An Early Check of Zach Plesac's Spring Fastball

T.J. Zuppe

Spring training exhibition outcomes might mean something. Or, more likely, they might mean nothing. So, given the near impossible task of sifting through the endless noise, why devote much time to this volatile exercise? 

Well, for one, it's the first baseball we've seen since October. It's like throwing a steak to a hungry dog. And two, sometimes there is something of value hidden in the cloudy desert haboob. You just have to know what's worth hunting.

For example, what if you know of a pitcher that claims to have added some extra giddy-up to his fastball? And, what if this pitcher also happens to have thrown a pair of innings at Salt River Fields, a diamond capable of collecting Statcast data?

In this analogy, we are so very hungry. 

And Indians pitcher Zach Plesac's fastball is a juicy steak.

The seasoning was applied as Plesac worked out with Mike Clevinger this offseason. They pushed each other through “two-a-days” in Florida, spending mornings weight training and afternoons focused on "movement-type exercises."

Spend that much time around a teammate, naturally, you'll begin to pick up some habits. For Plesac, that meant attempting to mimic some of the same routines that brought Clevinger additional velocity over the past two seasons.

“(We were) working on some things in my delivery that he had worked on," Plesac said earlier this month, "Learning off of things he taught himself going through it."

As a result, the 25-year-old hurler, who posted a 3.81 ERA in 115 2/3 innings as a rookie last season with Cleveland, came to spring training claiming to have a little extra "true life" to his fastball. But those are just words. We are proof-seeking hounds, and Monday's start against the Rockies offered the first data to devour.

According to Statcast, Plesac's four-seamer averaged 94.2 mph in two innings on Monday, topping out at 95.5 mph in his first frame. For comparison, that beats his average fastball velocity from last year, which sat at 93.5 mph in the majors.

Screen Shot 2020-02-24 at 5.23.47 PM
Zach Plesac's pitch velocity in his two-inning start on Monday.

Plesac allowed one run on two hits, walking one and striking out two in Monday's exhibition. But that line isn't quite as interesting or meaningful as the heater velocity, which beat his average speed for all but one month of 2019. 


So, case closed, right? Well, hold up. 

No one expects to know all after one spring start. Was he amped with the adrenaline that accompanies pitching in the first game-like setting? Did he benefit from knowing he only had a small number of pitches to make before getting the typical early spring quick hook?

Sigh. Sample size remains important. This is all we’ve got, and keeping expectations tempered is the boring — errrr, responsible thing to do. After all, Plesac still didn't top his season-best fastball of 2019 (96.4 mph). This is a process.

But remember, Clevinger's velocity didn't just explode immediately upon making adjustments midway through 2018. That's an impossible standard. To see a comparable if not more speedy average four-seam fastball from Plesac while knocking off the rust in his first outing, though, seems like a positive building block.

Plesac believes, in addition to strength training, the process of adding more fastball life comes a result of "getting in good positions," throughout his delivery, focusing on his direction and being in "good, strong spots" through his finish. That sounds a bit like the things Clevinger stressed when adding velocity in 2018.

"You’re going to see a new beast,” Clevinger said with a grin of Plesac earlier this month. “That’s for sure.”

But why so much attention put toward velocity? It’s not the only element in the total pitching formula, after all.

True. But as Jeff Zimmerman pointed out earlier this offseason, it certainly helps generate whiffs far more frequently the higher you rise on the velocity spectrum.

What that potential to add speed doesn't account for is the increased confidence to throw his four-seamer higher in the zone at a greater rate.

On Monday, Plesac demonstrated that he wasn't afraid to elevate his heater, an offering that was on the low end of the spin spectrum in 2019 and generated slightly above average rise. That trend might lead to more swing-and-miss and additional pop-ups, which are about as valuable as strikeouts.

Screen Shot 2020-02-24 at 7.26.46 PM
Plesac’s four-seam locations on Monday.

"I can start pitching up in the zone a little bit more," Plesac said earlier this month. "Last year, I was getting some fade or sink on the ball. This year, I’m starting to use some of the rise I’m getting on the fastball due to the positions I’m getting myself into. I think it’s going to help me play up (my entire arsenal).”

Elevation of a more spin-efficient fastball might also help other offerings like his curveball, a pitch the Tribe hurler told reporters he adjusted this winter to help facilitate better action.

Plesac's heater already rated above average in velocity last year (67th percentile), so any added ticks should help. It will certainly remain one of the most fascinating parts of his continued development, one worth monitoring early this year as he battles for a spot in the starting rotation and feeds our appetite.