On September 1, the major league active roster limit increased from 25 to 40. The Orioles, like almost all other teams, took advantage of the roster expansion and promoted several players from their minor league affiliates. Among the least surprising of the promotions was Steve Clevenger, whom the Orioles acquired from the Cubs as part of the Scott Feldman deal. Clevenger's promotion should not have been a surprise because he is (1) a catcher, and a third catcher provides in-game flexibility; (2) able to play first base, which provides more flexibility; (3) a left-handed hitter; and (4) already on the 40-man roster. If you were designing the ideal roster expansion call-up, you'd come up with a left-handed hitting catcher who can also play first base and who was already on the 40-man roster.
When the Clevenger call-up was announced, Orioles reporters stated that Clevenger was a contender for the backup catcher job in 2014. Despite Dan Duquette's notorious statement that a backup catcher is always one of the toughest positions to fill, it's not hard to find a backup catcher, nor is it likely to make much difference who the backup catcher is. Still, a better backup catcher improves a team. So, what kind of player will Steve Clevenger likely be? Will he be better than the Orioles' other options?
After Clevenger was acquired, he was assigned to Norfolk and was almost immediately placed on the Disabled List. Primarily because of his injury, I was only able to see Clevenger play four games at Norfolk. The most obvious observation is that Clevenger puts the first pitch in play much more than everybody else. In the four games I saw, Clevenger put the first pitch in play five times in sixteen plate appearances. In those same games, all the other Tides put the first pitch in play eight times in 135 plate appearances. And, when Clevenger put the first pitch in play, he wasn't very successful - 0-for-5.
In his other eleven plate appearances, Clevenger saw a total of 49 pitches. Here's a breakdown of the number of pitches he saw in each plate appearance:
1 pitch - 5 PA (0-for-5)
2 pitches - 1 PA (0-for-1)
3 pitches - 1 PA (1-for-1)
4 pitches - 4 PA (2-for-3, 1 walk, 1 strikeout)
5 pitches - 3 PA (0-for-2, 1 walk)
6 pitches - 1 PA (1-for-1)
7 pitches - 1 PA (1 walk)
A reasonable interpretation is that Clevenger tends to swing at the first pitch he likes, but that he doesn't have a real good sense of what is a good pitch to hit.
If we look more closely at the balls he puts into play, we can discover some other things. First, the trajectories:
Ground Ball: 6
Line Drive: 3
Fly Ball: 3
Clevenger didn't loft the ball in the games that I saw. This is consistent with (1) his reputation as a spray hitter and (2) the fact that he's only hit 27 home runs in 2,227 plate appearances. This is also a point in Clevenger's favor when considering if he should be the backup catcher. Starting catcher Matt Wieters is a power hitter, and it's to your team's advantage if their backup catcher has different skills than their starting catcher.
Next, the defensive player who first fielded the ball:
Pitcher: 1 (grounder)
Second Baseman: 4 (all grounders)
Third Baseman: 1 (grounder)
Left Fielder: 1 (fly ball)
Center Fielder: 3 (2 line-drive singles; 1 fly ball)
Right Fielder: 1 (line-drive single)
Right-Field Bullpen: 1 (Fly-ball home run)
Clevenger tends to pull the balls he hits on the ground. When batters try to pull balls that they should be taking the other way, the result is generally weak ground balls. Based on this and his tendency to unsuccessfully put the first pitch in play, it seems that Clevenger needs to improve his offensive approach.
I've only seen Clevenger catch three games. He made neither a positive nor a negative impression.
In his quest to be the Orioles' backup catcher, Clevenger has a couple of advantages. As we've seen, he's a contact hitter; which is a contrast to starting catcher Matt Wieters. Clevenger is a left-handed batter, which means that he will have the platoon advantage in more games than a right-handed batter. Clevenger needs to improve his offensive approach and work more counts to be an effective batter.
If the Orioles carried fewer pitchers, Clevenger would be a useful bench player as a left-handed hitting third catcher who can also play first base. I don't think Clevenger is good enough to be a team's only backup catcher.