At the season’s quarter mark, Mike Clevinger is pitching like a bona fide ace. Currently slotted at number four in the Cleveland rotation, Clevinger has been stellar by every metric. His preseason expectations were high following a markedly improved 2017 campaign, but few people could have foreseen his dominant start to the 2018 season.
The Angels selected Clevinger in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, and he spent five years in the Angels’ and Indians’ farm systems before his MLB debut for the Tribe in 2016. His first year in the majors was shaky, albeit his sample size was fairly small. He appeared in 17 games and started 10. According to FanGraphs he posted a 5.26 ERA and a 4.86 FIP. FIP stands for fielding independent pitching and is supposed to represent a pitcher’s ERA assuming he had league average fielding. He posted 0.3 wins above replacement in 2016.
In 2017, Clevinger was a pleasant surprise. In his 27 appearances, which includes 21 starts, he posted a significantly improved ERA and FIP, at 3.11 and 3.85, respectively. He posted a respectable 2.2 wins above replacement.
Coming into the 2018 season, there was certainly reason to be optimistic about Clevinger’s prospects. Surely Terry Francona would have been satisfied if his number four starter had replicated his 2017 performance. But in an absolutely stacked rotation that features Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Trevor Bauer, it is perhaps Clevinger, the fourth man in the rotation, that has shined brightest at the season’s quarter mark.
As of May 19, Clevinger has an ERA of 2.87, good for ninth place in the American League, and a strong 3.03 FIP. Clevinger owes much of his success to drastically improved command and increased reliance on his off-speed pitches. The imposing 6’4” pitcher is walking 2.72 batters per 9 innings, a marked improvement from his BB/9 of 4.92 and 4.44 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. According to Brooks Baseball, he has thrown his four-seam fastball 54% of the time against lefties and 48% of the time against righties in 2018. For reference, he threw it 61% of the time against lefties and 55% of the time against righties in 2016. Over the past two years he has relied increasingly on his slider and curve ball which have been solid secondary pitches.
Clevinger has been inducing ground balls at a much higher rate this year compared to his previous two. His ground ball percentage is 47.6% compared to values of 38.2% and 39.5%. As he becomes more of a ground ball pitcher, it would make sense that his HR/9 is 0.45, down from values of 1.36 and 0.96.
The Indians arguably have the best rotation in the league, and it is anchored by reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. But at this quarter point in the season, Clevinger has been just as spectacular, if not better than Kluber. His WAR of 1.5 puts him ahead of Kluber on the MLB WAR leaderboard.
For the fourth guy in the Tribe’s rotation, that is pretty darn good.