Eric Vaughn Plunk
Acquired: Free Agent, 4-9-1992
Left Via: Trade, 7-23-1998:
We made a concerted effort to include the best relievers in team history as part of this list, and although you don't automatically think of Eric Plunk as one of those guys, the four-year stretch he had with the club from 1993-1996 was one of the best stretches by a reliever in team history, though he only was the team's closer for a small portion of those four seasons.
Plunk was drafted out of high school by the New York Yankees in 1981 (4th Round), and started his professional career as a starter in the minors. Like a lot of young flamethrowers, he had some difficulties remaining in the strike zone, but still maintained high strikeout and low hit rates. After a couple seasons in the short-season leagues, he jumped up to the Florida State League (A+) in 1983 as a 20-year-old, had success there, but repeated the level in 1984, throwing 176.1 innings and making 28 starts. Plunk was a promising pitching prospect though far from the majors, but he would nevertheless enter into the national spotlight that winter.
That off-season, it was becoming obvious that Oakland would be trading Rickey Henderson, as the star outfielder was a year away from free agency at age 26. Obviously numerous teams were interested in Henderson, including the Dodgers and Orioles, two perennial contenders, but it was the Yankees, who for the past couple seasons had finished third in the AL East, who won the bidding war. Going to Oakland were Jay Howell, who had been one of New York's best relievers, and four prospects. Included among those four prospects were Jose Rijo, a 19-year-old phenom who was one of the best prospects in baseball and Juan Samuel, who at age 20 was already holding his own in AAA. Plunk, along with Fort Lauderdale teammate Tim Birtsas, rounded out the package. The Yankees would sign Henderson to a 5-year contract worth $8.6M (total), and he would round out an outfield that already included Ken Griffey and Dave Winfield.
Meanwhile Plunk continued to progress through the minors. In 1985 Plunk, who was still starting, split his season between AA Huntsville and AAA Tacoma. He continued to have problems with walks, average 7.2 walks/9 between the two levels. But his stuff won admirers. In 1986's spring training, he impressed the staff, and might have won a spot in the rotation if not for the late acquisition of Moose Haas from Milwaukee. Plunk would start the year in Tacoma, but wouldn't stay there long; he was recalled in early May, serving at first as a long reliever and eventually a starter. But wildness (more specifically his inability to throw his breaking pitches for strikes) would again hamper him, and by August he was in the bullpen again.
Plunk would split the 1987 season between Tacoma and Oakland, and his roles between starter and reliever. But by the end of that season, he was a full-time late-inning reliever. Now only having to throw two pitches, he thrived, holding opposing batters to a .205/.296/.256 line in the second half of the season and cutting his walks down dramatically. He had found his niche, and just in time to be a key member of the juggernaut teams of the late '80s.
The 1988 Athletics were loaded from top to bottom, but the Oakland bullpen was perhaps the strength of the club. The pen was headlined by future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, but the setup group on that team was just as impressive as its closer. Rubber-armed Gene Nelson threw 111.2 innings, almost all of it in relief, and left-handers Rick Honeycutt and Greg Cadaret each threw over 70 innings in relief. Plunk rounded out the quintet, appearing in 49 games, throwing 78 innings. He averaged that season 9.1 strikeouts/9 innings, the highest rate in the bullpen.The 1988 team won the AL West by 13 games, swept Boston in the ALCS, but then lost to the Dodgers in one of the biggest World Series upsets in history.
Plunk would continue in the same role with A's in 1989, and the club was on its way towards another title when Plunk was dealt back to the team that originally drafted him, in exchange for the player he was originally traded for. The Yankees, now mired in mediocrity, dealt Rickey Henderson back to Oakland on June 21 for Plunk, Cadaret, and 25-year-old outfielder Luis Polonia. Plunk would pitch well the rest of that season and in 1990, but struggled in 1991 both in relief and in a late-season stint in the rotation. He was non-tendered after the season, and quickly signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, who were on the cusp of championship run of their own. But Plunk didn't make the club, and was released towards the end of spring training. The Cleveland Indians, seeing an opportunity, signed Plunk to a minor-league deal and sent him to Canton-Akron to start the season so that he could re-acclimate himself to late-inning relief.
Plunk dominated in 9 appearances in Canton, and was quickly recalled to Cleveland. He became a key setup man to closer Steve Olin, and helped make the bullpen one of the strengths of the team. The following spring, his role changed due to tragedy; that spring Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident near the club's spring training facility. In 1993 he was part of a committee of closers, leading the team with 15 saves. But by 1994 he was back in a full-time setup role (the Indians , and had one of his better seasons. In the strike-shortened season, Plunk appeared in 41 games and 71 innings, striking out 9.3/9 innings and allowing just 7.7 hits/9.
After the strike ended, the Indians seemed poised for greatness. They had augmented their starting rotation with Orel Hershiser, added to their already talented lineup with the signing of Eddie Murray, and had finally found a full-time closer in converted starter Jose Mesa. 22-year-old Julian Tavarez and Plunk would share set-up duties. That trio in 1995 would make a 7th inning lead an almost automatic win, and often would give the Tribe high-powered offense the opening to come back to win the game. Plunk posted an ERA+ of 176, striking out 10 per 9 innings and walking a career-low 3.8 per 9. He held opposing batters to a .211/.303/.325 line, and was equally effective against both right-handed and left-handed hitters.
Plunk was a big man, listed at 6'5" and 210 pounds, but contrasted his size with a clean-shaven face and glasses, looking more like a businessman than a professional athlete. By the time Plunk got to Cleveland, his fastball sat in the mid-90s, down a bit from his early days, but he could now control it. Like most right-handed relievers of that era, Plunk's out pitch was a nasty slider. But Plunk's durability and ability to go multiple innings in an appearance was what made him so valuable. 10 of his appearances in 1995 were for at least 2 innings, 24 of them were were for at least 1.1 innings. Between he and Tavarez (who could also go multiple innings), manager Mike Hargrove had a lot of flexibility when it came to his bullpen.
But as 1995 came to a close, Plunk started have some soreness in his shoulder, and although he pitched in the playoffs, he wasn't very effective. He allowed two runs in 3.1 postseason innings, and was left off the World Series roster.
Plunk's last good season was 1996; he posted an ERA+ of 200, racking up 77.2 innings in 56 games. He allowed just 56 hits in those innings, which was good for H/9 of 6.5. He again shared the main setup duties with Julian Tavarez, In the ALDS that season, he got pinned with the loss in Game 2, as he allowed the first two runners to get aboard to start the eighth (Paul Assenmacher allowed would allow those runs - the game-tying and go-ahead runs - to score). Plunk would pitch perfect innings in both Game 3 and 4, but the Indians would lose the series.
After 1996, Plunk wasn't the same pitcher. He re-signed with the Indians that off-season, inking a three-year deal worth $4.4M, but there were no great seasons left in him. He would cede eighth inning duties to Mike Jackson, who the Indians had signed that winter, and was awful the postseason, allowing 8 runs and taking the loss in Game 1 of the ALDS and Game 3 of the World Series.
By 1998 the only reason Plunk was still on the club was his contract, and the Indians dealt him to Milwaukee in July for Doug Jones in what could be called a double salary dump (as Jones was making $2.5M and not pitching much better than Plunk). He pitched for Milwaukee in 1999, then called it a career at age 35.
Indians Career Stats
|CLE (7 yrs)||36||23||.610||3.25||373||0||140||26||462.0||393||185||167||42||217||23||460||1973||140||1.320||7.7||0.8||4.2||9.0||2.12|
Cleveland Indians Career Leader: Games Played, 7th (373); Game Finished, 8th (140)