Velocity Will Remain a Point of Interest as Mike Clevinger Heals
Last year, Mike Clevinger's continued evolution into a star pitcher led to the righty tossing more fireballs than a flower-devouring Super Mario. And armed with the additional velocity, Clevinger's fastball slayed more than a few hitters.
In fact, when Clevinger's fastball sat between 96-97 mph, he induced a whiff over 41 percent of the time the batter swung. In other words, two of every five swings, their bat caught as much air as the time Terry Francona went skydiving. However, when that fastball sat between 95-96, their whiff percentage dropped to 28 percent. When it was between 94-95, it fell to just over 21 percent.
Clearly, speed reigns. Elite speed rules even more.
And Clevinger has become one of baseball's royals.
The 29-year-old's heater is special at any of those velocities, but the average speed he picked up on the four-seamer since the midway point of 2018 has helped him grow from really good hurler to one of baseball's elite arms.
In fact, the only thing that has held him back over the past two years is the injury bug, which now extends to a partial tear of his left medial meniscus, a diagnosis which led to an arthroscopic procedure last week. He's expected to need 6-8 weeks before he can return to game activity, though he demonstrated a proclivity for beating timetables last year in his return from an upper back injury and doesn't appear to be content to let this most recent timeline be the final word.
Understanding how important added velocity has been to his success, though, makes it simple to stress. It also makes you ponder how the knee issue impacts his ability to maintain the extra giddy-up he's worked hard to add.
After all, velocity was something he kept in his sights this offseason.
“It's still going for average velocity right now,” said Clevinger last month, also noting the work he'd put in to refining his curveball and changeup. "Velocity is always a focus, just getting stronger, more mobile."
But remember, Clevinger flies through his delivery with the force of a deadly twister, and it's the left leg that helps him plant and transfer the energy up the body to deliver the blazing heater. Alterations to his delivery, in addition to proper training, were at the core of starting to add extra notches to his fastball in 2018. If anything limits his ability to run the four-seamer into the upper 90s, we could see at a slightly less supercharged version of the long-haired hurler.
To his credit, Clevinger, despite the back issue, came back throwing harder than before he left in early 2019. Similar concerns about his ability to achieve his new norm were prevalent back then, but he silenced those on his way to a career-high 95.4 mph average four-seamer last year and career low 2.71 ERA in 126 innings.
But given he wasn't able to build into the season like a pitcher would typically prefer, it's understandable that maintaining his best velocities of 2019 became more difficult as the year progressed.
Another way to see how effective the fastball might be is to examine the amount of swings-and-misses it induces within the strike zone. It's one thing to generate them on pitches that aren't strikes, but getting them in a zone can be an indication of just how little chance the hitters have against a certain pitch.
April and June presented such a small sample that it's not even worth examining that closely. Instead, let's focus on September
As you could surmise, when the fastball was averaging under 95 mph in September (94.5 mph), batters had a slightly better shot at making contact in the zone.
And while simply throwing hard doesn't guarantee strikeouts -- it helps when you have lethal secondary stuff that makes all of your pitches play well -- it is interesting to see his rolling strikeout rate and increases to fastball velocity tell their versions of the Clevinger character arc.
Of course, Clevinger is talented enough to produce outs at a high level even at a slightly lower velocity, so even when he generated a 3.04 FIP and 4.09 xFIP in the final month -- his highest FIP and xFIP of any month outside of the 6 1/3 innings he pitched in June -- it wasn't anything to raise concern.
We're just, essentially, talking about the difference between the Clevinger we saw near the end of 2018 (spoiler alert: still really good) and the Clevinger we witnessed for most of 2019, a top 5 strikeout artist.
The Indians will happily accept either, but it's easy to get greedy and yearn for the guy that finished with baseball's 16th-highest fWAR despite pitching far fewer innings than almost everyone around him on the leaderboard.
We don't know how his most recent injury will impact his ability to throw hard -- the team will certainly seek ways to keep his arm fresh during his recovery -- but given Clevinger is the sort of guy that needs Francona's parachute on his back to slow him down, it's worth giving him benefit of the doubt while we wait.