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How the Tribe found its next pair of aces

Bieber, Clevinger rank among MLB's best starters
@mattkellyMLB
August 19, 2019

The Indians sat 11 games back of the Twins as recently as June 15. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco -- their top three starters when the season began -- haven’t pitched in the same turn since the beginning of May. But the American League Central is back up

The Indians sat 11 games back of the Twins as recently as June 15. Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco -- their top three starters when the season began -- haven’t pitched in the same turn since the beginning of May.

But the American League Central is back up for grabs, thanks in large part to the pair of aces Cleveland found in the back of its rotation. Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger's ascendance made it easier for the Indians to trade Bauer and fill multiple holes in their outfield. It also ushered in the Tribe’s next wave of dominant starting pitching -- right when the Tribe needed it most.

“They just filled the role of top-of-the-rotation starters without missing a beat,” Indians veteran Jason Kipnis told MLB.com. “That’s been huge for us.”

The Indians have defined rotation excellence for years now, and the rich only appear to have gotten richer. The 24-year-old Bieber, a former walk-on at UC Santa Barbara who was named MVP of the 2019 All-Star Game in Cleveland, ranks sixth in baseball with 200 strikeouts and sixth with 4.3 FanGraphs WAR to back up his 3.27 ERA. Clevinger returned from the injured list two months ago and has wiped out hitters since then, recording the second-highest whiff-per-swing rate and fifth-lowest FIP among starters since July 1. The Indians’ rotation owns MLB’s fifth-best ERA and fWAR, despite getting just 43 combined starts from Kluber, Bauer and Carrasco.

“They’ve both shown an impressive level of consistency,” said Kluber.

That consistency is one of the few surface-level traits they share. Bieber, the Indians' fourth-round Draft choice in 2016, owns the movie-star looks and moves deliberately from pitch to pitch. Clevinger, brought to Cleveland via a 2014 trade with the Angels for reliever Vinnie Pestano, is clad in colorful shoes and peace sign medallions braided into his shoulder-length hair, and toe-taps like Nomar Garciaparra before rocking and firing in a violent frenzy.

But they formed a bond as they studied under the Tribe’s trio of Cy Young candidates. Indeed, the Indians’ entire rotation resembles as close-knit a unit as any in baseball under pitching coach Carl Willis. All five of them can be seen at every session in the bullpen, and ribbing each other in the clubhouse, too.

“Everybody’s confident enough to speak their minds,” added Bieber, “and we have that atmosphere where guys aren’t going to get too egotistical about criticism. When guys are struggling there’s a lot of talk before and after the bullpen of, ‘Watch this,’ or ‘I’m working on this, what do you think?’”

Bauer played the role of big brother to Bieber and Clevinger during his Cleveland tenure, fostering a sort of pitching parlor where the conversation constantly swirls around velocity, spin axes and finding that extra edge.

“Even though Trevor’s in Cincinnati, we still text and check in on each other’s outings,” said Bieber. “The smack talking doesn’t stop even now that he’s down the road in Cincinnati.”

The trash talk ultimately produced a crown that gets passed to the Indians’ most dominant starter in a series, an ongoing practice even after Bauer’s departure. And Bieber and Clevinger have owned that crown quite a bit this summer, racking up punchouts with their secondary pitches the same way Kluber (with his frisbee-like slurve), Bauer (the waterfall curve and lab-grown slider) and Carrasco (a tumbling split-change) did before them. Bieber’s slider nosedives in 12-to-6 fashion, while Clevinger’s veers horizontally in a self-described “boomerang style,” backing up like a two-seamer before swerving hard to the left. Each of their curves come in straight before falling off the table.

“They worked with Bauer when he was here on their release points so every pitch looks alike,” Kipnis said, “and by the time you recognize it’s a slider when it looked like a fastball, it’s way too late.”

Both Bieber and Clevinger have turned to their breakers more this season. But while each of them is throwing their fastball a little less, the extra oomph their heaters are showing this year -- the fruits of years-long quests for more velocity -- is integral to the separation of their sliders and curves. Clevinger in particular adopted some of Bauer’s progressive training practices (weighted balls, pulldowns, video study) and found that he was relying too heavily on arm action instead of his lower half to produce torque off the rubber. He began flashing upper 90s last summer for the first time since his Tommy John surgery in 2012, and now hitters have to gear up for his premium heat upstairs -- while also covering sliders and curves that come in up to 20 mph slower.

“It was a start against the White Sox midway through last year,” said Clevinger. A pitch clicked and I looked up and saw it was 97. I looked in the dugout at TB and was like, ‘Oh, crap.’ Threw another one at 97 again and that whole game I sat 94-97, touched 98. It was like, here it is.”

Bieber’s elite command stretches back years (he walked just 19 hitters across 277 Minor League innings), but now he’s also unlocking the velocity he says he’s been chasing since at least 2017. Both righties are now more complete four-pitch starters than they were a summer ago. They’re also more confident pitchers. They were given the keys to Cleveland’s rotation, and they haven’t looked back since.

“The bar was set so high for from Day 1,” said Clevinger. “Kluber won the Cy Young, Carrasco had the top-five finishes, Bauer was breaking through, [Danny] Salazar was throwing 100, Josh Tomlin was a 10-year vet. Your parents always tell you to surround yourself with people that are going to bring you up, and it’s the same thing here. It’s helped all of us.”

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.