David Freese had a vague recollection of the trade that sent Mike Clevinger, then a shaggy haired, injury-plagued Class-A pitcher for the Angels, to Cleveland on Aug 7, 2014. Freese, now a Dodgers corner infielder, was the Angels’ third baseman at the time.
But did Freese, who faced Clevinger for the first time this spring, remember who the Angels got for the right-hander?
“No,” he said.
Vinnie Pestano, he is told.
“Oh, no way,” Freese said, his eyeballs bulging. “Really?”
Clevinger is the gift that keeps on giving the Indians, who parted with a washed-up reliever for a low-level Angels prospect who has become one of the best pitchers in the American League.
Clevinger, 28, reached the big leagues in 2016 and was 13-8 with a 3.02 earned-run average in 32 starts last season, striking out 207 batters and walking 67 in 200 innings to help the Indians win their third consecutive American League Central title. He ranked sixth in the AL in ERA and seventh among pitchers in Wins Above Replacement.
A 6-foot-4, 215-pound bundle of arms and legs, tattoos and scraggly brown hair, Clevinger uses a quick herky-jerky motion to deliver four pitches that comprise what Freese calls “some of the most electric stuff you’ll see.”
Clevinger’s fastball, which averaged 93.6 mph last season according to FanGraphs, has some run and sink. His 80-mph slider has sharp horizontal and vertical breaks — Freese compared it to a bowling ball — and can be thrown for a strike or buried in the dirt for a put-away pitch.
“The guy has unbelievable stuff, a great work ethic, and he’s a competitor,” said new Angels closer Cody Allen, a former Indians teammate. “You saw flashes of an ace, but he’s really caught guys by surprise by not only how good he is but how consistent he’s gotten.”
And what became of Pestano, who was 29 when then-Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto acquired him to boost an eventual 98-win, AL West-champion team?
Pestano had an 0.93 ERA in 12 games in 2014. He had 5.40 ERA in 19 games for the Angels in 2015 and was demoted to triple A in early July. He pitched briefly for the New York Yankees’ triple-A team in 2016 and played in independent leagues in 2017 and 2018.
“We wanted to add depth to our staff for the playoff push,” said Dipoto, now Seattle’s GM. “Vinnie did a great job for us in 2014, delivering exactly what we hoped to get. Unfortunately, 2015 was more of a struggle, and Clev took off. Clearly a great pickup for Cleveland. I’m happy for the player.”
The Clevinger-for-Pestano swap is shaping up as one of the most lopsided trades in Angels history, and the better Clevinger pitches, the worse it looks for the Angels.
But guess what. Clevinger, who sat out most of 2012 and 2013 because of elbow ligament-replacement surgery, might have made the same trade himself.
“I’m no GM, but at the time, I was struggling really bad,” Clevinger said. “I was throwing anywhere from 88-92 mph. My mechanics were a mess. It almost looked like I was bowling on the mound, that’s how far off to the right I was falling. Vinnie was on the up-and-up as a reliever at the time. It made sense.”
Clevinger was a fourth-round pick in 2011 from Seminole Community College in Florida, Ric Wilson’s first draft as Angels scouting director. The Angels weren’t sure whether he projected as a starter or reliever — Clevinger was closing at the time — but the raw tools were there.
“I saw a guy with good size and a good frame that might be able to get a little stronger,” said Wilson, now an Angels special-assignment scout. “He had a quirky delivery, but his armed worked really good. He had a plus fastball, 94-95 mph, and two breaking pitches. He missed a lot of bats.”
Clevinger’s pro career was derailed by elbow surgery. Healthy in 2014, he was 1-3 with a 5.37 ERA in 13 starts at Class-A Inland Empire before the trade. Wise, then the 66ers’ pitching coach, left Clevinger with a lovely parting gift.
“He was always telling me, ‘I can show you a grip to make your changeup better,’ ” Clevinger said. “One game I had a bad day with my changeup. Two days later, I’m throwing my bullpen and he said, ‘Can you just try it?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ So I pick it up, throw a couple of changeups, and by the third one, I was like, ‘Oh, damn, we’re onto something.’ ”
Clevinger had put his circle-grip across the horseshoe-shaped seams, like a four-seam changeup. Wise moved his grip to the back of the horseshoe.
“His normal changeup was pretty flat,” Wise said. “He got a feel for the new grip really quick, and the pitch instantly got quite a bit of depth and some run and the velocity dip was good.”
Clevinger’s slider underwent a similar transformation after 2017, a season in which he was 12-6 with a 3.11 ERA in 27 games for the Indians. Clevinger started playing with different arm slots and effort levels, and discovered he got more break and sink and better control when he threw the pitch a little softer.
“The thought process before with my slider was I wanted to get on it, I wanted velocity,” Clevinger said. “Then, it was why am I thinking about velo when I can literally place it where I want it and get this break and late movement?”
The result: Clevinger has four pitches with four distinct velocities, a repertoire that gives him “a chance to be one of the very best pitchers in the game,” Indians manager Terry Francona said.
Clevinger is a No. 3 or No. 4 starter in a superb rotation that features two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco and the up-and-coming Shane Bieber. He would be an ace or No. 2 in many rotations, including the Angels, who could use a starter of Clevinger’s caliber and consistency.
If only the Angels hadn’t traded for Pestano …
“You know what? You can go back and look at every team and you see those types of things happen,” Francona said. “Sometimes you get really fortunate.”