Mike Clevinger: The sixth pitcher in a five-pitcher rotation

Oct 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Mike Clevinger (52) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning in game five of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Indians relief pitcher Mike Clevinger (52) delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs during the fifth inning in game five of the 2016 World Series at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /

Cleveland Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger struggled in 2016. What adjustments can he make if called upon in 2016?

The Cleveland Indians have seen their fair share of bumps and bruises during spring training. But with Carlos Carrasco’s return to the mound, the Indians’ rotation is back to full strength as the team prepares to embark on its 162-game journey.

But anyone who has watched baseball knows that it’s just a matter of time before one of those rotation slots opens up due to injury. If (when) a slot opens up, the questions then become:

  • When will it open up?
  • How long will it be open?
  • Who will fill it?

While we have no way of answering questions one and two ahead of time, we already know the likely answer to number three. As it stands right now, recently optioned starter Mike Clevinger occupies the sixth slot of the five-man starting rotation. When the time does arise, what can the Indians expect from their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option?

In August of 2014 the Indians acquired Clevinger from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for Vinnie Pestano. Clevinger took a big step forward after arriving to the Indians’ farm system in 2015, when he posted a 2.73 ERA with a 3.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 158 innings at Double-A Akron. Clevinger’s progression with his walk rate was his biggest improvement, as he lowered his walks per nine rate from 3.87 in 2014 to 2.28 in 2015.

He gave back a lot of his control gains in 2016. In 17 starts at Triple-A he posted 3.39 BB/9 and in 53 innings with the big league club he posted 4.92 BB/9. Any improvement for Clevinger at the big league level has to start with his control.

While his 8.39 K/9 rate is solid for a starting pitcher, it is not nearly enough to make up for walking a batter every other inning. Throw in a 40 percent flyball rate and you have a pitcher walking a batter every other inning and giving up 1.36 HR/9, not exactly a recipe for success.

Of course, there is still plenty of hope to be found. Clevinger posted a 9.3 swinging strike percentage in 2016, and while that number is more decent than good, at a more granular level we can see that Clevinger threw three different pitches with whiff percentages above 10 percent, per Brooks Baseball. Clevinger’s changeup (17.17 percent), cutter (15.38 percent), and slider (14.71 percent) all had double-digit swinging strike rates.

Those three pitches also drew groundballs at a significantly higher rate than Clevinger’s overall 38 percent groundball rate (66.67 percent for the cutter, 52.38 percent for the changeup, and 45.45 percent for the curveball).

So why the disparity between Clevinger’s overall numbers and his pitch-specific numbers? It all comes back to the fastball, which had just a 7.1 percent swinging strike rate and 33 percent groundball rate. Opposing batters hit .290 and slugged .492 against Clevinger’s heater. As good as Clevinger’s secondary offerings were last year, it hardly matters much if he can’t be effective with his fastball.

Related: Breaking down the Opening Day bullpen

The velocity on the fastball isn’t the problem; Clevinger consistently sat in the mid-nineties with the pitch. The logical conclusion then is that there’s a command issue, as evidenced by Clevinger’s walk rate.

If Clevinger is having trouble locating his secondary pitchers, hitters can key in on his fastball. If he’s anything less than impeccable with his fastball command, he opens himself up to either a bunch of walks, a bunch of hard-hit balls, or a bunch of both.

There are potential avenues Clevinger could take to rectify the issues. First, take a look at Clevinger’s pitch location charts for his fastball against righties and lefties (seriously, go ahead and look).

We can see that Clevinger has focused on working primarily down and away to both righties and lefties. While in theory down and away is a good place to spot the fastball, the pitch hasn’t shown groundball tendency even when located in the bottom third of the zone.

One adjustment Clevinger could make is to use the fastball up in the zone more often. Locating the fastball up could lead to more swinging strikes, and it’s not as if Clevinger would be sacrificing a lot of groundballs to get them. In addition, Clevinger has shown either an inability or an unwillingness to pitch inside to lefties with his fastball, which is something he’ll have to address.

The other intriguing point here is Clevinger’s cutter. It showed some promise last season, albeit in a tiny sample size (just 26 cutters thrown). There has not been a lot of talk about Clevinger’s cutter, save for this Waiting For Next Year piece that suggests Clevinger scrapped the cutter after it proved ineffective in game situations. But if Clevinger is unable to make adjustments to his fastball command, the cutter could be a viable alternative if he can ever harness it in game situations.

Clevinger’s status as the team’s sixth starter isn’t an accident. Had he shown the ability to answer the questions posed above, then there would be more consideration put towards starting him in the big league rotation.

But there is still a good chance Clevinger can put things together to be an effective starter. There’s no doubt the stuff is there. Now it just becomes a matter of harnessing the stuff to effectively work against big league lineups.

Next: Previewing the starting rotation

Tightening up command of a pitch or introducing a new one is far easier said than done. But the potential is there for Mike Clevinger to fill a void in the Indians rotation if (when?) one opens up.