I would not want to be Adam Plutko right now.
Well, no, I would, to be among the 0.1% of baseball players who are good enough to pitch at the big league level would be amazing. He also seems to have a great family. But right now he’s gotta be sweating, at least a little, about where he’ll be pitching next year.
After riding up and down I-71 more than he’d likely care to count the last four years, Plutko finally cracked 100 innings pitched at the big league level last season. In doing so, he was one of the most valuable players on the Indians roster.
In case you’re reeling the same way some other writers on this site did when I put Plutko in my top 10 ballot for team MVP, let’s take a minute to think about this. As I wrote last week, Shane Bieber was valuable by statistical measures, which really means he was the most outstanding player; Carlos Santana still won our site MVP vote because of the extra value he brings that can’t be quantified. It’s hard to make a case for Plutko on the back of his 2019 stats, but it isn’t hard to defend the value he brought to the team.
About those stats, well, Plutko kind of lived the mantra “It’s better to be lucky than good.” Last season he was not bad, but it’s hard to be too impressed by his 4.86/5.23/5.54 ERA/FIP/xFIP line. Moreover, among other starters with at least 100 IP, Plutko had the 12th worst (101 of 113) K/9 (6.62 K/9) and the 10th worst (103 of 113) HR/9 (1.89). But he helped himself and the team by keeping walks to a minimum (23rd best BB/9, 2.15) and holding down hard hit balls (46th in hard hit%, 36.9%), and although balls left the park often against him he also induced a fair amount of weak fly balls (51st in HR/FB, 14%).
But the value of Plutko in 2019 is not in cherry-picked peripheral stats or his slash line or even his wins above replacement (0.7 fWAR, in case you were wondering). I don’t need to rehash the literal decimation of the Indians rotation this year for the umpteenth time — you get it — but that’s exactly why Plutko was so valuable. When the team needed a steadying presence in the rotation to eat innings and keep the scoreline manageable, Plutko did exactly that.
In 20 of his 21 appearances, Plutko threw at least four innings (including one four-inning relief appearance); in 14 of his appearances he went at least five innings. He allowed three or fewer earned runs in 15 of his appearances and walked more than one batters in just seven. Oh, and the Indians won 14 of the 21 games he appeared in.
Plutko pitched his heart out. He threw strikes. He held the opposition in check. At times it may have seemed like he made a deal with the devil, with his average fastball settling at 91, but if that’s the case he got ripped off. Because now, Plutko faces an offseason of questions.
Out of options for the coming season, Cleveland will have to either open the season with Plutko in the rotation or expose him to waivers and hope everyone else overlooks how good he is as a depth option. He already seems determined to fight for his spot and, because velocity is something that can be trained, he may turn up to Goodyear an improved player in February.
Even if 2019 is as good as it gets, though, the player that Plutko was this year has value going forward. Worth just under one win at FanGraphs and 0.5 wins a Baseball-Reference in 100 innings, Plutko tracked just above the value expected from a fifth starter in a FiveThirtyEight study from 2014. While the numbers might have changed a bit since then, it’s likely they’ve changed to favor the hitter in the juiced ball era that has developed since that writing. This means Plutko’s output is likely saving the Indians runs, which add up to actual wins. And when you look at similar players, he’s falls in with a pretty decent group of guys.
Likewise, even though Plutko may not be the hippest guy to put in the rotation, he might represent the best option out of the gate. It’s easy to forget, based on how well they pitched last year, but Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale are still babies; both turn 25 next year, and the former has just 26.1 innings at the Triple-A level whereas the latter has 42.1. Whether or not building up innings at each level in the minors is necessary is a good question to ask, the results at the MLB level might indicate a little seasoning could help.
As seen above, Plesac had wildly inconsistent wOBA against throughout the season, thanks in part to only having one true above-average pitch: his slider (0.89 wSL/C, 26th of 105 pitchers with 110 IP). Likewise, Civale’s wOBA against began to creep into uncomfortable territory as the season progressed and he passed 120 innings pitched (across all levels) for the first time in his career. Plutko doesn’t look better by this measure, but his floor is pretty well set at this time. Keeping Plutko in the 2020 rotation can allow the Indians to use a known quantity with time for development — for the younger guys to get closer to their (higher) ceiling — or it can simply give Plesac or Civale time to ramp up for the 2020 season and not be worn down by September. It’s just another way Plutko gives value to the Indians.
The future of the rotation may rest with Civale and Plesac, but letting the option-less Plutko walk for nothing in hopes that they consistently figure it out right away would be a mistake for the present. He doesn’t post outstanding numbers or inspire fawning social media posts, but as Plutko showed in 2019, he gets the job done, and he can do it again in the future at a bargain cost.