Clevinger’s Debut Year Leaves Him With Unknown Role for the Future
Bob Toth | On 15, Dec 2016
Rookie right-hander Mike Clevinger played an important role for the Cleveland Indians in 2016 as he tried to help cushion the losses of several injured and ineffective pitchers over the course of the season.
Clevinger had spent his minor league career working almost exclusively in the starting rotation, with three exceptions during his professional debut season in 2011 and single games in 2014 and 2015 after coming over to the Indians organization from that of the Los Angeles Angels in the trade for former Tribe reliever Vinnie Pestano. Cleveland, however, looked to Clevinger as a more versatile option during their run to the World Series, tossing him into relief seven different times around his ten starts.
He made his regular season debut at the Triple-A level to start the season and put up good numbers in the Columbus Clippers rotation. From April 10 to May 11, he made seven starts, worked at least five innings in all but one, and posted a 5-0 record with a 3.03 ERA and .219 batting average against. While putting up an impressive debut at the Triple-A level, he also earned the title of dad for the first time as he and his wife Monica welcomed their first child, daughter Penelope, to the world on May 2. There was no time to rest with a newborn in tow as, in need of rotation help, the Indians turned to the 25-year-old first-time dad.
Major League hitters were not as kind as those faced by Clevinger in Triple-A, as he worked 14 1/3 innings over three starts against the Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, and Baltimore Orioles, going 0-1 with an 8.79 ERA. He allowed four runs on five hits with five strikeouts in five and one-third innings in his MLB debut at Cincinnati. But when injured starter Carlos Carrasco finished his rehab assignment, Clevinger was sent back to Columbus as the rotation reached full strength again.
Over his next six outings for the Clippers, Clevinger continued his strong start to his 2016 minor league campaign. After allowing four runs in his return game, he threw three consecutive scoreless outings (18 2/3 innings) while allowing just eight hits. Control was an issue at times, as he walked seven in those three games, but he struck out 19 to balance it out some. He was 3-0 in that stretch to improve to 8-0 to start his Triple-A career.
The taxed Indians bullpen, drained by the 19-inning game on July 1 against the Toronto Blue Jays, led to many new faces on the Cleveland relief staff in the days and weeks that followed. Clevinger was one of those faces to return from the Clippers roster to that of the Indians and he made his first career relief appearance on July 5, working two innings and giving up a hit and two walks while striking out one in Cleveland’s 12-1 win over Detroit. Two days later, he was optioned back to Columbus.
Despite the relief appearance in a mop up role in Cleveland, Clevinger remained a starter for the Clippers upon his return. He won his final start before the All-Star break to improve to 9-0 before he was dealt a tough loss, despite a quality start, on July 18. He followed that outing up with a pair of wins and on August 4, he was recalled again. This time, he was inserted into the rotation to fill in for the injured Danny Salazar, who had landed on the disabled list two days prior with right elbow inflammation.
He made two more starts for the Indians before Salazar was activated and then he was moved back into the bullpen. He worked as part of the relief staff in five games, working nine and one-third innings while giving up seven hits and three walks while striking out ten and posting a 3.86 ERA while earning his first Major League win on August 21 against Toronto.
All five of his appearances in September were in starting roles, working generally short outings but overall successful ones, as the Indians rotation dealt with skipped starts and further health issues. He had a pair of short outings, including a spot start in the front of a bullpen day on September 5, before a pair of four inning games and a five inning one. He allowed a total of five runs over 14 2/3 innings in those games before a rough five-run game in two innings of work in Detroit in his final start of the season on September 27. He earned a final win in October after throwing two-thirds of a scoreless inning of relief against the Royals in the penultimate game of the season.
To cap off his debut year in the league, Clevinger was on the playoff roster, appearing in a game during the American League Championship Series against Toronto, allowing a run in one and two-thirds innings. He made three more appearances in the World Series against the Chicago Cubs, giving up two runs on two hits with four walks and two strikeouts in four innings of work.
With the Indians, he was 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in 17 appearances (ten starts) in 2016. He put together an 11-1 record with a 3.00 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP across his 17 starts for the Clippers.
He provided unusual splits over the course of his combined efforts in 2016 as he struggled to retire right-handed hitters. They hit .276 against him with 12 of the 16 home runs and 21 of the 29 doubles he allowed. Lefties hit just .193 against him with eight doubles, a triple, and four home runs. His walk and strikeout totals were nearly equal despite the splits, with just nine total plate appearances separating the two groups.
He buckled down some with runners on base, allowing a .214 average and 14 extra base hits in 269 plate appearances, compared to a .252 mark with 32 extra base hits in 344 plate appearances with the bases empty. All 16 homers allowed came as a starting pitcher, while he allowed just eight hits (three doubles) in 49 at bats (.182 average) in his limited work as a reliever. Younger batters hit .264 off of him, while older batters accounted for 101 of his 147 strikeouts while hitting .223.
He is still rather inexperienced compared to most players who have logged the number of years on the farm that Clevinger has under his belt, as he made just 14 appearances over his first three pro years after losing much of 2012 and 2013 to Tommy John surgery. He had made five starts for the Angels at the Single-A level and 13 at the High-A level when they dealt him to the Indians in 2014. He made five appearances for High-A Carolina that season before working the entire 2015 regular season at Double-A Akron. The former fourth rounder in 2011 was promoted to Columbus in time for the Triple-A playoffs there to close out his 2015.
Clevinger becomes a curious piece of the Tribe’s arm options for 2017. Will the team leave him in Columbus as the first starting pitcher to get the call if and when the team has a need for another starter? Will they look to bolster their current roster by dealing a starter and plugging Clevinger in to the back end of the Major League rotation? Could he instead be a possible trade chip for a similar upgrade? Or will the young right-hander remain a bullpen option for the Major League club moving forward?
While that story plays itself out between now and the end of spring training, Clevinger has shown some strong numbers over the last couple of seasons at the minor league level and displayed some promise during his time with the Major League club, despite some bumps and bruises while in the rotation. The sixth-year pro will turn just 26 next Wednesday, so he has plenty of time ahead of him to develop further into a durable and quality Major Leaguer, regardless of which part of the pitching staff that he is a member of.
If this past Indians season taught the team and its fans anything, it is that there is no such thing as enough starting pitching. Clevinger is one of several important pitching options on the radar for the club, as it will undoubtedly call upon players from all reaches of the 40-man roster to make contributions to the cause in its American League pennant defense.
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