Clevinger laser-focused on cracking rotation

Right-hander: 'I'm not even thinking about the bullpen. I want to throw 200 innings'

January 30th, 2018

The Indians are heading into Spring Training with two rotation jobs up for grabs and four candidates: Mike Clevinger, , Josh Tomlin and . This week, will examine their respective situations and chances of winning the job. Today: Clevinger.

CLEVELAND -- Mike Clevinger knows that the decision will not be up to him, just like last season and the previous year. Given the depth of the Indians' rotation, someone will be on the outside looking in this spring and could be moved to the team's bullpen when the Opening Day roster is configured.

When it comes down to it, Clevinger will take the ball when it is handed to him. Over the past two years, the right-hander has started and come out of the 'pen and experienced success in both roles. This winter, though, while training for the upcoming season, there is only one job that has been on Clevinger's mind during his weekly workouts.

"I'm not even thinking about the bullpen. I want to throw 200 innings," Clevinger said matter-of-factly. "That's the only goal. Whether that happens or not, obviously, we'll see. But, I'm not even thinking about being in the bullpen."

No, Clevinger wants to be a part of Cleveland's highly-touted rotation -- one led by two-time American League Cy Young Award-winner . and are locks for two more jobs, leaving a Spring Training competition between Clevinger, Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin and Ryan Merritt for two openings. Clevinger, Salazar and Tomlin will enter camp as the favorites.

Most teams would look at the body of work Clevinger pieced together last year and head into a season with the pitcher's name written in ink for the starting staff. The Indians -- to borrow an oft-used cliche -- have a "good problem" on their hands, though. Salazar boasts ace-like potential in his right arm. Tomlin is the longest-tenured player in the organization and offers veteran experience and a precision-based approach.

"It might take care of itself. It might not," Indians manager Terry Francona said of the rotation logjam. "If it doesn't, we'll make a decision."

Clevinger understands the landscape.

"You know there's even more competition than there's been in previous years, which is hard to believe," Clevinger said. "But, that's what's happening. So, if anything, whoever it ends up being -- bullpen, whatever -- it's just a chain reaction of having good depth and people to step in and do their part."

An injury to Kluber last season opened the door for Clevinger to come up from Triple-A Columbus in May. The right-hander's strong performance, along with some other rotation issues, afforded him the ability to stay on the staff for most of the remainder of the season. Clevinger logged 27 appearances (21 starts), finishing 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 121 2/3 innings in the Majors.

The work that Clevinger, 27, did with his curveball last offseason paid off, too. He threw the pitch 10.7 percent of the time in 2017, compared to 5.2 percent in '16, per Statcast™. Along the way, opposing batters posted a .280 slugging percentage against the pitch in '17, versus a .778 showing in '16. Among AL pitchers with at least 100 innings in '17, Clevinger ranked fifth in opponents' average (.211), eighth in ERA and ninth in strikeouts per nine innings (10.1).

During the Indians' AL-record 22-game winning streak between August and September, Clevinger went 4-0 with a 0.38 ERA, allowing just one earned run in 23 2/3 innings. Over his final five starts of the season -- prior to a move back into the bullpen for the end of September and the AL Division Series -- the righty went 5-0 with a 0.61 ERA.

That was a great foundation for Clevinger to take with him into the offseason, but he was not content.

"Let's get better and let's keep going," he said. "That's how it should be."

When Clevinger pored through his season, he saw diminished fastball velocity (92.5 mph on average in 2017, down from 94 mph in '16) and a delivery that went mechanically awry. The pitcher began working with a new trainer this offseason to focus on body awareness and control. The goal, Clevinger said, is to get his mechanics back in order, while still drawing from the successes he experienced in '17.

"My whole mechanics changed to where I'm diving," Clevinger said. "I was seeing constant success, so it was, 'Don't change what's not broken.' But this year, this offseason, it was, I think I can do that, and repeat that at throwing 96 [mph] still. So, I'm finding how to get back into my body and using it ... and I think that's going to pay huge dividends."

In Clevinger's mind, those dividends will come as a member of the rotation.

"I think I can offer a lot as a starter and maintain and stay healthy -- knock on wood," Clevinger said. "I just want to get that 32-start season under my belt and keep the snowball rolling."