now we’re beginning to see the problem. The real focus of this article. You may have noticed with each secondary pitch that not one of them featured a zone rate above 35%. This isn’t inherently a problem, but it relies on a high zone rate with his fastball or dramatic secondary pitch usage to make the machine work. Sean Manaea was able to hold a decent 8% walk rate in 2017 with the mentality, featuring his slider and changeup under 38% over the plate, but paired it with a heater that hinted a 60% zone rate to compensate.

Then there’s Masahiro Tanaka who held a sub 50% zone rate with his hard pitches but kept his walk rate down by keeping their usage rates heavily under 50% and using the whiff rates of his splitter and slider to fuel strikes. It’s not the most conventional approach and debatably volatile, though it was a heavy catalyst for Tanaka’s 2017 second-half resurgence.

With Clevinger’s four-seamer holding a zone rate under 50% and a usage rate well above 50%, we have a problem. Something needs to change or that horrific 12.0% walk rate from 2017 will toxify his ERA and WHIP, preventing Clevinger from excellence.

There are multiple ways to make a fix. Maybe we’ll see him feature more curveballs for strikes, or use it as the putaway pitch and sacrifice a few whiffs with his slider in favor of a 40%+ zone rate. Indians teammate Trevor Bauer had success last season bumping his four-seamer’s zone rate nearly five points to a comfortable 53.0% rate and Clevinger could follow suit. Or possibly listen to Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco as they’ve begun lowering their fastball usage to sub 50% levels – dramatically near 40% in Kluber’s case.

There are many avenues that lead to the same destination and it would surprise me if Clevinger enters 2018 without this on his mind. My best guess would be a stronger emphasis on finding the zone with his four-seamer at the cost of lower quality strikes, but my hope is for Clevinger to feature the rest of his arsenal, avoiding the .261 BAA of his fastball and low chase and whiff rates.

The talent is there. The elite pitches are there. The velocity is there. The real value in fantasy baseball is buying low before the breakout happens and Clevinger has just one last step to take before becoming an expensive starter on draft day. I’m not telling you it will happen, I’m telling you the price is low enough for you to bet on it.

We hoped you liked reading Pitcher Spotlight: Mike Clevinger’s Breaking Point by Nick Pollack!

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Nick Pollack is the founder of PitcherList.com and has written for Washington Post, Fantasy Pros, and CBS Sports. He can be found making an excessive amount of GIFs on twitter at @PitcherList.

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johansantana17
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johansantana17

Clevinger was just dropped in my 10-team, 7-man bench, 180 GS limit, 5×5 daily roto keeper league. I’m thinking about adding him and dropping Aaron Hicks, Jose Martinez, or Jameson Taillon. SP is already a huge strength with Kershaw, Scherzer, Verlander, Cole, Samardzija, Duffy, Weaver and Taillon. Anyone have input?