The 2013 first round pick suffered from an injury to his left elbow two years ago and a knee injury shut him down by the end of last season. However, between bouts on the disabled list over the past couple of years his pitching coach and manager in Tampa say he has improved significantly since then.
Clarkin, to his credit, said the injuries, in particular the one to his knee, were a learning curve for him.
“It was something that was preventable, and I should have been proactive and prevented it,” Clarkin explained.
Taking his craft not only more serious but employing a more total approach to his development, Clarkin is working on living a healthier lifestyle to improve himself both on and off the field to avoid future injuries.
“The sleep aspect to the nutrition aspect to the working out aspect, I kind of put all three of those things together this year,” he said. “Obviously I want to play well but that’ll come with taking care of everything else.”
It's not as if he had been performing badly or anything over the years. He posted a solid 3.31 ERA in 18 games for the high-A Tampa Yankees last season and that was a solid bounce-back from his injury-riddled 2015 campaign.
It’s Clarkin’s second season in Tampa now and he's done well once again, going 2-2 with a 2.25 ERA through his first four starts. Some critics might be down on the fact that the former first rounder is back in the Florida State League once again this year but pitching coach Tim Norton is quick to point out that it doesn't always mean a lot.
“Just because you start somewhere doesn't mean you won’t finish two levels up," Norton strongly said. "You just never know. He can do really well at that level.
“I think he proved that last year so I think he’s always been a focused guy when he has the ball. But I see a little extra this year, maybe he’s starting to feel a little pressure…we all want to keep going and move up.”
Team manager Jay Bell said he always wants his players to improve, regardless of how many years they’ve been on his team.
“My job is to help [players] have the most success that they possibly can have so that they can go to the next level and beyond,” Bell added.
Clarkin said one of the major things he has worked on in both offseason and Spring Training is tempering his passion and his competitiveness on the mound, and become a little more level-headed during his starts.
“I’ve always been a very passionate pitcher, passionate baseball player, extremely competitive,” he said. “[I’m working] to be more under control with it, not so much let people see it, but I know the passion’s burning inside of me on every single pitch.”
It wasn't just the mental side he worked on though. Clarkin, who spent a lot of time in the gym during the offseason, added 15 pounds of muscle since last season. He said the time in the gym has helped him throw harder in Spring Training and this season as well.
“I put on a good amount of weight,” Clarkin said. “It just feels good to be throwing hard again. Once I hit 95 the next mark will be 96, see if we can reach out to 97, so there’s a never ending pattern with me. I'm never satisfied."
Clarkin said that he has consistently been throwing 92 and 93 mph pitches but he is focused on getting velocity up to 95 and improving from there.
Beyond the added strength, however, Norton said Clarkin has improved his rhythm since last season too which helps him throw faster pitches more consistently as well.
“He’s getting some of his ‘man strength’ and figuring out his delivery a little bit," Norton said. "It’s starting to come together, starting to click."
Cleaning out the delivery, relaxing more mentally, getting stronger and throwing harder are just some of the changes for Clarkin. Last season Clarkin added a slider to his game too and it's becoming more of a weapon for him in 2017.
“You can tell he put a lot of work in the offseason with that,” Norton said.
Considering both his changeup and curveball were plus secondary offerings already, the slider gives him yet another weapon. In fact, Clarkin says the new pitch is more fun and it allows him to keep the hitters guessing.
“I'm ready to start putting people away with it,” Clarkin said with a smile.
Still, secondary pitches were never an issue for Clarkin. It was more about the fastball both velocity-wise and even command-wise, and his manager says even that is beginning to come around too.
“The most important thing to do as any pitcher, whether it’s a starter or a reliever, is to command the baseball and to command the fastball,” Bell said. “And he’s done a really good job pitching in and out, and changing speeds on his offspeed pitches.”
Finally healthy and beginning to put things together more, Norton said that Clarkin’s elbow injury seems to be a thing of the past and no longer an issue.
“He’s been throwing the ball fine," Norton said. "He hasn't had too many innings get away from him [either], he’s been solid,” he said.
“He’s done a great job,” Bell chimed in. “He’s pitched well in the strike zone, he’s throwing all of his pitches for strikes and hasn't walked many guys.”
The strong start to the 2017 season is just what the doctor ordered for the former first rounder. Clarkin expects a lot from himself and works hard to achieve the daily goals he sets, and he understands that getting to the Major Leagues doesn’t happen right away.
“I give myself a lot of short-term goals and honestly I look no further than my next start,” he explained. “Everybody wants to make it to the big leagues—that's my long term goal—but you don't get to the big leagues right away. So I set myself goals every single day.”
With his whole game coming together more, whether it's the improved slider, the harder fastball, or the more even-keeled approach on the mound, both Bell and Norton are confident that Clarkin will continue to improve as the season progresses.
“He is a pitcher that has a bright future ahead of him,” Bell concluded.