Clevinger Could Thrive In Tribe’s Playoff Bullpen

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Mike Clevinger sure has come a long way this season. He followed up a so-so 2016 rookie campaign with something of a breakout season this year.

In his first Major League season, Clevinger bounced between the bullpen and starting rotation. He was 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA. He seemed in over his head at times and was only on the Tribe’s 2016 postseason roster out of necessity. With a full complement of healthy pitchers on hand, the Indians probably would not have had room for the long-haired hurler.

This really changed this season, however.¬†The 26-year-old right hander found his footing in Cleveland’s rotation. He has started 21 games and entered the weekend series with the Chicago White Sox at 12-5, with a 3.07 ERA. He has shown that he is likely going to be a fixture in Indians starting five for some years to come.

This year Clevinger was something of a lifesaver for manager Terry Francona and the Tribe. For the first few months of the year, the rotation was really unsettled. Beyond Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and the ace-like Carlos Carrasco, the starting five had some issues in the first half of this campaign. Trevor Bauer was struggling, while Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin both struggled out of the gates and then got hurt.

Clevinger picked up the pieces. Until Bauer started pitching like a No. 1 starter after the All-Star break, Clev was easily Cleveland No. 3 starter when it came to consistency. Bauer has now take up that mantle as the team’s third best starter. Clevinger is certainly the team’s fourth-best right now.

However, as the Tribe¬†gears up for a second straight playoff run, it will not be Clevinger filling the No. 4 starter’s roll.

As expected, Cleveland will open the American League Division Series on Thursday with its dominant ace Kluber on the mound. Not surprisingly, Carrasco and Bauer will follow in an order yet to be determined. If there is a Game 4, it will not be Clevinger toeing the rubber.

Last week, Francona said his ball club would go into the playoffs with Clevinger in the bullpen. On the surface, that seemed odd. Here is a kid who has been the team’s third or fourth best starter all season long. Now he is relegated to the pen.

However, to hear Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway talk about it, the second-year pitcher could serve a greater purpose for his squad throwing in relief. Both the manager and pitching coach have said they plan to use Clevinger as a “weapon” out of the pen, much like Andrew Miller was used during last season’s run to the World Series.

If that is the case, that is great news. Miller logged a ton of innings in the 2016 playoffs and seemed gassed by Game 7 of the Fall Classic. The ALCS MVP was a workhorse out of necessity. The Tribe only had three healthy starting pitchers when the playoffs began. It was down to two by the time the club squared off with the Cubs. Beyond Miller, closer Cody Allen, and setup man Bryan Shaw, Francona did not seem to want to use the other relievers in tight situation last postseason. The ‘pen could have used one more quality, innings-eating arm.

Clevinger was in that postseason relief corps a season ago. However, he was not ready for the bright lights. His unspectacular regular season numbers were proof of that. This year, however, Clevinger is ready to face the pressure cooker that is the MLB playoffs.

Cleveland’s 2017 breakout player has fared well with runners on base. He has been able to get himself out sticky situations. With runners on base, the opposition is hitting just .211 against the Tribe’s righty. It gets better. With runners in scoring position, that opponent batting average drops to .195. In seven chances with the bases loaded against Clevinger, the opposing team has just one hit, for a scant .167 average.

Clevinger will enter games, in the playoffs, with runners on base. Clearly the pressure of needing to get an out does not faze him all that much. Last year, that would not have been the same story. In 2016, batters hit him at .253 clip with runners on base and .237 with runners in scoring position. He is much better suited now to enter a big game in a tight spot. The moment is no longer too big for 6’ 4″ fire baller. He has grown into the moment.

The Indians will need him to come through in the playoffs. Last year, Francona used Miller a ton during the postseason. The Tribe’s bullpen ace and All-Star has been on the disabled list twice in the second half of the season with a knee ailment. Pitching multiple innings on back-to-back day as he did last October may physically not be an option. Also, if the postseason does go into early November, as it did in 2016, Cleveland may want to have Miller a little more fresh by the end than he seemed to be in Game 7 of the Fall Classic.

Shaw has been hit hard since the All-Star break, with a 4.41 ERA since the second half of the season kicked off. Allen has dipped, a little, post All-Star break, as well. His ERA is 3.36 since the Midsummer Classic. While not bad, it was 2.62 before the break. He has three of his four blown saves in the second half of the year.

With their top three bullpen arms either not necessarily 100 percent or struggling a little, the Indians needed to inject the ‘pen with another strong arm. A season ago, Francona had no qualms going to the relievers in the fourth or fifth inning of a playoff game if his starter was teetering. The bullpen could do no wrong as Miller and Allen, especially, took up the mantle and led the way.

In order to save some wear and tear on the better bullpen pitchers, Clevinger can be useful and effective over a two or three inning stretch, if need be. Last year, you would worry about him coming into a game and making things worse. This year, he could come into a game an you would feel like the situation is in control.

Clevinger could be the right-handed version of what the southpaw Miller was in the 2016 playoffs. The Indians could have one take the hill one day and the other the next, keeping everyone fresh. Throw into the mix that Danny Salazar or Josh Tomlin, the two candidates for Cleveland’s fourth postseason starter spot, could be in the ‘pen and Francona could have a lot of quality innings-eaters at his disposal this October.

Clevinger will be the main guy, most likely. He has been durable and consistent all season. While he may have deserved to be the Tribe’s fourth starter, he can probably do more important work and heavy lifting coming out of the ‘pen.

A fourth starter may rarely be seen in the playoffs. Round 1 can be over in three games. If a team is going into a Game 4 in dire straights, they will often go to their ace and game 1 starter on short rest. Kluber proved several times in last year’s playoffs that he can be effective and ace-like on short rest.

The Indians want to maximize Clevinger’s talents and allow him to continue to shine on a brighter stage. Chances are, he has better odds to do that as a reliever this year than as a starter. Francona and Callaway feel he can be a “weapon” out of the ‘pen and who, really, is going to argue with that?

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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