Starting pitching can come from just about anywhere in the major leagues. Tigers fans are still mourning the loss of Justin Verlander, a former first round pick who reached the major leagues within a year of being drafted. Those same hapless Tigers were blanked on Tuesday by Corey Kluber, a fourth-rounder-turned-ace out of a small college in Florida.
I don’t know that anyone is expecting Mike Clevinger to turn into Corey Kluber, but the parallels are obvious. Drafted out of a small Florida college by another team (in the fourth round, no less), the Indians saw something they liked in both Kluber and Clevinger. They traded for both pitchers as minor leaguers, and stashed them there for a couple years before turning them loose in the majors. Then, after a rough first year in the bigs, both pitchers broke out in Year Two.
Again, Clevinger is not Kluber. Few are. However, for a pitcher that didn’t even make the Indians’ Opening Day roster, Clevinger has filled a key role on their 2017 team while establishing himself as a rotation mainstay for years to come.
Now, if only the Tigers could turn the same trick with Buck Farmer...
Detroit Tigers (60-84) at Cleveland Indians (89-56)
Time/Place: 12:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV (Free Game of the Day), Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Buck Farmer (4-2, 6.32 ERA) vs. RHP Mike Clevinger (9-5, 3.30 ERA)
Game 145 Pitching Matchup
Despite the lofty comparisons above, Clevinger and Kluber are very different pitchers. Clevinger relies more on a four-seam fastball than Kluber does, and doesn’t have the wicked cutter to match. Instead, Clevinger utilizes a slider in the low-80s against right-handed hitters, and a mid-80s changeup as his main secondary offering against lefties. He also throws a curveball to both righties and lefties, primarily in two-strike counts.
Despite only averaging 92.7 miles per hour on his fastball, Clevinger’s arsenal is volatile enough to generate plenty of swings and misses. He has fanned 121 batters in 106 1⁄3 innings this year, a 27.4 percent rate. Opponents are swinging and missing at 12.6 percent of his pitches, the seventh-highest rate in the American League (minimum 100 innings pitched). Clevinger has also walked 12.2 percent of hitters, the second-highest rate among AL pitchers (minimum 100 innings).
I question how sustainable Clevinger’s profile is, though. His strikeout rate has spiked this year after he struck out just 22 percent of hitters in a full season at Double-A two years ago. He has managed a .268 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), but opponents have a 22.5 percent line drive rate. They are also making hard contact 35.4 percent of the time, one of the highest rates in the league.
Key matchup: Mike Clevinger vs. right-handed hitters
Earlier this season, Clevinger was sporting some ridiculous reverse splits in a handful of major league innings. Since then, things have corrected themselves in a big way. Righties are hitting just .179/.291/.284 against him, while lefties have managed an .825 OPS. The Tigers don’t have many dangerous left-handed bats in their lineup — especially with Victor Martinez out of commission — and might be hard-pressed to test the young righthander on Wednesday. That puts even more pressure on Detroit’s few remaining big right-handed bats to come through in the clutch. They haven’t so far in this series, but Clevinger is no Kluber or Carlos Carrasco.
We’re 500-plus words into this preview and have hardly mentioned Buck Farmer. He held the Toronto Blue Jays in check during his last start, supporting my theory that he is a capable starter against below-average offenses. Unfortunately, these Indians are not a below-average offense. Farmer has improved his strikeout and walk rates at the major league level, but an elevated home run rate has led to an unsightly ERA. Still, his advanced metrics (FIP, xFIP) are over a full run below that ERA. He will be one of the more intriguing players to watch on this Tigers roster over the next year.
The Indians make it 21 in a row.