Making a Case for Zach Plesac as the Indians’ No. 2 Playoff Starter
Yesterday, our own Mark Warmuth penned a piece providing a look at how the Cleveland Indians’ rotation may shape up come postseason. Within the article, he claimed Zach Plesac should be considered as the Tribe’s No. 2 starter when October rolls around.
Such a role is especially important this year, when the playoffs open with a best-of-three series. Regardless of how much success the Indians see in the regular season, they could still be sent packing in the span of two games.
Which is why I’m here to submit my vote for Plesac, as well.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why such a suggestion may seem questionable. However, the deeper you dive into the numbers, the clearer said decision becomes.
It goes without saying Shane Bieber gets the nod in any series opener. That's typically the case for someone who currently leads all starters in ERA- (27) and strikeout rate (42.9%), all while being worth more wins above replacement than everyone in the league outside of Fernando Tatis Jr. (2.7).
From there, initial instinct might lead you to hand the ball to another veteran in Carlos Carrasco. With a postseason ERA of 1.64 across two starts, he may seem like an ideal choice.
Despite that, I’m still going with Plesac.
For starters, his 2020 numbers are far more favorable than the other two options Cleveland would realistically consider -- Carrasco and Aaron Civale.
Of the three, Plesac has the most impressive ERA- (29), FIP- (64), WHIP (0.74) and walk rate (1.6%). While Carrasco boasts the highest strikeout rate of the bunch (29.2%), his strikeout-per-walk rate (2.60) pales in comparison to what Plesac is putting forth (17.00).
Furthermore, when looking at the production opposing hitters are seeing against each pitcher, there’s quite a sizable gap between Plesac and his fellow rotation mates.
Admittedly, Plesac has thrown for less innings (34.0) than both pitchers this year. However, said innings have been significantly more impressive. In fact, only once in his five starts has Plesac finished with a left-on-base percentage below 100%, and even then he still stranded 90.9% of his baserunners.
Plesac stands out further when analyzing the quality of contact allowed in 2020. In this case, though, it’s not just Carrasco and Civale he’s outshining.
To date, Plesac has allowed a 30.0% hard hit rate, the lowest of anyone in the Indians' rotation. His 87.2 mph average exit velocity is bested only by rookie Triston McKenzie. Likewise, Bieber is the lone member of the rotation with a lower barrel rate than Plesac (5.6%).
These numbers are the most important when breaking down Plesac’s success this season, primarily because they were the reason many (myself included) questioned his 2019 performance.
Last year, Plesac’s average exit velocity (89.6), hard hit rate (38.7%) and barrel rate (8.1%) were each ranked in the 29th percentile or lower by Baseball Savant. As a result, his expected outcome stats were among the worst in the league, essentially casting doubt on whether he was as good as his 3.81 ERA implied.
This season, he’s seen an 8.7% decrease in hard hit rate, a 2.5% drop in barrel rate and boasts an average exit velocity in the 77th percentile. Unsurprisingly, this has driven an incredible turnaround in his expected outcome numbers.
A big reason for Plesac’s year-over-year improvement has been a shift in his pitch percentages.
Last season, Plesac heavied up on his fastball, throwing four-seamers 50.6% of the time despite it being the only pitch of his that hitters had significant success against (.345 wOBA). In 2020, he’s decreased usage in his fastball by 12%, instead throwing more changeups and sliders.
The results speak for themselves, as wOBAs from opposing hitters are paltry against both the former pitch (.056) and the latter (.090), while each boasts a whiff rate of 35.5% or higher.
This was all a little heavy on the metrics, I know. However, that’s mainly because so many of them help highlight why Plesac should be on the mound come Game 2 of the postseason.
Just a couple weeks ago, while he was exiled to Lake County, the idea of Plesac being Cleveland’s No. 2 starter seemed far-fetched. Now, it’s extremely difficult to find a reason why he shouldn’t be next in line behind Bieber come postseason.
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