Clevinger Continuing to Prove He Belongs in Star-Studded Rotation

Mike Clevinger has done something this season that neither two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber or Cy Young finalist Carlos Carrasco have been able to as of yet – take the pitcher’s mound and throw up zeroes every inning that he pitched.

On Monday night, Clevinger blanked the Angels in five and one-third solid innings, helping the Indians to their second victory of the young season. It was one of just two wins on their six-game west coast road trip to open the 2018 season. The only knock one may be able to have on that outing is that it was somewhat short. He only recorded one more out than necessary to even be the pitcher of record and was two outs shy of a quality start.

Still, he kept Los Angels off the scoreboard and, when it comes to pitching, that really is the name of the game.

Clevinger continues to be wild at times, just as he has been since making his Major League debut in 2015. However, as he proved last year, he has the ability to allow runners to get on base but keep them from crossing home plate. Wildness can be curtailed over time. Limiting the opposition from scoring can some times take years to master. Clevinger seems to be ahead of the curve as far as that goes.

As a 25-year-old rookie in 2016, the sledding was a bit rough at times for Clevinger as he was yo-yoed between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland as well as between the bullpen and rotation. He showed flashes of good things to come, but was overall in over his head at the MLB level. He was 3-3 with a 5.26 ERA in 17 games, including ten starts.

Last season, Clevinger found a nearly full-time role in the starting five due to injuries. When everyone was healthy, it was hard for manager Terry Francona to even consider putting Clev back in the bullpen. Clevinger had established himself as the Tribe’s fourth best starter behind Kluber, Carrasco and 17-game winner Trevor Bauer. He was 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 2017 and made a strong case to be a part of a four-man postseason rotation. That is how dependable he came to be. In the end, he was in the ‘pen for ALDS. A big part of his improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 was cutting down on walks. He walked 4.9 batters per nine innings as a rookie and 4.4 as a second-year player. That number was still high, but more manageable.

This season, Clevinger is being urged to throw strikes and to work ahead in the count as much as possible. He certainly has that ability as well, fanning 9.6 batters per nine frames over his brief career. There is little to scoff about at that solid number. He is good at making the opposition swing and miss, which got him out of quite a few self-made jams in 2017. He wants to get into far less of those in his age 27 campaign in 2018.

In Monday’s victory, Clevinger only walked two hitters, which translates to 3.4 per nine innings. He K’ed five. He was at only 97 pitches and probably could have tallied two more outs for a quality start. However, being early in the year and that he has never been one to go much over the 100-pitch count, Francona was likely wise to remove him. With starting pitching depth decreased due to Danny Salazar and Ryan Merritt on the disabled list, the Indians could ill-afford to lose another starter.

Clevinger gave up just four hits, and only one extra base hit – a double – to a Halos lineup that is deeper and more talented than often given credit for being. Surely, Clevinger again made his old team sorry it dealt him to the Tribe for Vinnie Pestano back in August of 2014. Pestano, once an excellent reliever for the Tribe, flamed out and has not thrown a Major League pitch since 2015. Clevinger is turning into a very good starting pitcher. It is one of the Indians better trades for a franchise that has made its fair share of good once in the last 30 years.

The 2018 season could be a big one for Clevinger. Some wonder if he is really as good as his numbers were last year or if he is due to fall off and have his wildness cost him more than it did a season ago. He certainly has the pure stuff to be very good for a long time. Not being his own worst enemy and issuing too many free passes is the biggest key for Clevinger.

Monday’s outing was a definite step in the right direction. On Sunday, he can continue showing that he really is as good as his numbers with his start against division rival Kansas City. The Royals are no longer what they were when they won the 2015 World Series, but they always give the Indians fits. It will be interesting to see if Clevinger can still keep runners from reaching home as he has for almost a full season of starts at this point.

So long as Clevinger limits the walks, he will keep putting zeroes on the scoreboard. At season’s end, it may not be as many as his better-known and more-decorated rotation mates, but he could very well turn a three-headed pitching giant into a four-headed one. That is a shuddering thought for the rest of the American League and baseball world that already considers the Indians’ Starting 5 among the game’s best.

Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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