Upon the inception of Spring Training, 2012, a tall, mid-20s starting pitcher threw an ordinary bullpen session in Ft. Myers, FL. March hadn’t rolled around yet, but the southpaw could hardly afford ordinary any longer. After all, he had again failed to meet his once-lofty expectations the previous year and carried no options, meaning he’d either have to make the team out of camp or face an uncertain future. Elite stuff had never been a problem for the young man. He could easily rear back to hit the high-90s, and at a time when those guys weren’t all that common. Still, he failed to reach that level consistently. In 2010, for instance, a league-average fastball left pitchers’ hands at 92.2 MPH. That year, he topped out at 98, but averaged only 91.9, a substantive difference. While his slider was unhittable, he was throwing it under 20 percent of the time, instead of mixing in a two-seamer and change-up to go along with his oft-lukewarm fastball. Further compounding the problem was that his length was becoming less of a feature and more of a bug. Mechanical flaws led to command issues in the major leagues—only four qualified starting pitchers walked a higher percentage of batters over the course of his career to that point. At his best, he looked like he could grow into an ace. Most of the time, the 6’7″ lefty barely struck out more batters than he walked.
Luckily, his pitching coach, Bob McClure, found this particular bullpen extraordinary. Stopped mid-session to be interrogated about the two-seam fastball he’d been struggling to locate, the young pitcher was quickly convinced by the elder pitching coach; if he didn’t feel with comfortable throwing it, why put so much effort into practicing it? He mostly dropped the two-seamer from the repertoire, along with his change-up, leaving him with just a fastball and slider. His team, the Red Sox, no longer needed him to make the rotation, but guys who can hit 98 don’t grow on trees, so they couldn’t risk losing him through waivers, and so Bobby Valentine decided to throw him into the bullpen.
That’s when things first clicked for Andrew Miller.
After living in the low-90s for his first several seasons, in 2012, Miller’s fastball averaged 95.6; in 2013, it was 95.9. His strikeout rate immediately jumped from his career average of 17% to 30.2% in 2012, 35.6% in 2013, and 42.6% in 2014, which was second in all of baseball. The walks plummeted shortly after the whiffs jumped. Before he was the Andrew Miller we know, the lovable lefty who carried Cleveland within a run of a World Series championship, he was Andrew Miller the lost cause. While no one has the history that Miller has, the Cleveland Indians could stand to use his conversion to the bullpen as a model for some of the decisions they’ll have to make very soon.
When pitchers are progressing through the minor leagues, one of the most important things to gauge is the quality of their third offering. In the minors, pitchers with elite velocity or command may blow away or bamboozle hitters with that single skill, but hitters in the majors far eclipse their minor league brethren in adaptability. As a hitter accrues mental data on each pitch, it becomes easier and easier to identify which ones are hittable and which ones to pass on. This, along with fatigue, is why pitchers tend to fare worse multiple times through the lineup. Consider Danny Salazar, who at the peak of his powers, possessed elite velocity on his fastball and a mesmerizing change-up, but never really found comfort in a third pitch. The first two times through the order, opposing hitters carried a .296 wOBA; the third time through the order, the number shot up to .348. In other words, once Salazar turned over the lineup for the third time, hitters turned from Jack Hannahan to Alfonso Soriano.
Last season, when the Indians ran into injury trouble in the rotation, they had no choice but to reach deep into the farm for solutions. With Kluber and Carrasco likely to return to the starting rotation in 2020 and only a single seat up for grabs, the Indians are going to have to decide which of the incumbent members get to remain in office. It bears mention that Adam Plutko is out of options, meaning by the end of spring training, he’ll likely be on some active roster, whether it’s in Cleveland or elsewhere remains to be seen. The Indians have so much pitching depth, Plutko’s inflexible presence would likely be a complicating factor. Many teams could use a bottom-of-the-rotation starter—for example, Plutko’s 109.1 innings last season would have led the Angels. It would behoove the Indians to see what they could get in return for Adam Plutko. That leaves Zach Plesac, Aaron Civale, and Jefry Rodriguez, which to me is an easy choice. Civale clearly has the repertoire of a starting pitcher right now, while Plesac and Rodriguez simply do not. Regarding the latter arms, the Indians have two options: send them to Columbus to be trained on a third pitch, which may or may not be successful, or put them in the bullpen, where they’ll be able to help the major league squad for years. Given that Cleveland acquired two more starting pitcher prospects in Scott Moss and Logan Allen in the Trevor Bauer trade, I choose Option B.
Zach Plesac was drafted in the 12th round as a project, a highly athletic pitcher with great mental makeup (I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but his uncle was in the bigs!), but was done growing physically and recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2017, he emerged from under the needle reenergized, impressing the Indians brass enough in Low-A Mahoning Valley to be promoted to Double-A Akron over the course of two seasons. Still, his sheer dominance in 2019 was perhaps even more remarkable than his quick recovery: Over 63 2/3 innings across Double- and Triple-A, Plesac faced 238 baserunners and allowed just 53 of them to reach, a .223 on-base percentage. He posted a 1.69 ERA, corroborated by a 2.24 FIP. He struck out 65 batters while walking merely nine! There’s no questioning his brilliance, and combined with the injury woes at the MLB level, he was simply too much to ignore: By the end of May, Plesac was towing the rubber for the first time as a big leaguer, at Fenway Park of all places. A long line of starting pitchers in the Indians system had ascended from humble beginnings to the top of the game, from Corey Kluber to Shane Bieber just a year ago. It was difficult not to imagine Plesac as the next great crescendo.
