The Padres Face a Postseason Without Mike Clevinger

When the Padres made the August 31 trade deadline’s biggest splash by acquiring Mike Clevinger from the Indians via a nine-player blockbuster, it was with an eye towards the 29-year-old righty taking the ball in the postseason, potentially as a Game 1 starter. While the team is tied for the NL’s second-best record (34-22) and headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2006, plans for Clevinger to figure prominently have been put on hold, as he left Wednesday’s start against the Angels after one inning due to biceps tightness.

After throwing seven shutout innings against the Giants on September 13, Clevinger had previously been scheduled to start on Saturday, September 18 against the Mariners, but he was scratched due to his first reported bout of soreness in his right biceps. After a successful bullpen session on Monday, he was declared good to go against the Angels, and he got off to a strong start, breezing through the first inning on 12 pitches by sandwiching strikeouts of David Fletcher and Mike Trout — both swinging at sliders — around a groundout by Jared Walsh:

The only hint that anything might be amiss was that Clevinger’s average fastball velocity of 94.2 mph was a full click below his season average of 95.2, and a bit further below his average first-inning velocity of 95.6; both his slider and curve were slower than normal as well, the former by more than two miles per hour. When he didn’t emerge for the second inning and was replaced by Adrian Morejon, there was some initial confusion as to whether he was simply making an opener-like start or testing out how he was feeling, plausible courses of action given that the Padres have not only already clinched a playoff berth but are essentially locked into the number four seed. The rest of their regular season is merely tuneups.

The matter turned out to be more serious, however. Via The Athletic:

“He was feeling good, he got through the first and came in and said it just tightened up on him I think it was after the second hitter,” manager Jayce Tingler told reporters after the game. “It was originally around the bicep tendon, and he said, ‘I just got kind of tight there, in that area.’ … I don’t want to speculate because honestly I don’t know.”

The Padres sent Clevinger to get an MRI (the results of which are pending at this writing), and according to the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee suspect that a diagnosis of a muscle strain or tendinitis is in store. Either would likely sideline him for too long to be available in October. Consider a handful of recent examples: the Twins’ Homer Bailey missed nearly eight weeks with biceps tendinitis this year, while the Rays’ Oliver Drake missed over five weeks and the Rockies’ Chi Chi González nearly four weeks; the most pitches any of them threw in their big league returns was Bailey’s 55 on Tuesday against the Tigers. In 2018, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw was out for four weeks and threw 62 pitches in his return, while the Red Sox’s Drew Pomeranz missed nearly eight weeks but threw 89 pitches in his first outing back. The shortest absence I could find in recent memory was that of the Mets’ Zack Wheeler, who returned after an 11-day absence in 2017 but was largely ineffective in a four-start stint before being sidelined by a stress reaction in his right arm (feel free to insert snark about the Mets’ injury mismanagement here).

The bottom line is that unless Clevinger was merely experiencing a cramp, his season is probably over, in which case it ends with his posting a 3.10 ERA, 4.26 FIP and 0.7 WAR in 40.2 innings across eight starts. His campaign was shortened by a nearly three-week absence in August, when he was quarantined and then optioned to the Indians’ alternate training site after joining teammate Zach Plesac in sneaking out of the team’s hotel in Chicago, violating the team’s COVID-19-related health and safety protocols and drawing the enmity of teammates, particularly after initially concealing his transgression while Plesac was disciplined. The incident no doubt played a part in the Indians’ willingness to deal a talented hurler with two years of club control remaining.

That’s in the past, while the Padres’ concern is the near future, starting with the Wild Card Series, where the identity of their opponent remains up in the air; through play on Wednesday, the Cardinals (27-26, currently in position as the fifth seed), Marlins, Giants, Reds, Phillies, and Brewers (27-28, in 10th place) were separated by a single game in the standings. Without Clevinger, the Game 1 start will almost surely go to Dinelson Lamet, a 28-year-old righty who in his third major league season has broken out with a performance worthy of Cy Young consideration, albeit in a crowded field; he ranks third in ERA (2.07) and K-BB% (27.7%), fourth in FIP (2.50), K% (35.2%), and strikeouts (89), and fifth in WAR (2.3). Two more righties, 27-year-old Zach Davies and 24-year-old Chris Paddack, are likely to follow in some order. Davies, who was acquired from the Brewers last November in the trade that also brought over Trent Grisham in exchange for Eric Lauer, Luis Urías, and cash considerations, has ridden a .244 BABIP to a 2.85 ERA, 3.99 FIP and 1.2 WAR in a staff-high 66.1 innings, one more than Lamet. Paddack, who hasn’t been able to consistently reproduce last year’s rookie magic, owns a 4.23 ERA, 4.48 FIP, and 0.7 WAR in 55.1 innings.

