3/20/2013 12:17 P.M. ET
Adjustments key to Clevenger's fresh start
By Carrie Muskat / MLB.com
MESA, Ariz. -- Steve Clevenger knows exactly when his troubles began last year. He blames White Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd.
Clevenger made the Cubs' 2012 Opening Day roster as the backup catcher to Geovany Soto, and he did well until an oblique injury sidelined him in late April. Clevenger returned in late May, and he was hitting .269 through June 19, when the Cubs were playing their intracity rivals in an Interleague series.
On June 20, Clevenger went 0-for-4 vs. Floyd and the White Sox. And then it got worse.
"They started throwing me back-door breaking balls early in the count," Clevenger said. "I was still looking for fastballs and wasn't taking advantage of the breaking balls they were throwing me for strikes. I sat down many times with [Cubs manager Dale Sveum] and went over it, and for some reason, I never picked up the pitch. I just didn't make the adjustment, not that I couldn't."
Clevenger, 26, has always been a good hitter, batting .309 in the Minor Leagues.
"I wasn't seeing the ball very well out of people's hands," he said. "They threw me back-door breaking balls, and then about a month after that, they started going back to heaters. It's just an adjustment I didn't make quick enough. To be a good hitter, you have to make adjustments game by game, not months at a time."
Clevenger batted .269 before the All-Star break, .121 after. And when Soto was dealt to the Rangers at the Trade Deadline, Clevenger was passed over, as Welington Castillo got more starts behind the plate. That ticked Clevenger off.
"Any time somebody passes you, you're not going to be pleased about it," Clevenger said. "Welly's a hard worker and a good kid. It is what it is. You have to come to the park and take care of your business and not worry too much about anybody else."
Clevenger wiped the slate clean this offseason, and now could make the Cubs as a utility player, helping either at catcher, first or third. It wouldn't be a tough switch; Clevenger converted from infielder to catcher. This spring, he's batting a much improved .353. Sveum likes the versatility non-roster invitee Brent Lillibridge can provide, and to have a left-handed bat like Clevenger on the bench would only benefit the Cubs.
"If you can have that third catcher to where you can pinch-run and not worry about the other catcher getting hurt, that obviously comes into the mix," Sveum said.
The Cubs do need help at third, with Ian Stewart headed for the disabled list to open the season because of a sore left quad. Luis Valbuena will get most of the starts there, but Lillibridge and Clevenger can help.
Clevenger knew he'd have to prove himself this spring, especially when the Cubs signed veteran Dioner Navarro as a backup to Castillo. This offseason, Clevenger met former big league pitcher Tony Saunders. The two, who both live in Baltimore and train at the same gym, had long talks over lunch about the nuances of the game.
"[Saunders] talked to me about how to prepare myself every day and not to worry or linger too much on the failures, and to take away positives," Clevenger said. "To get that from a from a guy like that who has some experience, and has worked in a front office, it was very good and very positive. It helped me mentally in the offseason."
Clevenger wasn't the only one on the Cubs who needed a pep talk. Bryan LaHair batted .286 in the first half and was selected to the National League All-Star team, then batted .202 in the second half. He's now playing in Japan. Clevenger and LaHair talked a lot about what pitchers were doing.
"Last season was on me," Clevenger said. "They let us go out there and play, and I just didn't have a good season."
Clevenger, who finished with a .201 average, knows that as a catcher, the pitchers take priority.
"When you get to the big leagues, you have to do both," Clevenger said of offense vs. defense. "It's not one or another. Maybe a guy later on in his career [can focus on defense]. When you get to the big leagues, you have to hit. It's that simple."
Clevenger now studies video to see how pitchers approach hitters. He spent a lot of time with Sveum on the topic. When he faced Floyd, he was flummoxed, and it snowballed.
"I just never made the adjustment, couldn't pull the trigger early in the count," Clevenger said. "Sometimes I felt it was their pitch, and I felt I was going to make an out if I swung at the pitch. Most of the times, I took it. And other times when they did throw me hangers, I took it. In the big leagues, you have to take advantage of hanging breaking balls."
Last year is over. Saunders mentored Clevenger on the mental aspect of the game.
"He said, 'Go out and play the game and just have fun and enjoy it while you're here,'" Clevenger said. "I kind of lost track of that last season when I started struggling a little and trying to do too much, and trying to impress these guys. I got away from doing what I did my whole career, which is be myself and not put pressure on myself.
"It was a good offseason," he said. "I failed at the end of last year, but I can take some positives away from last year. I think it'll help me in the long run."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.