South Siders Look for Upside in Mike Clevinger Signing

Mike Clevinger
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox dipped into the free-agent pool this week with their first significant move of the offseason, agreeing to terms with righty Mike Clevinger on a reported one-year, $12 million deal. For the soon-to-be-32 Clevinger, it represents an opportunity to reestablish himself as a reliable mid-rotation starter after struggling to do so with San Diego in his return from his second Tommy John surgery in 2022. For the White Sox, it means adding a relative unknown with some upside to a talented and extremely right-handed rotation featuring 2022 AL Cy Young finalist Dylan Cease, a pair of veterans in the possible last years of their contracts in Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito, and a 26-year-old Michael Kopech, who is trying to stay healthy for a full season himself after an early-career Tommy John surgery of his own.

The move comes as a bit of a surprise this early in the offseason, with much of the starting pitcher market yet to be sorted out. The reported $12 million value of the contract is a chunk of change higher than both our crowdsourcing and Ben Clemens predicted at $8 and $9 million, respectively. There’s a lot of starting pitching out there in November, including a handful of veterans coming off strong years that might be available for a one-year contract at or around $12 million. Corey Kluber contributed a productive season in Tampa this year, as did Michael Wacha in Boston, though he may require a second year of commitment. Andrew Heaney has generated enough buzz early that he might push that budget, but he’s available. Johnny Cueto was the second most valuable pitcher on these very same White Sox, with 2.4 WAR over 158.1 IP, but at age 36 would likely come at a similarly reasonable rate. So why did Chicago instead jump the market for Clevinger?

Short-Term SP Market Options
Name Age Proj. Years Proj. AAV GS IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
Andrew Heaney 31 2 $10 M 26 140 10.41 2.5 3.59 3.53 2.6
Corey Kluber 36 1 $11 M 29 159 7.22 2.12 4.45 4.36 1.7
Johnny Cueto 36 1 $8 M 26 152 6.29 2.44 4.68 4.63 0.9
Michael Wacha 31 2 $10 M 28 150 7.54 2.5 4.43 4.37 1.5
Mike Clevinger 31 1 $8 M 28 151 7.9 2.64 4.55 4.57 1.3
Projected values are the median crowdsource figures from the 2023 Top 50 Free Agents

Lest we forget how good Clevinger once was: from 2018 to ’19, on a Cleveland staff that featured Cy Young winners Trevor Bauer, Shane Bieber, and Kluber, as well as Carlos Carrasco, it was Clevinger who led that group in WAR with 8.7 WAR, alongside a 2.90 ERA, 3.12 FIP, and 3.56 xFIP in 326 innings over 53 starts. In 2019, he ranked in the 95th percentile in average exit velocity, 85th in xBA, 86th in xSLG, and 94th in both strikeout rate and Whiff%. At the time he was dealt to San Diego in August of 2020, he was genuinely one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and despite the surgery just months later and missed time between then and now, it’s tempting to imagine him returning to some version of that — or at least something in between.

But as Dan Szymborski noted in our free agent rankings, Clevinger’s 2022 campaign offered more discouragement than encouragement. His fastball velocity averaged under 94 mph, down from the 95-plus he sat comfortably at in 2019 and ’20, and he lost the swing-and-miss quality of his slider, which went from being worth 1.74 runs above average per 100 pitches in ’19 to -1.57 last season. The result was fewer strikeouts (down from 12.07 per nine in ’19 to 7.16); more home runs (0.71 per nine to 1.57); and a much harder time limiting offensive production (a .261 wOBA versus a .314 mark this season).

Last season was anything but easy for Clevinger. He began his Tommy John comeback with a right knee sprain in spring training, missed two weeks in May and June with a triceps strain, got COVID later in June, and hit the IL once more at the end of the regular season with another illness. This aggregation of ailments seemed to exacerbate his issues, as his fastball velocity and the swing-and-miss rates on the slider both fell as the season went on, suggesting that some of the damage could be undone if healthy. That being said, his arsenal was still not what it used to be, and how much of that is recoverable is hard to know when he hasn’t produced a full healthy season in the last three years.

