Zach Plesac had a forgettable 2021 season with the Cleveland Indians. Let’s take a look at why he could bounce back in a big way with the Guardians in 2022.
Zach Plesac has been a polarizing personality for Cleveland since he hit the scene in 2019. He has produced top-of-the-rotation numbers at times, and he has found himself away from the team for breaking COVID-19 protocols during the 2020 season. Regardless of his pitching metrics or occasional bouts of questionable judgment, 2021 was not the season Plesac and others had hoped for.
The regression-laden campaign acknowledged, there is plenty of room for improvement heading into the coming season. Let’s examine Plesac’s time in Cleveland thus far, and why we could see a bounceback season from him in 2022.
2019: Zach Plesac Breaks Into the Majors
Plesac was one of the first pitchers to emerge from Cleveland’s farm system in the team’s current starting rotation, breaking on to the scene in 2019. From the get-go, he featured great control of his pitches and good athleticism, in addition to maybe the best pick-off move to first base in the sport. The young right-hander immediately garnered attention as a long-term fit in Cleveland’s rotation, coupled with immediate name recognition around baseball due to his relation to 18-year vet Dan Plesac.
Plesac came up from Triple-A Columbus in May of 2019 to pitch a strong rookie campaign with the Tribe. On the season, he put together a 3.81 ERA across 21 starts and 115 2/3 innings – not a bad initial showing for the rookie. With a good first season under his belt, it seemed like the young righty was a sure fit in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.
Glimpses of Greatness in 2020 and a Lack of Judgement
Coming into the pandemic-marred 2020 season, Plesac was viewed as a top-end starter for Cleveland, with a great deal of upside based on his first year of exposure in the majors. While the stats on their own show a good season on paper, there is more to 2020 than simply the way things went on the mound.
Plesac would be sent home while on a road trip in Chicago for leaving the team hotel after hours and breaking team COVID-19 protocols. He and Mike Clevinger (who later admitted his role in the fiasco) would ultimately be placed on the team’s Restricted List, and then sent to the team’s alternate site, causing them both to miss a significant chunk of time for their collective poor judgment.
This significant lack of judgment cost Plesac a more collectively positive takeaway from his 2020 season, a year in which he posted good numbers in the time he was on the mound. Across 55 1/3 innings, the righty would post a 2.28 ERA while fashioning a fabulous 9.5 K/BB ratio. The six walks surrendered was indicative of his stellar command on the year, and a sign of elite control. Moving past the low points of the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season, things seemed to bode well for 2021.
Plesac’s Underwhelming 2021 Season
Coming into 2021, Plesac seemed like he was primed for a breakout season over the course of a full campaign. Following the 2020 Cy Young campaign for fellow Cleveland starter Shane Bieber, many eyes turned to Plesac as the next member of the rotation to take the step from merely good to potentially great.
Even with expectations of potentially contending (at least in the division) coming into the season, 2021 did not quite go as well as hoped by many around Cleveland and the organization. The team finished below .500 for the first time since 2012, and injuries gobbled parts of many different players’ seasons. Plesac likely counts himself as one of the players who had a season they would care to forget for a number of different reasons.
Unfortunately, one of the notable points of Plesac’s 2021 was a trip to the IL after a bizarre thumb injury following a rocky outing against Minnesota. Reports out of the clubhouse indicated that Plesac had been a little bit too aggressive in removing his shirt following the game, and he sustained a fracture in his right thumb. Although he would return to pitch for the majority of the season, the whole scenario would help to set the tone for a 2021 that generally underwhelmed.
In a turn of rotten luck, Plesac was the pitcher on the mound when Cleveland was no-hit not once, not twice, but three separate times in 2021. In terms of the factors outside of a pitcher’s control, that is as rough as it gets for someone who still managed to put on decent performances (one stellar, one mediocre) in two of those three outings, but still took all three losses.
