How one sweeping change boosted Rays lefty Garrett Cleavinger’s career

ST. PETERSBURG — Brought together by the pain of 2023 injuries, Drew Rasmussen and Garrett Cleavinger spent a lot of time with each other this past offseason at a rehab and training facility near their Arizona homes.

They worked out on the same days, ran and lifted weights on the same schedule, went to physical therapy at the same office.

Which also allowed them plenty of time to talk shop.

Including the conversation that led to Cleavinger emerging this season as one of the game’s better left-handed relievers by adding a sweeper to his repertoire.

Each remembers the initial late December/early January conversation a bit differently.

Cleavinger recalls a more casual chat.

“He was going through his sprint work or something for that day and I was in one of the cages just throwing and I don’t know what made me ask him, but I just asked him about his sliders and what he does and what he thinks about,” Cleavinger said.

“So we kind of talked about grips a little bit and his thought process and stuff. Obviously he’s a really good person to pick his brain.”

Rasmussen’s recollection was that it was more of a targeted query.

“I just knew he was saying a third option (to his fastball and slider) could just give him a little bit more wiggle room,” Rasmussen said. “He was thinking about trying to figure out a changeup, trying to figure out a curveball, something bigger.

“And I just gave him a simple suggestion. I said, ‘Look, this is all I’m trying to do (in throwing the sweeper).’ I thought just the slot he throws from and how quality the stuff is already that if he could get comfortable with it, he would have a chance to be pretty successful with it.”

There is no question about what they agreed on. Nor how much improvement that change has led to.

From the day Rasmussen showed him the grip, Cleavinger started throwing the sweeper — which is slower and breaks more than a traditional slider — and refining control and command of it.

“I was towards the end of my throwing that day, and I threw a few. Then every day after that, I just kept kind of playing with it a little bit,” Cleavinger said.

“Then we started throwing bullpens, and I was like, ‘Oh, let’s just see what happens.’ You know what I mean? It came out of my hand pretty good. And the numbers were decent. So I was like, ‘All right, we’ll keep going with it. And we’ll see what happens and bring it to spring.’ ”

When Cleavinger, fully recovered from a right knee injury that ended his 2023 season in May, got to Port Charlotte and showed off his new toy, pitching coach Kyle Snyder suggested another refinement:

Increase the velocity and tighten up the spin and break on his existing traditional slider — the one he’d been throwing since Double A in the Phillies organization — to create more separation, in terms of velocity and break, between the two pitches.

“Showing up having the bigger (breaking slider), we were like, ‘OK, let’s not have a big one and a medium one, let’s have a big one and a smaller, harder one,’ ” Cleavinger said.

“It was kind of the same idea of what (former Rays reliever) Robert Stephenson was doing last year, and like we’ve seen so many guys in this room start to do that, too.”

Snyder worked directly with Cleavinger, and also subtly paired him to play catch with Jason Adam — their veteran right-handed reliever, who was similarly refining his sliders — so they could share thoughts and concerns.

Cleavinger needed some time for the second major change, and some positive reinforcement from Snyder, who assured it would “make everything that much easier” once he got a handle on what they call a rifle slider.

“That one took me longer to get comfortable with,” Cleavinger said. “It was pretty bad in the spring and early in the year, still getting a feel for it. ... It’s super nice to have a smaller, harder pitch that I feel comfortable where I can throw it for a strike just in any count anytime. So that definitely helped a lot.”

Snyder said the overall improvement has been significant. There are both basic and advanced numbers to prove it.

Cleavinger (4-0, 2.03) has allowed earned runs in only three of his first 28 appearances, with 19 hits, 33 strikeouts and 15 walks in 26 2/3 innings. He has the second-lowest percentage in the majors of hard hit balls (24.2) and exit velocity (82.5, with a minimum of 100 batters faced).

“Start with the fact that he’s a lefty that can reach the upper 90s, so hitters are already somewhat sped up knowing the quality of the fastball that he has,” Snyder said. “Then you develop two really good breaking balls, rather than having one, that can effectively almost blur the lines between one another. It creates a little confusion on the hitter side of things. So if he’s in the zone. It’s a tough at-bat.

“He’s one of the better left-handed relievers in the game.”

Fellow relievers Shawn Armstrong and Pete Fairbanks also rave.

“It’s just honing in on throwing strikes,” Armstrong said. “I think that when anybody in the league has seen him pitch when he’s in the strike zone, he’s unhittable.”

“Have you seen what the ball does when it comes out of his hand?” Fairbanks said. “Not many can do what he does with the baseball. ... He is a weapon for sure.”

Cleavinger, acquired in August 2022 from the Dodgers (for a low-level minor-league outfielder), ascended into a higher-leverage role after fellow lefty Colin Poche was injured in late April and converted the first three saves of his career.

Though he showed some emotion after the big outs in those games, Cleavinger is mostly known for being a quietly fierce competitor (figuring he slots into the bullpen somewhere between Fairbanks’ off-the-chart intensity and Adam’s inventory of dad jokes), and admittedly is somewhat of a perfectionist.

“I feel like he’s down on himself more than he should be at times given the talent that he has,” Snyder said.

Rasmussen, targeting a late-season return from July 2023 elbow surgery, said he is just glad the sweeper worked out so well. He said Cleavinger deserves the credit for his work and also that Cleavinger’s sweeper is “significantly better” than his.

“We’re all trying to work together here to make each other better,” Rasmussen said. “So if I can impact the team in any way right now, it feels pretty good.”

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