The White Sox made their first major move of the offseason yesterday, signing Mike Clevinger to what is reportedly just a one-year deal. With this move, the White Sox have likely completed their starting rotation for 2023 – Dylan Cease, Lance Lynn, Lucas Giolito, Michael Kopech, and Clevinger.
Just a few years ago, signing Clevinger would have likely been a universally celebrated signing for the White Sox. But, between a second career Tommy John Surgery, questionable decision-making that taught us more about his clubhouse presence, and a pretty subpar 2022 season, Clevinger has lost a lot of the luster he had back when the White Sox targeted him before he was traded to San Diego.
To his credit, it appears Clevinger was well-liked in San Diego and learned from his ways in Cleveland. Still, while the character clause may be less of a concern now, what about the person on the mound?
Let’s break down this deal, what there is to like, and what the risks may be – as well as how Clevinger might be able to get back to his previous form.
After much speculation, we know now that Clevinger’s deal is likely one year for $12M.
Clevinger signed a two-year, $11.5M deal to buy him out of his arbitration years while undergoing Tommy John Surgery, and given general market trends, it feels as though a one-year, $10M deal with a second-year option or $2M buyout makes the most sense for a deal like this. So, one year and $12M guaranteed, with the potential for more. However, it could just be as simple as a one-year, $12M deal.
To break that down a bit further for those who feel that is a steep price to pay: here is where a potential Clevinger contract stacks up against free-agent deals prior to the 2022 season, along with their previous season ERA+ and total IP. Note that Clevinger posted an 86 ERA+ in 114.1 innings in 2022.
|Pitcher||2022 AAV||2021 ERA+||2021 IP|
Given what we know, it makes sense that Clevinger would fall within this general $8M-$14M range. This information, combined with Clevinger’s history that is better than anyone’s on this list outside of Greinke’s, likely was the reason Clevinger will get $12M in guaranteed money from this deal. Short-term AAVs are usually going to be higher than long-term AAVs.
This is, by all accounts, a market-standard contract for someone that is going to be a mid-to-back end of the rotation piece.
What to like about Clevinger
In looking at Clevinger, most will point towards his 2017-2019 seasons as the ceiling for his contract with the White Sox and why they feel it’s a worthy gamble to make. In 440.0 starter’s innings in those three seasons (he made six appearances in 2017 out of the bullpen), Clevinger was 37-16 with a 2.88 ERA and 10.9 fWAR for the then-Cleveland Indians.
Here is where Clevinger ranked among qualified MLB starters from 2017-2019:
- fWAR: 17th (10.9)
- ERA: 8th (2.88)
- FIP: 14th (3.27)
- IP: 53rd (440.0)
- K%: 19th (28.3%)
- Hard-Hit %: 32nd (32.6%)
- wOBA: 15th (.282)
So, by most metrics, Clevinger was a top 10-15 pitcher in baseball over the course of those three seasons when he was taking the ball every fifth day. The concern, obviously, was whether or not he was healthy enough to stay on the field.
When healthy, his main four-pitch mix was a four-seam fastball (51.1%), slider (25.5%), curveball (12.1%), and changeup (11.4%). In 2019, all four of his pitches featured whiff rates above 30%, and in his best statistical season in 2018, his curveball whiff rate was over 40%. However, in terms of stuff, Clevinger will likely point to his 2019 arsenal as his best work, as the -21 Run Value (RV) on his fastball made it the fourth-best fastball that season, behind Gerrit Cole, Lance Lynn, and Jack Flaherty – not bad company to keep. His slider and fastball play well off each other, and his curveball and changeup were respectably solid third and fourth pitches.
However, things changed after he underwent his second Tommy John Surgery – as will be discussed below. To address some shortcomings in 2022, Clevinger became a bit more crafty. To start, he re-instituted his sinker to relative success. The -9 RV on the pitch was the best one in his arsenal, and while it did have the second-highest exit velocity against him, a lot of the pitches went straight into the ground which prevented hitters from doing much damage. He also saw success from his cutter, which was new in 2020 prior to his injury but became a bigger part of his arsenal in 2022 (6.9% of pitches in 2020; 14.6% in 2022). The 30.1% whiff rate on the pitch is solid, as is the 29.3% whiff rate on his slider. The curveball has been phased out, however, as he only threw it 3.4% of the time last season.
At the end of the day, Clevinger remains relatively cheap (#4/#5 starter money) while presenting himself with an ace-like upside. Despite the decrease in velocity, Clevinger lost very little, if anything significant, from the spin rate on each of his pitches. So, it’s a matter of getting his velocity back and/or refining some of his pitches based on his updated arsenal. He’s far from the lost cause a lot of Padres fans will want you to think he is.