The three offer distinctly different looks for opponents. Lamet relies upon a slider and a high-spin four-seam fastball that averages 97.1 mph, mixing in the occasional sinker. Davies doesn’t deal in velocity; his sinker averages only 88.6 mph, but he combines it with a cutter and a particularly effective, diving changeup that he has used as more of an out pitch than before, as Jake Mailhot illustrated recently. Both have been very effective against lefties, holding them to wOBAs of .199 and .213, respectively.

Paddack’s best pitch is a changeup as well, which he pairs with a four-seamer that averages 94.2 mph, but the latter pitch has lacked the command and late life that typified it last year, and the results have generated headlines like “Fastball betrays Paddack in ‘frustrating’ loss.” Where batters managed just a .204 average and .283 xwOBA against his heater last year, they’re at .301 and .412 this year, with an average exit velocity that’s risen from 89.3 mph to 92.2. Lefties have hit him for a .327 wOBA, righties .309.

If the Padres advance to the Division Series, it would make sense for them to move 32-year-old righty Garrett Richards back to the rotation; with the team not needing a fifth starter during the back half of September, he has made three relief appearances since his last start on September 13. As a starter, he pitched to a 4.27 ERA and 4.26 FIP in 10 starts totaling just 46.1 innings. But for as much sense as a return to the rotation makes, Tingler said on Wednesday he would remain in the bullpen, though that could still mean that he works as the primary pitcher following an opener, which may help to mitigate his platoon splits (.364 wOBA allowed versus lefties, .268 versus righties). The Padres have used half a dozen pitchers to make opener, bullpen day, or otherwise shortened starts this year; the longest by any outside the aforementioned quintet have been by lefties Morejon and Joey Lucchesi and righty Cal Quantrill (now with Cleveland), with Morejon maxing out at three innings and the other two at 3.2 innings.

Even if one considers Richards in a starter-like capacity as the primary, the Padres will have to cobble together something else for one game per round if they advance beyond the Wild Card Series. Diagram out an NL team’s postseason schedule through the NLCS, with each series going the maximum length, and you get something along these lines:

NLWCS Game 1, Sept. 30: Lamet (4 days of rest, assuming Sept. 25 start)
NLWCS Game 2, Oct. 1: Davies (4, assuming Sept. 26 start)
NLWCS Game 3, Oct. 2: Paddack (4, assuming Sept. 27 start)

NLDS Game 1, Oct. 5: Lamet (4)
NLDS Game 2, Oct. 6: Davies (4)
NLDS Game 3, Oct. 7: Paddack (4)
NLDS Game 4, Oct. 8: Richards (unknown) or 5th starter/bullpen/opener
NLDS Game 5, Oct. 9: Lamet (3) or Richards (unknown)

NLCS Game 1, Oct. 12: Davies (5) or Lamet (6)
NLCS Game 2, Oct. 13: Paddack (5) or Davies (6)
NLCS Game 3, Oct. 14: Lamet (4) or Richards (4)
NLCS Game 4, Oct. 15: Richards (5) or 5th/bullpen/opener
NLCS Game 5, Oct. 16: Game 1 SP (3) or bullpen/opener
NLCS Game 6, Oct. 17: Game 2 SP (3) or Game 1 SP (4)
NLCS Game 7, Oct. 18: Game 3 SP (3) or Game 2 SP (4)

Unless a team is using some kind of five-man rotation or bullpen/opener game, somebody has to take the ball on three days of rest at least once, and it might be asking too much for a pitcher to go back-to-back starts with three and four days of rest. Maybe Richards, in his reduced role, can rebound more quickly and give the other starters an additional day of rest down the line, but you can get the general sense of how this postseason just won’t be business as usual given the compressed schedule.

The good news for the Padres is that they’re going to the playoffs with a strong and engaging team, and that even if he misses this postseason, Clevenger has two more years to help the team in its quest to return to the World Series for the first time since 1998. Still, this isn’t the way that they hoped this long-awaited shot at October would go.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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The Padres have left it open that he could return, we will see what the test result are but in theory he has 2ish weeks to get ready or so if they do win 1st round (of course not a lock). It looks like 5 game nlds runs from october 6th through 10th. I’m confident in padres against St Louis/Miami still (Cincy and philly less so). It’s maybe possible that with pain tolerance clevinger could pitch in shorter bursts but we will see. All speculative at this point, but think it would be beyond shocking if he started in the WC series