It has been a while guys. I will be entirely honest; I have thought about baseball for approximately five minutes over the last month prior to writing this article. The lack of clarity on the 2020 MLB season puts me at a stand still in how to approach it from a fantasy perspective and without a full picture it is almost impossible to determine a strategy. That said, it is evident that there are a few obvious winners from a delayed season. One of those winners is assuredly Mike Clevinger. It does not take a rocket scientist to embrace the idea that if a player was guaranteed to miss a percentage of the season, he has less value. However, the coronavirus has given him a new outlook on the 2020 season, with the ability to be a rotation mainstay from day 1. While I was as low as you can be on Clevinger in my original top 100 rankings a second look is needed under an entirely new scenario.
Mike Clevinger made a monstrous jump in the 2018 MLB season. He morphed from an upside arm having difficult to square up stuff into a complete pitcher. Most of this jump can be attributed to simply attacking the strike zone. His zone percentage in 2017 was 40.5%. In 2018, it jumped to 48.2%. His walk rate dove and he started showing signs of an elite arm. This set the foundation for a thrilling 2019 season in which Clevinger was a top 20 fantasy starter in only 126 innings thrown. This season was made possible by a 1-2 MPH increase in fastball velocity year over year. Clevinger’s fastball averaged 95.6 MPH in 2019 and the pitch went from a career negative to one of the best pitches in baseball with a 19.5 pVAL. Clevinger has always held a true 4 pitch mix but needed that fastball velocity leap to make the final jump to ace arm. Clevinger is only 29 years old meaning the velocity gains are not likely to fall off overnight. These gains will only help in making Clevinger’s best pitch, his slider, more effective. His slider has a positive pVAL in every MLB season he has thrown. He threw the pitch 5% more in 2019 to a batting average against of .176 and 21% whiff percentage. An underrated component of Clevinger’s game is that he is highly effective the 3rd time through the order. In my mind, this means he understands how to vary his approach and is using all his pitches to the full effectiveness. The ability to pitch a third time through the order is rare and something pitchers with only 2, or even 3, MLB pitches struggle to perform effectively.
Everything checks out then right? We should just go back to drafting Clevinger at the round 2 turn as was happening before the meniscus injury. Not me friends.
Clevinger is an exceptionally good pitcher. There is no point in debating this. He no longer deserves my injury-based ranking in the 30s amongst all starting pitchers. However, his peripherals show underlying statistics that lead to a mid 3’s ERA and a 1.15ish WHIP, even in his elite 2019 season. I have previously made the argument that Clevinger had an incredible schedule draw last year. He pitched 6 games in 2019 against teams with winning records…6 of 21 games against winning teams… I doubt he will ever get a schedule to skew that well again in his career.
The core of my issue with Mike Clevinger boils down to where he is being drafted. The common terms you hear from most outlets is that Mike Clevinger is an explosive upside player with a low floor. For me that does not equate to a second or third round pick. Clevinger’s career peripheral numbers put him in a similar class as other top 10 fantasy options, but he does not quite get there. In reviewing the top 10 pitchers from 2019 on the Razzball player rater only Charlie Morton had a WHIP above 1.05 (1.08). Clevinger is unlikely to do this. All the pitchers in the top 10 had an ERA of 3.32 or lower. Clevinger did this last year, but it looks unlikely he will repeat it year over year due to the schedule regression and his underlying statistics. He certainly has better strikeout upside than many top 10 pitchers, but do not forget that he had a 9.31 K/9 only a season ago. The Indians will be an above average team but are closer to a .500 squad than they are to elite. This is a departure from the norm of the last 5 seasons. This puts Clevinger with a ceiling slightly lower than his top 10 peers.
Regarding his floor, this is entirely injury based. If Mike Clevinger is pitching there are not many reasons to point towards to say he will be bad. I do believe that likely means the low floor is overstated in general, but not in comparison to his top 10 peers. There is a small caveat that I will be keeping my eye on for pitchers with a history of smaller injuries in a compressed season. When baseball returns it will likely be with less off days on the schedule because those money-grubbing owners are going to want to get their hands on as many gate fees as possible. This is going to cause pitchers who have IL stints to miss more games on average than a normal season’s IL stay would cause because there will be fewer off days. Clevinger has an explosive delivery that is going to lead to more small injuries. This has shown itself in the form of a partially torn meniscus and an upper back strain.
While Mike Clevinger is an obvious winner from the COVID delay his top 30 NFBC ADP is to high of a price to pay for me. If he were priced in the next group of Luis Castillo, Blake Snell, and Chris Paddack he would be appropriately priced (ADPs: 40-50). As that isn’t the case, it seems that if we do have a 2020 MLB season Mike Clevinger is back to being overdrafted.