Unfortunately, Zach Plesac’s rookie season quelled much of the excitement surrounding him. Do not be fooled by his 3.86 ERA, dear reader; the leap from Triple-A to the Majors proved to be quite substantial, to which his 4.96 FIP can attest. In fact, all three true outcomes drastically declined: His strikeout rate plummeted by 32%, his walk rate more than doubled, and hitters roughed him up for 19 homers. His ERA was depressed thanks to a flukily high stand rate and a .255 BAbip, far lower than his .321 expected BAbip; do not expect that to continue.
Despite his utter mastery in the minors, scouts knew this outcome was always in Plesac’s cards because he lacks a major-league breaking ball. Against breaking balls in the upper quartile of spin rate, MLB batters hit .197 with a .320 slugging percentage, which is a .249 wOBA; contrarily, against the lower quartile, they hit .249 with a .440 slugging, a .312 wOBA. This is relevant because of the 465 players who threw more than 100 breaking balls in 2019, only 13 of them averaged less spin on those offerings than the 2003 rotations per minute (rpm) on Plesac’s curve and slider. Now, in the name of honest reporting, I must admit that, while I don’t expect this to continue, Plesac’s slider was fairly effective last season, at least partially due to his excellent command of that pitch (the same cannot be said about the curveball):
Another factor, however, is that batters likely weren’t all that concerned with the slider in the first place, instead choosing to sit on his fastball: Plesac surrendered an expected wOBA of .391 against the pitch. Now, there were pitchers who had less productive fastballs, but you wouldn’t want any of them on your team, trust me. As with his breaking pitches, Plesac possesses a well below-average spin rate on the fastball, which deflates the effectiveness of his above-average velocity. However, his maximum of 97 MPH marks a substantive improvement, if not as stark as Andrew Miller’s, which indicates his fastball could increase a few ticks with the intense spurts of effort required by a reliever. Plesac’s ability to jump into the MLB rotation was admirable, but he simply wasn’t effective enough to merit a future spot. But, by eliminating the curveball altogether and relying on the slider as a change of pace from a 97 MPH fastball/plus change-up combination, there’s reason to believe he would make for an outstanding addition to the Tribe bullpen.
Ditto goes for right-handed flamethrower Jefry Rodriguez. Acquired by Cleveland in the Yan Gomes trade (along with exciting prospect and potential 2020 right fielder Daniel Johnson), Rodriguez was the first reinforcement for injured starters last season, filling in for Mike Clevinger and his strained teres major. Scouts liked his heavy sinking fastball and above-average curve, but even more than Plesac, Rodriguez lacks a third pitch and has always profiled as a reliever. Baseball Prospectus even referred to him as “miscast as a starting pitcher” in their 2018 Nationals prospect evaluation. He fared as well as could be expected, with a 4.63/4.54 ERA/FIP in his 46 2/3 innings, largely surviving pedestrian strikeout and walk rates thanks to his fastball, which limits homers and produces grounders. However, take a gander at his career pitching numbers when they’re split by times through the order:
|Jefry Rodriguez||Batters Faced||ERA||FIP||wOBA||K%-BB%||Hard Hit%||Grounder %|
|1st time thru lineup||144||2.06||3.76||0.255||8.3 %||30.7 %||53.1 %|
|2nd time||141||8.80||6.83||0.413||5.7 %||41.9 %||41.9 %|
|3rd time||83||7.64||6.14||0.381||-4.8 %||31.2 %||41.0 %|
Well, that’s not what you’d like to see. It’s a small sample size to be certain, but there’s no way those splits can be interpreted positively. And, as with Plesac and Miller, Rodriguez sits at a fastball velocity of 94 MPH, far lower than his maximum of 99.9. With barely a third pitch to cut from his repertoire in the first place, Jefry Rodriguez’s reliever metamorphosis just makes too much sense not to happen.
These bullpen conversions aren’t just logical for Plesac and Rodriguez themselves, either; the Indians have more of a need for late-inning arms than they do rotation depth. With Dan Otero, AJ Cole, and the Tylers Clippard and Olson on the first train out of Cleveland, the Indians will have to replace over 150 innings out of the bullpen. Mix in the ineffectiveness we saw from Adam Cimber and, in the second half, Nick Wittgren and Brad Hand, and the front office certainly has their work cut out for them in fortifying the relief corps. Meanwhile, in Logan Allen and Scott Moss, the Indians have two new potential mid-rotation arms that they lacked when the injuries crept up last season. Each of Rodriguez and Plesac already has the requisite stuff for high-leverage innings, and who knows the extent to which it will play up further in maximum effort spurts. Expecting either of them, or any pitcher really, to reach the heights of peak Andrew Miller is unfair, but surely the Indians would settle for locked down seventh and eighth innings for years to come.