Statistically, 2021 was a bit of a disappointment given Plesac’s initial projection as the second or third arm in the rotation behind Bieber (and Aaron Civale, depending on who you asked). On the year, Plesac strung together a 10-6 record, with a career-high 4.67 ERA over 142 2/3 innings pitched. Plesac was hit hard, falling into the 15th percentile for hard-hit percentage, and the 19th percentile in expected slugging. Given where many projected his numbers to be by season’s end, 2021 was a letdown.
Reasons for Optimism in 2022
Although 2021 wasn’t Plesac’s year, 2022 could shape up to be a true breakout campaign for the righty. You know he will still feature stellar command, a good pick-off move, and general durability (assuming he steers clear of shirt-based mishaps). Additionally, there are some points to reference in his delivery to the plate that could help to boost his metrics and lead to a stronger season for the Guardians.
Tweaking the Fastball and Taking on a More McKenzie-Type Approach
Plesac offers a four-seam fastball that he would use 41.5% of the time in 2021. Although he does well keeping the pitch in and around the zone, he gets hit hard when the ball drifts around the middle of the plate (around hitters’ midsections). He gave up 62 hits off of the pitch (good for a .326 average and .626 SLG%), as well as 13 home runs in 2021, but tweaking where the pitch is delivered in the zone could help to propel Plesac to more success with his primary offering.
Like Triston McKenzie, Plesac has the most success with his fastball when he elevates it above the letters and makes hitters chase after it upstairs. Given that he lacks dynamic velocity compared to many other pitchers (his fastball velocity ranks in the 41st percentile), utilizing a McKenzie-style approach with consistency in 2022 could help to boost not only Plesac’s overall performance with his most-used pitch, but also increase his strikeout rate at the same time. Although he does not have McKenzie’s natural ride at the top of the zone, Plesac’s more advanced command should help him compensate.
Utilizing a consistent delivery to the plate and pairing the fastball with good breaking pitches to attack hitters above the letters and around the knees could be one of the biggest keys to helping Plesac rebound from last season.
Looking at the Secondary Weapons
In addition to the aforementioned fastball, Plesac uses a changeup (24.5% usage), a slider (23.1% usage), and the occasional curveball (10.9 % usage) to keep hitters off balance. The changeup takes a little over 7 mph off of his typical fastball velocity, giving him a good complement to his primary pitch. The slider (used more to attack right-handed batters) and curveball (used more to attack left-handed batters) also provide complexity to his pitching profile, and allow him to attack hitters in the lower third of (or below) the zone.
The changeup served Plesac well in 2021, with only a .241 average, but I would argue that he should slightly drop its usage (closer to 20%) and increase those of his slider and curveball. The slider was seldom hit during 2021, with only 29 hits coming off of it (.191 average). The curveball also rarely allowed batters to reach the bases, with only eight hits against it, good for a .154 average.
Just because the batting average against the change, slider and curve were all lower than the .326 against the fastball does not mean that Plesac should use them with nearly the same frequency as his four-seamer. What Plesac could do (getting back into that McKenzie-style approach) is use the slider more aggressively to attack hitters at the knees when paired with the fastball up, while then using the curve to finish hitters off with two strikes. Both pitches had whiff rates above 31% in 2021, and pairing them with the high fastball more concertedly could help Plesac trap hitters into a cat-and-mouse game between the top-and-bottom thirds of the zone. If hitters start trying to sit on his fastball up, that opens the door to incorporate more of the changeup, as well as continuing to use the breaking pitches to effect at the knees and below.
Even while lacking top-end velocity, Plesac still has plenty of tools with his command and pitch variety to give major-league hitters fits. Reinforcing and relying on his ability to throw strikes, attack the entire zone, and keep hitters guessing will be keys to a rejuvenated 2022 season.
Going Forward Into 2022
As of this moment and barring any trade activity following the end of the lockout, Plesac is going to be a core component of Cleveland’s potential success in 2022. Although the last two seasons have left much to be desired on and off the field, this coming season could be the time when Plesac truly finds his footing and emerges as a front-of-the-rotation starter. The raw tools and excellent athleticism are there in droves, and all they need is to be put together the right way. We’ve seen glimpses of greatness from Plesac, but 2022 could be the year he makes the leap to the next level as a top-end starter.