There's No Guarantee Zach Plesac Has a Spot in the Indians’ 2020 Rotation
It’s admittedly jarring to note the Cleveland Indians’ rotation doesn’t have the reliable depth it once possessed.
Obviously, the talent of Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber is undeniable. From there, things get a little murkier than what we’re used to.
Carlos Carrasco’s workload is still to be determined considering his ongoing battle with leukemia. Adam Plutko is out of minor league options and needs a strong spring in order to earn an Opening Day roster spot. Aaron Civale impressed last summer, but his ability to sustain that success remains to be determined.
The same could be said for another Indians starter, Zach Plesac.
Though his 2019 surface-level numbers look decent, it’s not hard to poke holes in what we saw during his rookie debut. As a result, claiming Plesac can safely assume he has a spot in Cleveland’s 2020 rotation would be off-base.
This isn’t to say Plesac didn’t earn the right to show the Indians what he could do last season. He spent the first half of the year surging through the minors, jumping from Double-A to Triple-A after just six starts. Four appearances and one 30.7% strikeout rate later, Plesac got the call to Cleveland.
As noted, it’s difficult to gripe about his final line with the Indians. In 21 starts, Plesac finished 8-6 with an ERA of 3.81.
When you dig deeper than this, you find more than a few red flags.
Plesac’s FIP (4.94) fell well below average, while his walk rate (8.4%) was the highest it’s been at any level. Over 14% of the fly balls he allowed landed in the stands, as he ended the year averaging over one home run per nine innings.
Both of those numbers represent career highs. By about a mile.
In order to further evaluate Plesac’s 2019 performance, we can look at his Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA), one of FanGraphs’ performance estimators. SIERA is a method of regression analysis, estimating what someone’s ERA should be by comparing him to pitchers with similar strikeout rates, walk rates and ground ball percentage.
For example, Shane Bieber finished 2019 with an ERA of 3.28. His strikeout rate (30.2%), K/9 (10.88), and walk rate (4.7%) were all excellent, while his ground ball percentage (43.9%) was a pinch below league average. His SIERA came in at 3.36, indicating his ERA was in line with what it should be.
The same can’t be said for Plesac.
His 3.81 ERA is notably better than league average for 2019 (4.51), while his ground ball percentage of 39.1% wasn’t terribly concerning (average – 44%). However, this wasn’t the case when it came to strikeouts and walks.
Thanks to these numbers, Plesac logged a SIERA of 5.13, which suggests his 2019 ERA is more than a little deceiving.
It should be noted SIERA is meant to be used as an estimate, not as any sort of projection. That said, 2020 projections aren’t too favorable for Plesac, either.
While Steamer predicts slight improvements with Plesac’s strikeout and walk rate this summer, both his ERA (5.07) and FIP (5.24) are projected to head in the wrong direction.
As we know, projections are no guarantee. There’s always a chance Plesac surprises once he’s back on the mound this spring.
If he doesn’t, though, the Indians certainly won’t feel pressured to keep him in the rotation.
Plesac has three minor league options left, so there’s nothing holding the Tribe back from having him start the year in Columbus. Should Carrasco’s health be in a good spot, while Plutko proves to be a serviceable fifth starter, Cleveland can carry a rotation of those two, Clevinger, Bieber and Civale.
Yes, Plesac was able to remain in Cleveland’s starting five from last Memorial Day all the way ‘til the end of the season. However, just because he made 21 starts in the Tribe’s rotation doesn’t mean he’s a lock to stay there in the season ahead.
If Carrasco proves he can handle a starter’s workload, the Indians are heading into spring training with six pitchers competing for five rotation spots. Of those six, only two – Plutko and Plesac – have 2020 ERA projections above 5.00.
Of those two, Plesac is the only one with the flexibility of minor league options. Knowing that, he can’t just assume he’ll be in Cleveland come Opening Day, especially if his 2019 ERA was as misleading as it looks.