If I would have told you at the beginning of the 2023 season that, by the end of August, Mike Clevinger would be the White Sox’ best starting pitcher, you would have assumed something went really, really right or something went really, really wrong.
You know which happened.
But Clevinger has indeed assumed the title of the team’s top-performing starter, especially now that Lucas Giolito, who wore the team crown up until the trade deadline, pitches for the Angels. Disappointing campaigns for Michael Kopech and Dylan Cease — who was roughed up in ugly fashion by the worst-in-baseball A’s on Friday night — have helped bring this about, but Clevinger has pitched well, very well since returning from an extended stay on the injured list at the end of August.
His latest trick was seven innings of one-hit ball against those same A’s on Sunday, lowering his ERA to 2.31 since his return, a stretch of time encompassing his last six starts.
“That was a really good outing by Clev,” Pedro Grifol said after the game. “That’s the guy I’ve seen for years, even back when he was in Cleveland.”
That guy, the Cleveland version of Clevinger, was surely what the White Sox had in mind when they inked him over the winter. The league’s investigation into assault allegations against Clevinger dominated headlines during the spring and will, for many fans, be the lasting storyline surrounding him as a South Sider. The league decided against any punishment stemming from the investigation. But even before all that, the White Sox considered signing him a “calculated risk,” given past moments of what Rick Hahn called “immaturity.”
Hahn and the White Sox felt that immaturity was behind Clevinger and instead eyed the potential of him discovering his past success, the kind that produced a 2.86 ERA over four seasons from 2017 to 2020.
It’s been a while since that guy has been a consistent presence on a major league mound, but he’s rediscovered something of late. Clevinger credits the lengthy time he spent on the IL, which featured a whole lot of work with Ethan Katz on what was preventing consistency earlier in the year.
“We found a lot of things mechanically during that stint on the IL,” Clevinger said. “Just finally getting in a groove of being able to just go about my work and not worry about being hurt or not having something stop me from doing certain things in the weight room or stop me from doing certain things on the field.
“It was really getting my sweeper back, stopped getting toe-heavy, just really getting more direct to the plate. Stuff I was kind of honing in on in spring training. I kind of had it and lost it a little bit. Recalibrated and got it back.”
With the 2023 season lost, the conversation has turned to whether the White Sox could bring Clevinger back for 2024, of particular interest given the dearth of starting pitching they appear to have moving toward next season. Cease and Kopech figure to be back, but trades sent Giolito and Lance Lynn out of town and fill-in stints by Touki Toussaint and Jesse Scholtens haven’t done much to show either deserves to be handed a 30-start workload.
Clevinger’s contract contains a mutual option for next season. Let’s say the White Sox are interested in picking it up, given the solid performance Clevinger has had over the last month, would that guarantee a reunion? What about Clevinger?
“I still love it here,” he said. “I still love the guys in this clubhouse, working with all the staff. We still have the tools to do something special here. That’s still down the road. I kind of want to focus on finishing the rest of the season.”
Clevinger’s performance has changed his situation, and perhaps someone who might have seemed likely to take a guaranteed $12 million payday, if he had the chance, now looks like someone who could get a far better deal on the free-agent market.
We’ll see how it plays out. But he’s received rave reviews from his manager, and the pitching-starved White Sox could see in him someone who could help solidify their rotation next year.
“He is a true, true professional,” Grifol said of Clevinger. “He cares, he studies, he works. He leads. This guy’s been really good for us in the clubhouse.
“(This type of consistent performance) was coming right around when he got hurt over there (against) the Dodgers. He was showing what he showed today. And when he got hurt, they didn’t just sit back and say, ‘I’ve got to recover from my injury.’ They actually got to work on the mental side, on the game-planning side, mechanical side. They did a lot of work when he was on that IL.
“When you have a guy that cares that much for his craft and wants to be great like him, it makes the rehab easier, quicker, and you bounce back like that because you’re ready on the mental side. … They put in some really good work.”