Defending Trevor Clifton: Making the Case for Long-Term Development
I had originally put together this big long spiel about Trevor Clifton’s history, his stats last year at Boise and at South Bend, and I was going to attempt to justify his worthiness of being ranked #26 on MLBPipeline.com’s Top Cubs Prospect List. I think Clifton is the perfect example of a prospect whose stat line for the season should not be the basis of your evaluation. You need to focus on his development in small periods as he makes his adjustments.
Exhibit A – Past Precedents of Prospects
@Crewsett By that logic A’s should have traded Sonny Gray when he was at a 4.14 ERA in AA in 2012
— Todd (@Cubdom08) July 15, 2015
Not every top prospect breezes through every level of the minors. Two years ago, Duane Underwood struggled at Boise before making adjustments. Jake Stinnett has done the same this year at South Bend. Willson Contreras never hit above .275 before this year. Prospects grow, mature, and adapt at different levels and times. Such is the case with Clifton, who is still working on his changeup and on throwing his curve consistently for strikes.
Exhibit B – Basic Information
Trevor’s 20 years old, he’s a developing pitcher, and he throws 92-94 miles an hour. He’s 6’4” and 220 pounds. He should be just getting ready to enter his junior year of college, yet here he is at low-A South Bend working hard to try make it a pro. He’s playing in a league in which his average opponent is a year and a half older than him.
To date, I’ve seen about five starts by Clifton on MiLB.TV, some good and some not so good. What I’ve also seen is a whole lot of potential. You can see the areas he clearly needs to work on – getting the leadoff hitter out, stranding runners, and not trying to overthrow with men on base. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with his arm or the quality of his pitches. He’s just learning how to pitch at this level.
Clifton’s last start against Kane County was very good as he went 7 innings and gave up 2 runs while striking out three. He kept the leadoff men off base. That quality start (6 innings with 3 or fewer runs) gave him five such outings heading into last night.
As such, I was very excited all day Wednesday about seeing him pitch in person against Beloit. Ever since he debuted at Boise last year, I’ve been wanting to see Clifton pitch in person. Part of that comes from the announcing of Mike Safford (@MikeSaffordJr) last year at Boise and also from watching Trevor on MiLB.TV this year.
Exhibit C – Seeing Him in Person
For the first two innings of last night’s game, I saw the Trevor Clifton I’ve seen all season long. He threw his fastball down in the zone around 92-93 miles an hour but struggled with his curveball the first few times that he threw it (walked a batter and hit another one with a slow breaking ball). He also gave up one hit, but something was different. He was getting the low strike, getting the leadoff runner out in each inning, and he was stranding runners.
Exhibits D, E, and F
In the third inning, Clifton gave up a leadoff single to Joe Penny, who was promptly thrown out trying to steal second base. He then gave up a single and a stolen base before he finally relaxed, getting a fly-out to center and then striking out the first of many Snappers with his curveball.
When Clifton came back out for the fourth inning, he looked extremely comfortable and began a groove that lasted for three innings. A big part of that groove was that he was now getting his curveball over for strikes. In the fourth inning, he struck out two batters with his it. At this point in the game he looked really fluid and the ball was just exploding out of his hand effortlessly. Beloit had no chance against this arsenal.
In the fifth, Clifton got the first hitter out on a bunt attempt with a nice, gloveless grab and throw to first. He then struck out the next hitter, gave up a double, and induced another weak ground out. In the sixth, he got 2 fly-outs and another ground out. On the night, he went six innings, gave up three hits, two walks, and struck out seven batters – mostly on his curveball.
Over the last three innings, he looked effortless on the mound, probably the most relaxed I had seen him this year. Michael Wagner came in and held the Snappers to one run the next two innings. Corbin Hoffner pitched the ninth for the save, and the Cubs and Clifton got a win.
Who Trevor Clifton is as a pitcher now is not who he is going to be later. He’s just 20 years old, after all. When the curve is on, as it was for several innings on Wednesday night, it is a deadly pitch for him. Over his last four starts, he has a 3.67 ERA; in his last three starts it’s 2.50; his last two – 1.38. In addition, he has struck out 7 in 3 of his last four starts, and only given up 1 HR. You can see the development happening right before your eyes.
Is he done developing? No, and Trevor would be the first one to tell you so. In June, South Bend Cubs radio announcer Darrin Pritchett gave Clifton props for his work ethic when he was scuffling that month. The lack of success at that time didn’t derail his career, as he just kept working hard and plugging away. He used it as motivation. I think his performance over the last month is a good launching pad to finish the year strong and then head to Myrtle Beach in 2016 on a high note.
Clifton will continue to develop his curve and changeup this year. Who knows, he may add a fourth pitch over the winter. But the bottom line is this: he is in the minors to develop. He has shown flashes, like last night, of the kind of pitcher he can be. It reminded me a lot of how effortlessly Duane Underwood pitched last year. Trevor hardly looked like he was pitching in innings 4-6, it looked like he was playing catch.
He is getting better as the season goes on, making adjustments from start to start. On Wednesday night, you could see it inning to inning, batter to batter, and pitch to pitch, as the videos clearly show above. It often takes five years to develop a pitcher; Clifton just finished his second year. At that rate, he would only be 23 when he reached the majors, which is still very young. His best is yet to come.
The defense rests.