Inducing groundballs, evading home runs and escaping run-scoring opportunities has been the plan of attack for Mike Clevinger in 2017.
The 26-year-old righty had a 38.7% groundball rate (38.2% career average), 0.90 HR/9 (1.36 HR/9) and a whopping 97.2% (70.8%) of runners were left on base during his 30 dominant innings with the Triple-A Columbus Clippers – arguably the best of his minor league career – 30 IP, 23 H, 5 R/ER, 10 BB, 32 K, 1.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and .215 opposing batting average.
With a premier starting rotation chock full of talented arms, it is no surprise to see Clevinger elevate his game and make his case to be a part of a magical team that came one win away from their first World Series title since 1948.
But why has he been so successful through seven starts (six MiLB, one MLB) this season?
Location. Location. Location.
Clevinger kept the ball low throughout his start on Sunday against the Royals as not one batted ball was hit in the top half of the strike zone. One double off the bat of Salvador Perez (yellow dot) and four walks (navy blue dots) proved to be the only five runners vs. Clevinger, all of which were stranded on base (100% LOB percentage).
While command remains an issue, Clevinger has taken a significant step forward in understanding the importance of keeping the ball low in the zone to avoid home runs (career-high 1.36 HR/9 with the Tribe in 2016) and overall traffic on the basepaths (1.49 WHIP with Cleveland in 2016).
One particular trend that stands out in Clevinger's refined approach is his location of the two-seam fastball vs. right-handed hitters (low-and-away with solid command)...
And left-handed hitters (low-and-away with decent command)...
Thirty-three of Clevinger's 91 pitches were two-seam fastballs (36.3% usage rate), 21 were curveballs (23.1%), 16 were changeups (17.6%), 15 were four-seam fastballs (16.5%) and six were sliders (6.6%). In other words, Clevinger is using his two-seamer to set up any of the other four pitches he has under his belt.
Most impressively, opposing batters hit the two-seam fastball – Clevinger's second fastest pitch on Sunday (92.5-mph) – at an average exit velocity of 81-mph, a mark well below the average exit velocity on all of his pitches (85-mph).
On the contrary, opposing batters hit the four-seam fastball – Clevinger's fastest pitch on Sunday (92.6-mph) – at an average exit velocity of 91.2-mph, a mark well above the average exit velocity on all of his pitches (85-mph).
This helps explain the amount of movement Clevinger is getting on his two-seamer (one swinging strike, five called strikes) and why it overrides the four-seamer (zero swinging strikes, three called strikes) as his primary offering.
If Clevinger can sustain his control of this pitch and live at the bottom half of the strike zone, then he will be able to stay ahead of opposing hitters while posting even more one-hit (or less) outings of scoreless baseball.