We’ve already seen our fair share of big name pitching prospects make their debuts this year, including Sean Manaea, Michael Fulmer, and Jose Berrios. I gave the latter the full GIF Breakdown treatment following his MLB debut, and we’re back for another edition as the Indians called up Mike Clevinger to start Wednesday evening against the Cincinnati Reds. To give a little background, Clevinger was impressive in 2015 as he started 26 games in AA, featuring a 8.26 K/9 and a miniscule 2.28 BB/9 paired with a sparkling 2.73 ERA (3.02 FIP). While he was able to increase his strikeout totals in AAA this season (9.08 K/9), the control has been questionable and as his walk rate rose, his ERA followed. We’ve seen pitchers develop further from the moment they hit a major league mound, and I was anxious to see what Clevinger brought to the table as he faced the Reds. Here’s Mike Clevinger’s GIF Breakdown with 12 GIFs from that start.
As always, let’s begin with his strikezone plot from the evening:
These plots can give us a bunch of information right off the bat. The first thing you’ll notice is the massive amount of pitches off the plate arm-side. Clevinger’s delivery isn’t straight north-south, but rather tilts slightly to three-quarters, which can increase his difficulty to throw strikes. Seeing so many pitches miss outside to left-handers means he is still working on his timing and is struggling to complete his pitches as his arm follows through. You’ll also see that Clevinger was able to throw his Sliders for strikes, as well as avoided elevating both his Fastball and breaking pitches. While his wild tendencies don’t make this an ideal plot, his ability to keep the ball down shows room for growth.
Now let’s dive into his repertoire and detailing how he attacked batters through the outing:
Clevinger has a great foundation with his Fastball. He made his approach very clear from the opening pitches of the game – get ahead with the heater and keep the ball down:
Even though it didn’t sit on the edge, it’s great to see Clevinger hit the knees effectively and he did so through the outing. On top of his good vertical location, Clevinger flashed the ability to command the pitch laterally during his first at-bat against Jay Bruce. Watch these two pitches that allowed him to quickly jump ahead 0-2 with just his Fastball:
Being able to control both sides of the plate is a major catalyst for success and if he can do it at will, Clevinger could be a force to be reckoned with. However, that could take a while to achieve. As I mentioned earlier, his timing was inconsistent and his Fastball would miss off the plate arm-side frequently. Here’s a good example against Billy Hamilton:
Now, it is much better that Clevinger missed outside off the plate instead of down the middle over the plate in this 0-2 count, but we saw many pitches just like this one that reinforced his biggest flaw: poor arm-side control. It’s far-and-away the greatest obstacle in his path to taking a big step forward, and if he can knock it aside, the sky’s the limit. Nevertheless, his Fastball in its current state is good enough to lay a solid foundation for his secondary pitches.
One of the more impressive takeaways from Clevinger’s debut was his lack of hesitation to throw any of his pitches in any count. He threw all four offerings in the first inning, and as the game progressed it was clear that his Slider was his most consistent. Whenever he needed a pitch to be made, his Slider would do the trick as he could throw it for a first-pitch strike:
Use it in a full count to induce a groundout:
Or generate whiffs and strikeouts:
We’ve seen pitchers with more devastating breaking balls, and while I see Clevinger turning to his Slider often to close the door on batters, it isn’t a plus plus pitch that will make him a serious strikeout threat each time he takes the hill. Still, success in the majors greatly hinges of having two pitches outside of a Fastball that can be confidently thrown for strikes, and this Slider is an easy check in the box.
The most interesting pitch of Clevinger’s arsenal is his Changeup, which the 25-year-old had more confidence in than the results suggested he should have. There were moments his faith in the pitch were justified, such as this 1-0 slow ball to Tucker Barnhart:
Yet he would too frequently allow the ball to fly out of his hand and sail away from the plate, missing well off the outside corner for a wasted pitch:
The potential is clearly there. Considering Clevinger throws a Four-Seam Fastball, a well executed Changeup is the perfect compliment when thrown correctly, and the results were there when he hit his location (and sometimes even when he missed over the plate as well). He also flashed the ability to use it as a strikeout weapon, evidenced by this excellent 0-2 Changeup in the dirt to Brandon Phillips:
The big question mark is once again consistency. Clevinger understands the effectiveness of throwing Changeups in tough counts and the pitch has the movement and deception to make it work, but I’m not sold that he’ll be able to execute the pitch at will. His confidence dictates that we’ll see a more improved model in future outings, which is be a critical element to form a quality MLB starter.
Clevinger’s final offering is a slow Curveball that he uses to earn strikes early in counts. There were a couple that missed in the same fashion as his Fastball and Changeup, though most of his hooks looked like this 0-1 bender to Tyler Holt:
That’s a fantastic pitch. After throwing plenty of Sliders and Fastballs, dropping in this slow breaking ball will very often result in either Clevinger getting way ahead in the at-bat or earning himself a quick out:
He can’t throw too many Curveballs as it doesn’t have sharp enough break to continuously deceive batters through the game, but it serves very well as a surprise offering that can set up his other pitches, earn cheap strikes, and induce the occasional out.
Final Line – 5.1 IP, 4 ER, 5 Hits, 1 BB, 5 Ks in 91 Pitches
The final line looks worse than how Clevinger performed. It’s possible that the three earned runs scored in his final inning are a result of exhaustion – he was throwing 91/92 MPH instead of 94/95 we saw earlier in the game – though his good Fastball foundation mixed with an array of effective pitches sets him up for a good floor moving forward. There is risk for blowups given his sporadic control, though with more time in the bigs there is upside for him to become a very effective finesse pitcher with proper Fastball command. His approach reminds me of Jacob DeGrom, which suggests that Clevinger could benefit from featuring high-and-away Fastballs to left-handers in deeper counts, opening the door for more strikeout potential. Clevinger has the confidence and right mentality on the hill to further develop each of his offerings, which could mean Clevinger hints at Top 50 spot before the season is through. He’s not there yet and he could fizzle out given his lack of overpowering stuff, but his repertoire lays the blueprints for a good, productive machine.
As always, I’ll conclude this breakdown with a pitch that encapsulates the featured pitcher. Here we have a well spotted 95 MPH Fastball to Brandon Phillips for a first-pitch strike: