Mike Clevinger isn’t what you see when you think of the top starters in baseball. They’re usually of the Johnny Unitas type, a haircut you can set your watch to. But here is Clevinger, looking like he fell off the Allman Brothers bus, and since he returned from injury in late June, there hasn’t been a better pitcher.
The numbers pop right out at you. Since July 1st, Clevinger has the best WAR of any pitcher, the fourth best ERA, the best FIP, sixth-best K/9, and they third-best ERA-. He’s a huge reason, along with Shane Bieber, that the Tribe have been able to surge to the top of the wildcard standings and still keep some hot breath on the neck of the Twins atop the Central. And they’ll need all their pitchers to be on top of their game with the resurgence of Jose Ramirez now over thanks to a broken hand.
How did Clevinger get here? A couple of different answers. One, he has one of the best sliders in the game. According to FanGraphs, his slider ranks behind only Max Scherzer’s and Patrick Corbin’s as far as value. That’s always a nice place to be. Clevinger’s slider doesn’t have a huge amount of tilt but it does have a hue amount of sweep, moving nearly 10 inches across the zone and out of it. Which is a big reason that hitters from the right side whiff at over half the ones at which they swing.
Another reason is that hitters can’t do much with his fastball, either. He throws pretty hard, averaging 96 MPH on it, which is top-1o in the game. Clevinger gets a fair amount of run on his four-seam, which moves it on the hands of righties and away from lefties. And it’s the fastball that’s been the big difference from last year, gaining nearly two MPH of average velocity and going from a good pitch to a great one. Clevinger credited better mechanics coming into this season, getting away from using only his arm to produce it.
But it’s in the past two years that the slider became the main weapon, especially this year when he was able to really increase the tilt it got and the sweep. Raising his arm slot appears to have been a key, as you can see here:
So with the greater velocity, and the already-damaging slider, hitters don’t have much of cushion to diagnose either, and you get what you have so far this season.
Clevinger’s return to health and entrance into dominance, as well as Shane Bieber’s, made Cleveland comfortable dealing All-World Tool Trevor Bauer across the state, and probably will make it easier for them to lose Cory Kluber in the winter (they almost did this past one). Carlos Carrasco returning is also a boon to that. Kluber has two years of club options at a pretty reasonable rate left, so his value probably won’t be much higher than this for the always cost-conscious Indians.
But both Clevinger and Bieber are going to be around a while, and the base for the next great Tribe team (if that has Lindor, of course). As for this year, they’ve got six game left with the Twins that will probably decide the Central. And they have the one thing, thanks to Clevinger in part, that the Twins don’t. And that’s dominating starting pitching.