When I fired up my video feed this weekend to Iowa’s game Friday night, I fast-forwarded to the fourth inning. I wanted to review the tape on Trevor Clifton, who now has 11.2 innings without an earned run to begin his 2019 season. In an Iowa Cubs bullpen full of big leaguers and notable prospects, it’s been easy to lose Clifton in the shuffle a bit, and I don’t want to do that.
I looked for the big beard that has been his trademark of late, and never found him. Clifton was freshly shaven, and it was a reminder of how this year’s version of Clifton is not quite the pitcher I’ve watched for years.
Wait wait wait wait wait … just tuned in to catch Trevor Clifton’s outing yesterday, and there appears to be an imposter wearing his jersey! @Tcliff25 — who the hell shaves a beard while their ERA is zero?! pic.twitter.com/FuFtWnovpJ
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) April 27, 2019
In the intro to a notes piece two weeks ago, I noted Clifton’s April 14 outing with eight batters faced, none of whom put the ball in play. It’s been a theme all season. After four outings this year, Clifton has faced 51 batters. He has struck out 16 of them, walked nine and hit one. More than 50% of batters faced. That number was 31.9% last year. It’s been a staggering jump in what is essentially a contract year for Clifton. If he’s not added to the 40-man roster by a couple days after the World Series, the 12th round pick in the 2013 draft (above-slot signing) will be a free agent for the first time.
As I’d imagine the Cubs are doing, I’ve been scrambling to re-evaluate Clifton, 23, to understand what is behind these numbers. I mean, consider his K% vs RHH in the last few seasons:
2017 = 16.5
2018 = 19.1
2019 = 38.9
What in the hell?!? As a result of this, I went into the video and reviewed every strikeout Clifton has had against a right-handed hitter so far this year (14 in total). Before I get into those results, let’s consider what we remember about Clifton. The last time Clifton appeared in the MLB Pipeline Cubs top 30 list was mid-2018. This was the paragraph about his stuff:
During his breakout 2016 season, Clifton operated with a 91-94 mph fastball that touched 97, flashed a plus curveball and improved his changeup. Last year, he lost weight and his stuff regressed, with his fastball dropping into the upper 80s and his curveball deserting him. He has regained his velocity in 2018, when he also has shown a more reliable curve and had some success with his cutter and changeup.
I would also point you to this prospect thread from Cubs Den’s Michael Ernst in November 2018 with a video review of Clifton last year. Good information in there. However, I’ve seen some noticeable differences since then.
For example, Clifton’s breaking ball use has been flip-flopped, with his curveball being thrown the least of his four offerings. A few years ago, Clifton’s pretty and big arching curveball was essentially his hallmark pitch. But now, because it doesn’t exist in the tunnel of his other pitches, he pretty much only uses it early in the count. Yesterday, he didn’t use it at all.
However, in its place is a slider that has made huge strides in two years. And in fact, yesterday was pretty shocking: the pitch reached as high as 87 miles per hour. The break is still inconsistent; sometimes it’s break is small (mostly glove-side horizontal) and it appears more like a cutter. Sometimes, it falls more off the table, sinking downwards. In his season debut on April 8, Clifton struck out Matt Davidson two times, once on a really good slider away, and then juxtaposing it with a high-inside fastball the next time. Legit stuff.
Indeed, it’s been just those two pitches to do the damage for Clifton this year. In those fourteen strikeouts to right-handers, Clifton has four with sliders (two of them looking), and ten with fastballs (all of them swinging). Trevor is enjoying big success with his heater this year, notably high-and-away to righties. My guess is we’ll hear about good spin rate, because it’s not really velocity doing the work: he’s been 88-93. He does throw two flavors of fastball – a two-seamer with good arm-side run, and a four-seamer he can work up in the zone.
And this is where I find myself a little skeptical. Are we really supposed to believe that Clifton’s 90-93 mph can work at the highest level? Yes, he has some deception from a short-arm delivery. Yes, I believe he has good spin. And yes, he’s tunneling probably the best in his career. But I still find it hard for me to translate that 31.4 K% into a Major League equivalency. The slider velocity yesterday was a good first step. But I’m not convinced that whiffs he’s getting on the fastball currently would even be a fraction of that at the highest level.
A final important note would be an acknowledgment to the good luck Clifton is having this year (the opposite of his bad luck 2017). Clifton is walking almost seven batters per nine this year, a 17.7 BB% that is nearly double last year’s. His 41.7 line drive percentage is downright terrifying, and to have a .280 BABIP in spite of that is very good. Clifton has also yet to allow a home run, even with Triple-A’s new balls, and even with plenty of balls in the air. And lastly, he’s currently rocking a 94.1 LOB% – an impossibly high number.
Regression is coming. We know that – his ERA is zero point zero zero – it’s impossible not to. That part doesn’t really matter. What matters, ahead of a decision that will prolong or end his Cubs career, is whether the evolution of his stuff is enough to project a Major League ceiling.
There’s a version of Clifton I can see working. It’s 92-94 mph fastballs with movement, tunneling with a 87 mph good slider. Occasionally mixing in other offerings. Working both sides of the plate with the comfort of a starting pitcher, though he’s been used exclusively in long relief this year. The Cubs might try him in the Iowa bullpen for awhile, to see is a more maxed out Clifton comes closer to that ceiling. The results will be fascinating, and the early results so far have certainly been encouraging.