Ode to a Pitcher: Embracing the Mike Clevinger experience

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Mike Clevinger is an underrated cog in the Cleveland Indians rotation.

I’m not a Cleveland Indians fan. I don’t root for them. I am impressed by several of their great players; Lindor, Ramirez, Kluber, etc. Lots of great players. Plenty for Indians fans to root for.

But I’m not sure anyone on that roster can be as downright entertaining to cheer for than Mike Clevinger. Clevinger, 28, is a long-haired righty who pitter-patters on the mound while taking the sign and delivers the ball to the plate with a herky-jerky flourish. All that animation obscures the truth of how critical he’s become to the Indians.

Clevinger’s 2018 was pretty darn good: 200 IP, 145 ERA+, 207 K / 67 BB. He’s nominally their fourth starter, by the way. His development adds to the riches of the Indians staff and gives them some insurance against injuries to their 7 or 8 good players.

Let’s chat about the pitches. I love his curveball. I love it so much. The numbers support what the eyes already knew: it’s good. It generated a 42.4 percent whiff rate and hitters slugged only .195 facing it. That’ll do. Kudos to Clevinger for the development of his slider, documented in part by The Ringer’s Michael Baumann, which gave him another above-average breaking pitch to pair with the fastball and offset the curve. He relies heavily on a pretty good if somewhat flat fastball — mildly above-average spin — and hitters slugged a much more robust .454 off it. Overall, he’s got pretty good stuff.

Let’s watch Clevinger take the mound on a chilly Cleveland afternoon against the Chicago White Sox. Fair warning, the Sports Time Ohio director made it a little tough to great looks at what Clevinger was doing in the Yoan Moncada at-bat. Sorry.

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Look at this delivery! Pitching is the best. What you aren’t seeing is Clevinger’s foot-tapping routine he does while taking the sign, ostensibly for timing. Seriously, I enjoy the heck out of the whole thing.

Yoan Moncada (97 OPS+ last season), very prone to striking out, fouls off a fastball to open the at-bat.

Moncada Pitch 1 FB

Moncada takes another one — 96 MPH — right on the black for a called strike two. Could we see that wonderful curveball?

Moncada Pitch 2 FB

Yay! Clevinger does go for the breaking ball but spikes in the dirt well in front of the plate, and Moncada takes it for a ball. We should note the cold. It’s in the thirties here, which can pose problems for the pitchers (it can be hard to grip the ball, a potential issue for breaking stuff) and the batters (getting jammed is remarkably unpleasant).

Note that today’s pitcher is sleeveless anyway. The man pitches in Cleveland, for God’s sake, a blue-collar town.

Moncada Pitch 3 CRV

Clevinger climbs the ladder on Moncada, who fends it off. Looks to me like the young infielder might have been looking to go the other way and ended up knocking it foul.

Moncada Pitch 4 FB

Note that because of the FSO chicanery, we are skipping the fifth pitch of the at-bat (another curveball in the dirt) and moving on to the sixth.

After bouncing another curve, Clevinger just misses below the zone with a fastball. Typically it’s not easy to completely hide a curveball within the fastball — a lot of curves have the tell-tale ‘hump’ out of the hand — which might have aided Moncada’s take.

Moncada Pitch 6 FB

I like this pitch a lot. Clevinger brings the fastball just up into the zone and forces Moncada to just knick it foul. Now the Indians righty has some options. Does he go further up in the zone with the gas? Try another curve? Maybe work in that slider or pull out the changeup? He just proved to Moncada he can place the fastball up and down in the zone.

Moncada Pitch 7 FB

Clevinger chooses the fastball and goes up, punching out Moncada to open the day. Good at-bat from the youngster too.

Moncada Pitch 8 FB

Daniel Palka (114 OPS+) steps up and is greeted by the lanky beast on the mound with that delicious curveball. This one had a nice, slow break that just missed below the zone inside.

You can tell Clevinger wasn’t thrilled — look at that unenthusiastic follow through. I enjoy that. The Clevinger experience isn’t boring, I tell you that much.

Palka Pitch 1 CRV

This is a hell of a fastball. Clevinger basically gives the White Sox outfielder a 4-seamer right over the heart of the plate and flat out beats him with it. It helps, yes, that Palka just saw a curveball. Sure.

Dude threw it past him. Great stuff.

Palka Pitch 2 FB

This is even better than that one. Far better location, same result. Palka is down in the count, 1-2, and clearly isn’t ready for the gas.

Watch Clevinger’s arm action here. It’s quite a quick stroke, and the velocity proves it.

Palka Pitch 3 FB

Again, there are options here for Clevinger. You know I love the curve. He decides to try to paint the outside corner with the fastball and runs it a bit too far outside. Palka refuses to chase and remains down in the count, 2-2.

Palka Pitch 4 FB

This one doesn’t miss. What a well-located series of fastballs in this at-bat, moving all over the zone and forcing the hitter to commit. Excellent work by Mike Clevinger.

Palka Pitch 5 FB

Jose Abreu (118 OPS+) is nominally the toughest challenge in the Pale Hose lineup, aside from perhaps young Eloy Jimenez. Abreu’s hit 30 or more bombs a few times in his career but struggled some last year with a variety of injuries, including testicular torsion. Yep.

Abreu watches a well-placed curve go by for a called strike one. What a beauty that sucker is, painted right on the far corner.

Abreu Pitch 1 CRV

Clevinger tries to get the White Sox DH to chase outside the zone and nearly does, but Abreu holds up to draw the count even at 1-1. I like the call here. The pitcher can dip his toe into these chasing waters because he’s already got a first-pitch strike one and proved he can drop that curve in for a strike.

Abreu Pitch 2 CRV

Sticking with the breaking ball, Clevinger misses middle-away and is fortunate Abreu wasn’t able to get good wood on this ball. Look where catcher Roberto Perez sets up. Certainly a hanger, but Clevinger manages to keep it square on the outside edge of the zone, which helps push the contact foul.

A victory for Clevinger regardless, as the count sits 1-2.

Abreu Pitch 3 CRV

What a beautifully orchestrated at-bat. Show the batter three consecutive curves in different parts of the zone and then challenge him high and away with an upper-90s fastball. Damn, that’s some good work from Mike Clevinger.

Abreu Pitch 4 FB

Adios, Jose.

***

Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Clevinger are absolutely critical to the 2019 Indians. With superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor out for a while longer and basically only one above-average position player in the lineup right now (Jose Ramirez), the starting rotation simply has to be excellent for this to work. It can be, but the margin of error has grown perilously thin.

Bauer looks like a serious threat to win his first Cy Young and if Clevinger develops even more, maybe just maybe they can do it. Either way, summer evenings up Cleveland way are likely to be filled with good pitching.

***

Previous Ode to a Pitcher breakdowns:

James Paxton

Blake Treinen

Max Scherzer

Gerrit Cole

Chris Sale

Patrick Corbin

Jacob deGrom

Mike Mussina

Johan Santana

Pedro Martinez

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