In Chicago, Clevinger will join a rotation featuring Cease, Lynn, Giolito and Kopech, with Davis Martin, Jimmy Lambert, Jonathan Stiever, and Sean Burke available as depth. With Clevinger’s projected 1.3 WAR in the mix, our depth charts have the White Sox rotation combining for 11.1 WAR in 2023. That’s only good for 16th in the majors, but it does put them at the top of the division in the category, just ahead of the Guardians (10.1) and Twins (10.0), with the Tigers (8.3) and Royals (7.9) at the bottom of the pack.

White Sox SP Depth Chart
Dylan Cease 190.0 10.9 3.5 1.2 .287 74.8% 3.72 3.68 3.3
Lance Lynn 183.0 8.7 2.1 1.3 .292 73.0% 3.90 3.85 2.8
Lucas Giolito 176.0 9.2 3.0 1.4 .290 73.4% 4.12 4.09 2.0
Mike Clevinger 151.0 7.9 2.6 1.5 .288 71.6% 4.55 4.57 1.3
Michael Kopech 129.0 9.0 3.8 1.4 .288 72.0% 4.58 4.54 1.1
Davis Martin 45.0 7.8 2.9 1.4 .292 71.8% 4.46 4.50 0.4
Jimmy Lambert 18.0 8.6 3.8 1.4 .289 72.2% 4.58 4.60 0.1
Jonathan Stiever 18.0 7.5 3.1 1.6 .287 71.3% 4.85 4.93 0.1
Sean Burke 9.0 8.5 3.6 1.3 .291 72.7% 4.39 4.48 0.1
Total 919.0 9.1 3.0 1.3 .289 72.9% 4.17 4.15 11.1

But Clevinger is not the only significant question mark in Chicago’s rotation. Lynn will turn 36 in May, and while he suffered from a high BABIP and HR/FB rate in 2022, he also lost a full mile per hour on his fastball. He missed over two months with an injury to the same knee that sent him to the IL in 2021, failing to make at least 28 starts for the first time in any full season of his career. Giolito’s season had some frustrating similarities; he suffered from a .340 BABIP, the third-highest among all starters with at least 150 innings, and his average fastball dropped from 94.0 mph in 2021 to 92.7. His secondary stuff didn’t play well off of that, and he was hit hard as a result, allowing an average exit velocity of 88.8 mph — up from 87.7 a year ago — and a career-low 13.8% soft contact rate. Kopech stayed healthy enough to make a career-high 25 starts before a pair of IL stints in the back half of the season due to knee and shoulder injuries, but his strikeout rate dropped from the 97th percentile to the 40th, his walk rate fell from the 47th to the eighth, and a fastball that sat at 97.3 mph in relief in ’21 clocked at 94.9 as a starter. Velocity isn’t everything, but the White Sox have four starters who lost at least one mile per hour on their fastball in 2022. That’s cause for some alarm.

Average Fastball Velocity
Last Previous 2022 Change
Dylan Cease 96.8 96.9 0.1
Lance Lynn 94.0 93.0 -1.0
Lucas Giolito 94.0 92.7 -1.3
Mike Clevinger 95.2 93.5 -1.7
Michael Kopech* 97.4 95.1 -2.3
*Kopech was a RP in 2021 and SP in 2022

The White Sox underperformed our projections by six wins in 2022, finishing at .500 with a -31 run differential, and their former MVP José Abreu has left for the Astros, leaving them with significant questions to address in their lineup as well. But if the White Sox get Clevinger’s best (or even a portion of that), that would go a long way to bringing them back to October in Pedro Grifol’s first year at the helm.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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2 months ago

Typical White Sox signing. Veteran on a short term deal looking for a bounce back. I expect similar for a corner OF and 2B. This team is the definition of letting “good enough” be the enemy of “better.”