Tampa, FL– In a mid-June start, Ian Clarkin pitched seven strong innings for the Tampa Yankees against the St. Lucie Mets. He allowed just one run on five hits and struck out three batters. He’d put his team in the best position to won, but instead he’d get tagged for a loss. Tampa left the field scoreless for the second night in a row, providing no offense for Clarkin’s solid outing.
In an early-season contest against Bradenton, the Marauders opened up a first-inning, five-run lead on Clarkin. It looked to be one of those days pitchers usually want to forget, while also taking the time to correct for next time. If the team goes on to win, then, sure, it’s not so bad; even better if the pitcher doesn’t allow more damage. That day, Clarkin stumbled hard through the beginning of the game, but did in fact limit the damage.
Of the two starts, can you guess which one Clarkin mentioned as his favorite?
When the lefty talked about the Bradenton game, he didn’t say much about the struggle in the first inning. He talked more about how he responded afterward. That’s what he loved. He talked about what the team, as a unit, did. He loved that, too.
“After that, I went four more innings, and no more runs,” Clarkin said last week. “And we ended up winning that game 6-5, because I held them to five runs. The team picked me up really well. It was just like, ok, no more. If I give up six or seven, it’s going to be out of reach. Our team is good enough to score six runs. Fortunately, they did that day. That was my favorite start.”
He used measured words such as “unfortunate” to describe the previous night’s start, the seven-inning performance that led to a loss. But the one in Bradenton that challenged him from the first inning, the one that his team won, that he describes as “my favorite.”
“That’s pretty special,” said Tampa pitching coach Tim Norton. “You get a guy who’s not doing good individually, but is good enough to know that he just needs to keep pitching. Even though he’s given up a few, that goes a long way. Your teammates see you competing out there after giving up five runs, trying to hold them off and keep them where they’re at, it shows he’s a fierce competitor. It’s good we challenge him like that. He proved to us he could handle it. I remember that night, yeah. That was a big moment. And it’s great that he thought about it like that.”
Tampa manager Patrick Osborn echoed that sentiment.
“That’s Ian’s personality. He’s very confident. He believes in himself, he believes in his stuff. I’m glad that he mentioned that, because as a baseball player, you have to have that mentality,” Osborn said.
Clarkin, the Yankees first round pick (#33 overall) in the 2013 MLB Draft, missed all of 2015 due to an elbow injury. Entering the 2016 season, he added a slider to his repertoire, and, while it’s basically only a few weeks old, he’s developing the pitch at a good pace, simply by mixing it in.
“He’s making some good strides [with the slider]. He’s still learning. He’s trusting it. He’s using it. He’s going to need to use it to gain confidence in it,” Norton said.
They were recently in Clearwater to play the Threshers, when Norton pointed out some tendencies during one of their bullpens, suggesting to Clarkin something about how he was loading his hips. Clarkin was falling down the mound in his delivery, and Norton wanted him to make a subtle tweak to get more use out of his body.
“I wanted him use that backside a little more. He was rolling that hip back some. It keeps him on the rubber a little longer,” Norton said.
“Ever since then, it’s been easier to throw strikes,” said Clarkin. “It’s easier to throw my off-speed for strikes. I feel really comfortable. The ball was sailing on me. If I load the hips earlier and lead with the hips, I’d be able to put the ball anywhere I wanted.”
Clarkin’s four-pitch arsenal, fastball-curveball-slider-changeup, have opened up his possibilities, particularly if the team continues pitching him deep in the second half. Working with that slider increases his edge, certainly, but Clarkin’s observation of his most recent start is that he was putting the fastball where he wanted it.
“Luckily I have four pitches to work with. So if the other two aren’t working, I have the other two. Last night, I had my fastball/changeup. That got me through seven innings. I didn’t throw too many curveballs, too many sliders, I was just using my changeup. I got them to ground out. Later, I used the changeup more. But I was able to locate the fastball,” said Clarkin.
The 21-year old came out of spring training with a ton of confidence, after pitching well through most of camp. But the odd result of that success was that he began working hard to duplicate that in the regular season. He became entangled in his own expectations.
“I tried to carry that over into the season. I think I had five good starts in a row in the spring. In my mind, I was just trying to do too much. There’s a few starts where I was pretty bad and inflated all my numbers,” he said.
But after back to back starts for Tampa, he flipped a switch.
“I thought, ‘No more thinking.’ That made a big difference. I was putting too much pressure on myself.”
Through three starts in June, he allowed just 5 earned runs, 15 hits and 5 walks over 19 innings. He leads the team with 6 Quality Starts for the season.
“The big thing for Ian has been the development of his changeup,” Osborn observed.
The curveball is a high quality pitch for Clarkin. In another June start his confidence in all his pitches, particularly the curveball, seemed to grow with each inning. He used it in various counts, getting guys swinging at it with little success.
“He can spin his curveball real well. Just being able to adjust and get behind the ball a little more with the slider and curveball. The curveball is always there,” Norton said.
Clarkin leads the T-Yanks in innings pitched (73.2), and with his recent history, there’s certainly reason for caution. Really, any young pitcher with that high of value in the organization logging that many innings is going to be carefully observed.
“We’re keeping an eye on him,” said Norton. “He’s pitching himself deep, though. He’s forcing us to leave him out there for another inning or two. So, we’ll watch him. As of now, he feels strong.”
Osborn reflected further on that night in Bradenton, and he summarized what that early-season outing showed, and the statement Clarkin made when the going got tough quickly.
“I don’t think his confidence in his stuff wavers.”