Here’s Why the Indians Don’t Really Need a Starter by Jeff Sullivan July 20, 2017 I don’t know if the Cubs are actually coming out of their funk, but it sure looks like they are. It feels like a matter of days before they re-claim first place in the NL Central, which is the outcome we’ve all long expected. There’s still work to do yet, but as the Cubs improve, it sends more eyes over to the Indians. The Indians have been in a funk of their own, and while they’re already sitting in first, they’ve been unable to shake the Twins and the Royals. Even the Tigers remain within conceivable striking distance, and they’ve begun to sell. The Indians were supposed to be better than this, and the clock, as a clock does, is ticking. Struggling team? Check. Trade deadline approaching? Check. Observers are wondering how the Indians might look to get better in the week and a half ahead. One thought has been that the club could look to add another starting pitcher. With Danny Salazar about to return from injury, perhaps that wouldn’t be necessary. But for me, the key isn’t the return of Salazar. Rather, it’s the emergence of Mike Clevinger. Clevinger has stepped up in a big way, giving the Indians more than they thought they might have. A year ago, Clevinger debuted, and he started 10 times. He also made a handful of appearances in relief. So far this year, he’s started 12 times, with one game out of the bullpen. Let’s toss out the bullpen stats. Here’s a quick little table, examining Clevinger as a big-league starter: Mike Clevinger, Starting Pitcher Season GS Pitches/GS wOBA xwOBA K% K-BB% Contact% 2016 10 77 0.360 0.363 20% 7% 76% 2017 12 93 0.271 0.303 28% 15% 69% There’s nothing particularly subtle about that. In neither season has Clevinger been what you might call a consistent strike-thrower, as he’s not a guy who tries to pound the zone. But this year, the numbers are much better, even as Clevinger has been working deeper and deeper. As a rookie, Clevinger hardly ever saw a hitter for the third time in a game. This year, his pitch count has reached the triple digits, and the results have suggested a breakthrough. That xwOBA — expected wOBA — figure comes from Baseball Savant. It’s true that, this year, Clevinger might have overachieved. His expected wOBA against is quite a bit higher than the wOBA opponents have actually managed. And yet, .303 is still good. There are five starting pitchers this season with xwOBA marks of exactly .303. Their names are Mike Clevinger, Gio Gonzalez, Yu Darvish, Marcus Stroman, and Sonny Gray. This remains something of an experimental statistic, so we should be conservative with our interpretations, but we can say, at the very least, that Clevinger has found some good company. Among regular starting pitchers this season, Clevinger has allowed the sixth-lowest rate of contact. He’s allowed the fourth-lowest rate of contact on pitches within the strike zone. He’s been a tough guy to hit. Not uncommon, for an Indians pitcher. And it seems like Clevinger’s key has been working lower, lower, and lower still. Baseball Savant allows you to search by average pitch location. It’s a blunt tool, but it’s effective, depending on what you’re trying to do. A year ago, the average Clevinger pitch crossed the plate 2.25 feet off the ground. This year, the average stands at 1.94 feet off the ground. That’s a drop of 0.31 feet, or 3.7 inches. And that happens to be the biggest average drop for any starter around. No other starting pitcher has made a bigger such adjustment than Clevinger, and a lot of what this seems to come down to is a sharpening of Clevinger’s breaking balls. Clevinger was already able to throw hard. To go with the heat, he possessed a pretty solid changeup. The shortcoming was that he didn’t have a reliable slider or curve. That helps to explain why 2016 Clevinger was absolutely obliterated by righties. No more. Now, the slider is good, and the slower curveball is good, too. Both pitches have big sweeping action, but the slider comes in with an extra six ticks, and the curve drops by an extra nine inches. More important than that, Clevinger is locating better. Look at how he’s been able to focus his breaking balls more consistently low and glove-side: The result? Clevinger’s slider now has a positive run value. His curveball now has a positive run value. Last year, when Clevinger as a starter threw a breaking ball, he got a whiff about 15% of the time. This year, that rate stands at 24%, for an improvement of nine percentage points. That’s the second-biggest improvement for any starter, with only Nate Karns above. Clevinger’s breaking-ball whiff rate is now the sixth-highest for any starter, where last year it was mediocre. For perspective, Clevinger’s at 24%. Max Scherzer is at 23%. Clayton Kershaw’s at 22%. This is basically what the slider looks like: From the same game — because of the camera angle — this is basically what the curveball looks like: They’re not only two good breaking balls, but they’re two good breaking balls that play off of one another. The horizontal movement is almost identical, but then there’s further separation, making it more difficult to time. The slider might look like the fastball, but then the curveball might look like the slider, and the changeup remains a quality weapon as well. A two-pitch pitcher has become a four-pitch pitcher, and hitters haven’t yet figured it out. The one real drawback is that Clevinger doesn’t have pinpoint command. Probably never will. He can struggle to throw 60% strikes, so the walks are going to be there. But they seldom spiral out of control, because the pitches tend to be close, and there are so many whiffs. Clevinger throws plenty of balls, but I’d stop short of calling him wild. He’ll succeed as long as he’s missing bats like he is. If not for Clevinger, the Indians would be in a tougher position. They know they have Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, but then they’d have to depend on Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin. Nobody should want to have to do that. Yet, because of Clevinger, the Indians really only need two starters out of those three, reducing the need for any help. Salazar has always been an electrifying tease. Bauer has his own intriguing peripherals. If Clevinger holds steady, the Indians can keep rolling the dice at the back. They can keep figuring that underachieving talented players will improve. I think the Indians will play better. I think they’re going to take the division. I think they’re going to look more normal from here on out. To this point, they can thank Mike Clevinger for helping them weather the storm. His emergence is a major reason why the Indians aren’t looking up at someone else in first place.