If Ethan Katz and the White Sox can tap into some of the shortcomings we will discuss shortly, they’ve added another ace to the top of their rotation without paying much to do it.
What happened in 2022?
After undergoing Tommy John Surgery during the 2020 season, Clevinger battled not only against his first season back from surgery but also against lingering knee issues that hampered him throughout the season. This isn’t new for Clevinger, as outside of the 200 innings he pitched in 2018, his next-highest season is 122 innings – quite the disparity there, and something that detractors will likely point out when analyzing this contact.
Besides “basically stay healthy,” what else can Clevinger do to help regain the previous success he’s seen in his career to avoid a repeat of 2022? The first thing that would help would be regaining some of the velocity lost post-Tommy John Surgery
- 2017: 92.5 mph (+2 RV)
- 2018: 93.6 mph (-4 RV)
- 2019: 95.4 mph (-21 RV)
- 2020: 95.1 mph (-1 RV)
- 2022: 93.6 mph (0 RV)
It’s worth noting that Clevinger’s average fastball velocity in 2022 was in line with that of 2018 – so, it shouldn’t be accepted that without his top-shelf velocity, he’s absolutely useless. Essentially, he’s done it before, which serves as the best evidence that he could do it again. However, there’s not much evidence to support that more velocity is a bad thing, so Clevinger and the White Sox don’t necessarily need to be content with a league-average fastball.
With the decrease in fastball velocity came some interesting observations about the pitch itself, however, that may help to explain Clevinger’s lack of effectiveness in his two main pitches last season: his fastball and slider.
It’s an interesting callout by Josh, which (I assume) was the result of looking at the movement on Clevinger’s fastball. However, he wasn’t experimenting with a two-seam fastball – at least, if he was, TrackMan/HawkEye certainly didn’t think so. That being said, it’s completely understandable why people would believe Clevinger was throwing a two-seamer last season; in 2022, he had the most horizontal movement on his fastball since 2017. But wouldn’t this be considered a good thing, as Josh pointed out?
In this case, the additional movement might have been to the detriment of Clevinger. The reason has to do with the concept of “tunneling” – for those unfamiliar, pitchers today are obsessed with “tunneling” in hopes of making their pitches look the same for as long as possible. If pitches move incredibly differently or look different out of the hand, they aren’t good pitches to tunnel together because they’re easily distinguishable.
Throughout his career, Clevinger’s main “tunnel” has been with his fastball and slider, based on movement as well as results. When his fastball is at its best, his slider also benefits.
- 2017 – Fastball: 2 RV, Slider: -11 RV
- 2018 – Fastball: -4 RV, Slider: -14 RV
- 2019 – Fastball: -21 RV, Slider: -11 RV
- 2020 – Fastball: -1 RV, Slider: -4 RV
- 2022 – Fastball: 0 RV, Slider: +6 RV
This season, his slider looked most similar to his 2018/2019 version of the pitch in terms of velocity and movement. However, it suffered, in part, due to the additional horizontal movement on his fastball.
Here are two examples of “tunneling” – one from 2019 from Pitching Ninja, and one from 2022 from me:
The slider is still an elite pitch in terms of movement and hasn’t changed much from 2019 to 2022. The 2022 version is one of the better tunnels for Clevinger from last year between his fastball and his slider, but the concept here is clear. First, it’s clear in both GIFs why Clevinger’s slider and fastball are his two main “tunnel” pitches – both look the same for a long time before breaking in opposite directions.
However, his fastball from 2019 stays in the same “tunnel” longer because it moves less horizontally. Think about it this way: if two balls start from the same point, and one pitch moves 8.7 inches to the right while the other pitch moves 15.6 inches to the left, they are going to stay in the same place for a shorter period of time if they have to move that far apart in the span of 60 feet, 6 inches compared to pitches that move 5.3 inches to the right and 16.8 inches to the left. This is a game of inches, after all.
Pitches are often most effective the longer they remain in the “tunnel” – meaning, the longer they remain looking indistinguishable. This is absolutely the case with Clevinger when you plot his horizontal fastball movement against his slider whiff rate from 2017-2022:
The line is placed at 2018 because Clevinger’s slider changed shape drastically starting in 2018, which helps to explain the 2017 outlier of high horizontal movement on his fastball AND a high whiff rate on his slider. Essentially, in 2017, Clevinger’s fastball moved more, but his slider moved less – so, it all balanced out and the pitches stayed in the “tunnel” longer. This was not the case once he overhauled his slider, and evidenced by the large increase in both horizontal and vertical movement starting in 2018:
|Season||Slider Vert. Movement (in.)||Slider Hor. Movement (in.)|
It’s not an exact science, obviously, but the trend is clear: as Clevinger’s fastball has moved more horizontally recently, his slider has struggled to be as effective as can be.
