Clevinger's new pitch has 'mind of its own'

August 6th, 2020

CLEVELAND -- When walked off the mound after his last start in Minneapolis, he declared that it felt like he was pitching with someone else’s arsenal. His mechanics were out of sorts after spending so much time trying to protect his surgically repaired left knee over the last few weeks. Although it wasn’t the smoothest of all starts, Clevinger showed signs of righting the ship in Wednesday's 2-0 win over the Reds at Progressive Field.

He survived a stressful second inning without permitting a run and had tossed five scoreless frames before he walked three batters in the sixth to end his night one out shy of a quality start. Despite some command issues, Clevinger’s scoreless 5 2/3-inning performance was enough to help lift the Tribe to a second straight win.

“It’s definitely better,” Clevinger said of his left knee that suffered the partial meniscus tear in February. “I think each time out there is building a little more endurance, staying stable longer for each time.”

Over the last few seasons, the Indians have leaned heavily on their starting pitchers, but they’ve needed to rely on them even more to start the 2020 season, as the offense struggles to get its footing. Entering the night, Tribe starters had turned in 11 quality starts in the first 12 games, which was the most in the first dozen games of a season since the 2002 Giants did the same. The team has now had two outings that did not qualify as quality starts, each of which was at the hand of Clevinger. But this time out, the righty began looking more like himself.

“He was mixing his pitches early and I said they were going to be aggressive against him,” said Sandy Alomar Jr., who managed in place of Terry Francona. “He had a pretty good breaking ball. Very sharp. He kind of slowed down their bats a little bit. He had much better command of his secondary pitches today.”

So what was the biggest difference between Clevinger's start against the Reds and his four-inning, four-run outing against the Twins last time out? Aside from his revamped pre-workout routine that’s helping build the muscles around his knee, Clevinger also seemed to have slipped a new pitch into his repertoire on Wednesday night.

Clevinger threw 33 sliders in his first start of the year and 18 in his second outing. On Wednesday, Statcast tracked 42 sliders that produced a 54 percent whiff rate, but had a wider range in velocity than that pitch typically shows. In 2019, he averaged 80.7 mph on his slider, and through his first two starts this season, it was sitting at 82 mph. Of his 42 sliders on Wednesday, 14 of them clocked in just under 90 mph.

“It seems like a misfired fastball is all. I don’t know,” Clevinger said with a big laugh. “Keeping that cat in the bag as long as possible.”

The new pitch that Clevinger has snuck into his arsenal is likely a cutter. Teammate Shane Bieber had started working on adding a cutter to his pitch mix this season and it could’ve been something that inspired Clevinger to do the same.

"We weren’t able to score any runs off of, really, an excellent pitcher,” Reds manager David Bell said. “He had a new cutter -- it looked like -- that he was pitching with tonight. Just ... he’s good."

And while the offense, which saw its Major League-worst batting average drop to .181 after Wednesday’s four-hit effort, continues to struggle, the rotation will only become more important. A new weapon in Clevinger’s back pocket could be something that helps the right-hander get back on the right track.

“It kind of has a mind of its own, that pitch by itself. But it’s definitely a fun one to throw,” Clevinger said, without being too specific about his newest addition. “I mean, it’s low-key kind of get-of-jail-free card when you got some good secondary stuff. So watching it with every single starter having one besides me was kind of telltale that maybe I needed to work on something I think between starts. That was the first go-round, so it should get better from here.”