On August 1st of this year, the Rays swung a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers which didn’t generate very many headlines. Tampa Bay acquired 28-year old lefty reliever Garrett Cleavinger in exchange for 19-year old outfielder German Tapia.
Cleavinger was hanging out on the Dodgers Triple-A roster at the time which made 2022 his eighth straight season pitching in the minors. He had a few cups of coffee in MLB for both Philadelphia and Los Angeles in recent years, and was actually traded from the former to the latter in a 3-team deal involving the Rays.
The reason that Cleavinger was available probably had to do with the Dodgers managing a 40-man roster crunch, and needing to create space for their trade deadline additions. That situation paired with Cleavinger’s inconsistent results in Los Angeles led to him becoming the odd man out when push came to shove.
When Garrett was acquired, the Rays optioned him to AAA Durham as they had a fairly crowded bullpen of their own at the time. Cleavinger immediately impressed.
He fired 9 innings with the Bulls which included 17 punch-outs and just 1 earned run allowed. It didn’t take long for the Tampa Bay front office to give him a shot with the big league club, and he has actually pitched even better since that promotion.
As of Friday, September 23rd, Cleavinger owns a 1.93 ERA and an absurd 0.75 FIP in his 14 frames since joining the squad. 18 strikeouts and just 1 walk allowed in his time with the Rays so far is a gaudy ratio, let’s take a look at how he’s doing it.
What has he changed in Tampa Bay?
Perhaps surprisingly, there actually hasn’t been a whole lot of change in Cleavinger’s repertoire. The shapes of his pitches are all similar to the pitches he threw with the Dodgers, and the usage patters of those pitches hasn’t changed a whole lot either.
What has changed for Cleavinger though is his attack plan. We’ve seen many new Tampa Bay pitchers succeed by attacking the zone more often, and Cleavinger is the latest example.
The league average first-pitch strike rate in baseball this season is 61.3%. Before joining Tampa Bay, Cleavinger had amassed 23 total innings in his big league career and recorded a first-pitch strike rate of 55.4%, a figure well below the league average. In his 14 innings with Tampa Bay though, he has recorded a 64.1% first-pitch strike rate, a sizeable improvement.
Cleavinger’s walk rate has also improved dramatically, as he’s posted a miniscule 2.0% mark as a Ray compared to his career 13.4% rate.
In conjunction with the uptick in strike throwing for Cleavinger, batters are also chasing more pitches outside of the zone. At first blush, it might not make much sense that these two stats are coinciding—how does more strikes lead to more chases?
The answer to that question is largely captured by these four words: Cleavinger has excellent stuff.
Cleavinger’s Impact Arsenal
The Rays have an advanced methodology when it comes to scouting and acquiring pitchers, and the quality of Cleavinger’s arsenal checks all the boxes. Starting with his fastball, the most obvious pitch trait is his velocity.
Cleavinger is averaging 96.1 mph on his fastball this season (83rd percentile) and has topped out at 98.8mph. While velocity is definitely important, we know in the modern game that it is only a piece to the fastball effectiveness puzzle. The best fastballs have more going in their favor than just velocity, and Cleavinger is no exception to that.
The chart below shows the average vertical movement plotted against the average release height of all MLB pitcher fastballs this year (minimum 25 thrown):
If you think about the physical mechanics of throwing a fastball, the pitchers who come over-the-top the most are also going to be the pitchers with the highest release points. These high releases will lead to better backspin on the baseball, which is how good vertical movement (“ride” or “carry”) is produced.
Cleavinger lands on the peripheries of this plot because of how he is able to produce strong vertical movement from the low arm slot he possesses. That paired with the above-average velocity on the pitch creates a really unique offering with a high vertical angle of approach, which batters have so far had real difficulty handling.
In addition to a four seam with outlier traits, what if I told you Cleavinger also has a different fastball that is just as unique if not more?
That pitch would be his sinker, which Cleavinger isn’t using a whole lot at the moment, but definitely is worth talking about. Garrett throws his sinker above 95 mph on average as well, and the pitch gets truly elite movement in the horizontal direction to his arm-side. Those two traits are a rare combination when it comes to sinkers across the league.
You can clearly see the pitch barreling in on the hands of Yordan Alvarez here, and he couldn’t do anything but swing right through it:
Two really strong fastballs are the foundation of a special repertoire for the 28-year old, but Cleavinger’s slider is the real put-away weapon.
His slider is currently his most used pitch, and for good reason. Batters are only hitting .156 with a .216 wOBA against it in 2022. Cleavinger throws his slider at a pretty firm 82.8 mph and generates great downward movement with the pitch.
Pete Fairbanks is baseball’s king of slider drop, but Cleavinger is not far behind him. Both pitchers’ sliders rank in the top 5 in vertical movement compared to sliders at similar speeds. The dropping movement of this pitch paired with the carry of his fastball creates nearly perfect mirroring action between the spin of the two pitches.
One pitcher who possesses this many outlier pitch shapes is extremely hard to find in today’s game. The Rays have not only found one in Cleavinger, but have helped him harness that elite arsenal, which has lead to his emergence as an impact reliever.