To fix this, Clevinger will need to do one of two things:
- Change his slider to move less so that it moves more similarly to his 2017 slider; or
- Bring the vertical movement back to his fastball (similar to 2018/2019) and lessen the horizontal movement
This is something that Ethan Katz has worked on previously with Lucas Giolito, Carlos Rodon, and Dylan Cease (getting more “ride” on fastballs), so he has a track record for helping pitchers both improve their fastball and/or change their slider. Personally, I think Clevinger would likely prefer option #2, given that his fastball has changed the most year-over-year while his slider really hasn’t changed shape since 2017.
Outside of these two main pitches that made Clevinger elite, he could either stand to improve the cutter in 2022, as it likely suffered from some of the same movement/tunneling issues as his fastball and slider did. With 31.3 inches of vertical movement, it had some of the most movement among all cutters in 2022. As mentioned, sometimes there is such a thing as “too much” movement – sometimes, your best pitches as a pitcher are the ones that move the least. As you’ll see in the video below, Clevinger’s cutter and fastball tunnel well, but not as well as his other pitches, so this is a clear area for potential improvement as well.
All of this, as previously mentioned, can be done without bringing his velocity back. An average of 93.5 mph with the ability to reach 95-97 mph if necessary isn’t perfect, but it’s something Clevinger and Ethan Katz can work with. Based on the above, Clevinger’s craftiness from 2022 will likely come in handy, but starting with improving the shape of his fastball to work better with his elite slider is a good place to start. Perhaps through that, the velocity returns in some form. However, that is the hardest thing to “fix” coming off of Tommy John Surgery, so it’s prudent to continue to look elsewhere.
Most of this analysis walks through the Clevinger signing in a vacuum. On the surface, the White Sox identified a player they wanted to sign, and then went out and got him. For that, they should be happy.
However, with the budget tight, it’s hard to just evaluate this move in a vacuum. The White Sox have gaping holes in the outfield that cannot go unaddressed and a hole at second base that probably *should* be addressed, but can likely be handled internally. If the budget is as tight as rumored to be, questions will surround the money given to Clevinger if other, more pressing needs were not addressed.
In terms of Clevinger the player: I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to expect the Cleveland version of Clevinger to be the one that shows up on the South Side. Having a second Tommy John Surgery is tough, and players don’t necessarily bounce back the same way that they do from a first-time surgery. That being said, the White Sox also aren’t necessarily paying Clevinger as if they expect the Cleveland version of him to walk through the door in February. Rather, they hope to find something in between as a floor – with a ceiling that has the potential to be much, much higher than the perceived value of this contract.
With Clevinger, the focus has to be on two areas: (1) fastball life, and (2) re-establishing the “tunnel” between some of his most effective pitches (fastball and slider). If he can do that, he can be on his way toward the ceiling part of his contract with the White Sox. Fastballs and sliders have certainly been Katz’s specialty with the White Sox, so it makes a lot of sense why he may have been the pitcher Katz was most interested in adding to the rotation.
If the White Sox were asking Clevinger to headline their rotation, this deal would have plenty more red flags. That being said, the rotation now has two true headliners (Cease and Lynn) with the potential for five players who can pitch like aces at any given time.
It’s a gamble, but should it work out for the White Sox, their rotation will be far from any sort of problem. Let’s just hope this move doesn’t lead to the budget being one.
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Featured Image: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Great analysis as usual from Jordan!
Thank you Aaron, I appreciate it!
White Sox personnel thinking is similar to my late mother’s meal planning: Porterhouse or hobblygob. More often than not her preferred choice was Hobblygob, a tasty inexpensive dish that consisted of spaghetti noodle, ground beef, diced onion, green onion, and Campbell’s tomato soup. The family dined on chicken, chili mac, hobblygob, pork chops, skirt steak, tuna casserole, and other creations. Longing for Porterhouse became nostalgic. I do wish lightning in the bottle is the case, similar to Cueto last season.
Nice write Jordan. I learned a lot.
Thanks so much for reading Edward! Glad it was informative.
I thought the contract was one year right million, but now said one year at twelve million,what a waste he was rated toward the bottom of free agents for the pitchers typical White Sox signing just like the supposedly manager and coaches.