Zach Plesac made his MLB debut at the end of May. Since June 1, the Indians have the best record in baseball, and the rookie is a key reason why.
In three days, the Cleveland Indians will reach the two-month mark since Carlos Carrasco last threw a live pitch. Two days later, it will have been three months since Corey Kluber stood on the mound. Mike Clevinger missed most of April, all of May, and half of June.
I’m something of an eternal optimist, but even I would have been skeptical if you had told me eight weeks ago that on July 27, the Tribe’s starting rotation would have the third-best ERA in baseball since June 1. I’d have had an even more difficult time believing that the Indians wouldn’t be in the market for starting pitching depth at the trade deadline, and I’d have outright dismissed the idea that Trevor Bauer’s name would still be surfacing in trade rumors.
Enter 24-year-old Zach Plesac, who has looked like anything but a rookie forced into action by an uncanny string of injuries and health concerns to three of the top four pitchers from Cleveland’s Opening Day rotation.
Plesac’s on-field demeanor hovers somewhere in the middle between Bauer’s heart-on-his-sleeve determination and Kluber’s stone-faced stoicism; he is unassuming yet impassioned, and he is not-so-quietly-anymore helping lead the charge through the Tribe’s most inspiring stretch of baseball since at least 2017.
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The defining moment of Plesac’s season came in Friday night’s contest against the Royals on a pop-up in foul territory–a quickly-dying flare with every intention of dropping safely to the ground a few feet from the Kansas City dugout along the first-base line.
Plesac possessed not only the athleticism to track the ball down, but the presence of mind to know he was the only defender with a chance to get to it, and the hustle to make sure he did. The youngster beat Jake Bauers and Kevin Plawecki to the spot and made an impressive diving catch.
Plesac’s effort on what might’ve been an inconsequential play in a game the Indians would go on to win by five runs is symbolic of the way the team as a whole has carried itself over the last two months. It’s been all for one and one for all, so the real question here is: Was Plesac’s play even all that surprising?
Rewind back to Plesac’s MLB debut on May 28 at Fenway Park. The Indians had just gotten bombarded by the Red Sox the day prior in the first of a three-game series. At that point in the season, discouraging final scores were business as usual for Cleveland fans, and the May 27 defeat looked like the beginning of yet another stretch of games in which the Indians would appear wildly outmatched by an American League powerhouse.
To make matters worse for Plesac the next day, he had to endure a lengthy weather delay as an entire month’s worth of cold rain fell upon the field. Unfazed, the rookie would go on to log 5.1 innings, allowing only one run and paving the way for a 7-5 victory–just one day after Boston plated at least one run against five different Indians pitchers.
A few days later, on June 1, the Indians embarked on a 45-game stretch in which their record sits at 32-13, and although Plesac is not the sole driving force behind it, they would not be here without him. He had a rough two-game spell in which he allowed nine earned runs in 6.1 innings as the calendar turned from June to July, but he’s surrendered just 12 earned runs in his other nine starts combined.
Unlike the rest of the Indians’ rotation, he doesn’t do it the easy way. Of the four Cleveland starters with at least 60 innings in 2019–Bauer, Carrasco and Shane Bieber being the other three–Plesac’s 18.1% strikeout rate is the only one lower than 28%. Factor in Clevinger’s ludicrous 39.4% mark in 42.1 innings, and it’s evident that opposing teams are getting a different look from Plesac than they are from his swing-and-miss-inducing teammates.
The level of contact Plesac allows (79.7%) might cause one to wonder whether his 3.10 ERA can continue to stave off his 5.10 xFIP over the long term. It’s a reasonable concern, as pitching to contact in this day and age can often lead to disastrous outings.
It’s worth noting, then, that Plesac isn’t often allowing good contact. Opposing batters have hit him hard on just 37.4% of batted balls, and he’s limiting fly balls to 37.8%, with a 42.4% ground ball rate. Sure, the defense needs to be a little sharper on Plesac’s day to pitch, but the rookie isn’t out there serving up beach balls.
Provided he continues forward with low hard-hit and fly ball rates, his run of success isn’t unsustainable. He might be due for a little more bad luck here and there, but he’d hardly be the first starting pitcher to carve out a role for himself as a ground ball specialist.
Whether you believe he can keep it up or not, Plesac’s contributions to the Indians over the last two months have been invaluable. He may be one young man on a 25-man roster, but he–along with the other 24–has given the team all he’s got since joining the rotation.
So to answer my earlier question, I was a little surprised to see Plesac shut down the Red Sox on May 28. When I saw him go fully horizontal to catch a foul ball on July 26 en route to his fifth individual win, that was just the new business as usual.