Zach Plesac Is the Next Success Story in Clevelandon August 4, 2020 at 6:15 pm

Zach Plesac Is the Next Success Story in Cleveland

Cleveland’s extended run of success during the last half-decade has been primarily sparked by their ability to develop pitching talent seemingly out of nowhere. Their rotation has been filled with contributors who didn’t have any major prospect hype but turned into outstanding members of the rotation once they reached the majors. Names like Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Mike Clevinger, and Shane Bieber have impressed. Last year, Aaron Civale made his case to be the next no-name to join the list of graduates from Cleveland’s development program. This year, it looks like it’s Zach Plesac‘s turn.

Plesac is even less known than Civale or any of the other names above. Kluber, Clevinger, and Bieber were all fourth-round draft picks and each crept into the bottom of the team’s prospect rankings as they made their way through Cleveland’s organization. Civale might have had the most draft capital of the bunch — he was a third-round pick in 2016. In that same draft, Cleveland selected Plesac in the 16th round, and he never received any mention on any team prospect rankings before making his debut.

Plesac actually made it to the majors before Civale and accumulated more innings than he did last year. But where Civale enjoyed great success right off the bat, Plesac struggled a bit in his first taste of the majors. He made 21 starts last year, compiling a very good 3.81 ERA that masked an ugly 4.94 FIP. His strikeout rate was well below league average (18.5%), he walked a few too many batters (8.4%), and he had a real problem with the long ball. The skills he showed off during a very successful minor league career suddenly eluded him in the big leagues. That first major league hurdle derails so many pitching careers, but Plesac worked hard to fine-tune his repertoire during the offseason to ensure that he would have another chance to find success.

He entered this year in a three-way competition for two slots in Cleveland’s rotation with Civale and Adam Plutko. After a strong summer camp, Plesac earned the fifth spot in the rotation and made his first start against the White Sox on July 29. He pitched eight scoreless innings, scattering three hits and striking out 11. His follow-up start came yesterday afternoon against the Reds. It wasn’t as flawless as his season debut, but it was still impressive. He threw seven innings, allowing three runs on four hits and one walk while striking out six. Through two starts, he’s posted a 32.1% strikeout rate to go along with a 1.80 ERA and a 2.71 FIP.

The biggest adjustment he’s made has been to his pitch mix. Last year, he threw his four-seam fastball just over half the time. At 94 mph, it’s not a terrible heater but it’s definitely not his best pitch. It has a very low spin rate for a four-seamer, though the efficiency of that spin allows him to generate more ride than one might expect. Still, it wasn’t a swing-and-miss pitch for him, so relying on it too much suppressed his potential strikeout rate. Here’s a look at his pitch mix in his two starts this year compared to last year.

He’s dropped the usage of his fastball to around 35% and is now throwing his changeup and slider far more often. Against the White Sox, he used his slider as his primary out pitch since they had just three left-handed batters in the lineup against him. In Cincinnati, he emphasized his changeup because they stacked six lefties in their lineup. His ability to turn to either of those secondary offerings as an out pitch is a new development, and both pitches are looking like they’re improved over what he showed last year.

Plesac’s slider has been a work-in-progress since being drafted in 2016. When Eric Longenhagen scouted him back in May 2019, he noted that his breaking ball wasn’t a good option for him. Plesac debuted in the majors just a few weeks after that report and barely used his slider at first. But as the season wore on, he started throwing it more often as he became more comfortable with the pitch. He was able to generate a whiff rate 5% better than the league-average whiff rate for a slider. It was effective, but there was room to improve.

This year, he’s added more than 100 rpm to the spin rate of his slider without changing any of the other characteristics of the pitch. The result has been a sharper pitch with much later action.

Here’s an example from last summer:

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And here’s a slider from his first start this year:

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His slider is nearly vertical with very little horizontal break. But rather than the looping arc the pitch had in 2019, his slider now has sharp downward action much closer to the plate. Opposing batters have definitely felt the effects of this new, honed slider. They’re swinging and missing 46.7% of the time they offer at the pitch, a rate 34% better than the league-average whiff rate for a slider.

His changeup also looks much more deadly this year. It was consistently his best secondary offering in college and throughout the minors, but he’s continued to work on it. This year, he’s added nearly two inches of horizontal break to the pitch. That additional arm-side tail has made the pitch even more effective when it’s located on the outside corner against left-handed batters, like this one thrown to Yasmani Grandal in his first start:

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He’s improved the whiff rate on his changeup from 18% below league average last year to 34% above league average this year.

The massive improvement to both of these secondary pitches has allowed him the luxury of limiting the usage of his fastball. That was a focus for him during spring training and summer camp, and it has paid dividends for him once the season got underway. After his first start against the White Sox, he discussed how all that work has made a difference for him:

“As of late, I’ve really been working on those pitches just through Spring Training and the quarantine, I have a lot of confidence built up in them and I have a really good idea what I want to do with them and compared to last year they have definitely sharpened up more, and I have a better feel for each pitch.”

After just two starts, Plesac has proven that he belongs in Cleveland’s rotation and that his potential upside is far higher than anyone expected. With Bieber looking like one of the best pitchers in baseball and Civale continuing to carve up opponents, getting the most out of Plesac is just another success story for Cleveland’s player development group.

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