In a very weird year, it has to rank very close to the top in unexpected developments just how good Zach Plesac was this season. Cleveland came into 2020 with a pretty decent grasp of what the rotation would look like. Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger would headline, with Carlos Carrasco a steady, wonderful choice for a number three starter. After that, the glimpses we saw of the rookies Plesac and Aaron Civale gave hope that at the very least, it would be pretty good. Nobody could have expected Bieber to do what he did. Nobody really expected them to move Mike Clevinger so abruptly.
More than anything, nobody expected Plesac to turn into an ace in his own right.
If you watch Plesac for just a moment and take each of his pitches in a vacuum, you’d think that this guy is not long for the rotation. His fastball clocks in at an average 93-ish. None of his breaking pitches are elite in their movement. But like Bieber before him, a preternatural command of his repertoire and the strike zone showed up this year, and his ability to mix pitches, throw strikes, and keep hitters off balance, to “pitch” in that old school style that is hard to quantify but obvious once you know what to look for, that gave Plesac the edge.
He made his statement that he was more than just one of the guys in the rotation when he utterly silenced the White Sox on July 28 — three hits, 11 strikeouts, and eight innings, against what we’d later see to be one of the four or five best lineups in all of baseball. Pitching in the AL Central as he does, and behind Bieber as he has to, it’s hard to be noticed, but he kept trying. He gutted out a tough seven inning start against a hot Reds team five days later, not quite as sharp but just as competitive. One more rotation, and he saw the White Sox again, and again made a statement. Chicago was silenced a second time, finding just six baserunners over six innings, scoring nothing while striking out seven times, again utterly lost against Plesac. Again, he did his best against the best competition. Wasn’t this enough to get noticed?
Evidently, the answer was yes. Not for the right reasons though. Twenty-four hours later he found himself in a rental car, making a miserable drive back to Ohio after being banished to Lake County for breaking COVID-19 protocols. The second-year pitcher was wonderful in the early goings, packing a 1.29 ERA and looking every bit the topflight starter the numbers suggested. But that wasn’t all that mattered this year. This is why it wasn’t a more perfect season for Zach Plesac. Many young players face some kind of reckoning, whether it’s a hole in a swing, a lacking repertoire, some kind of dent in the armor that shows they’re mere mortal. Something they have to overcome. It might not be the only thing he’ll face as he grows as a pitcher, but this lapse in judgement was Plesac’s Welcome to The Show moment.
He wouldn’t pitch again until September, but the numbers held, to a degree. He logged a 2.99 ERA in five starts, struck out 33 in 34.1 innings, and only walked four. The command, whether of the zone or his stuff, didn’t leave, and maybe the time away reminded him of how fleeting opportunities can be. He ended the season as maybe Cleveland’s second-best starter, and yet still with room to grow.
I don’t know if Plesac is as good as the 2.28 ERA leads us to believe. The walk rate, just 2.9%, is absurd. It’s the kind of walk rate that guys like Greg Maddux or late-career Bartolo Colon logged, and Colon at least didn’t strike people out at nearly the rate Plesac did this year. His FIP is a full run higher than his ERA at 3.39, though by Statcast he was very good at forcing soft contact, sitting in the 75th percentile in hard hit rate and 71st percent in whiff rate. He’s only forcing ground balls at a 39% clip, and his strand rate was an insane 91.8%. He’s definitely got talent, and he’s certainly getting the most out of the arsenal he’s packing, it’s just amazing to see how he works with what he has. The end result was a top 25 or so starter in baseball. It’s hard to be anything but ecstatic about that, especially after all his season held.
What he looks like over thirty full starts, in one season, is up for debate. He’s at 29 for his career, and has been excellent in those 29 starts, but over two seasons including the pandemic one is a hard sell. He’s something like this kind of pitcher though, and however the team looks around him, he’s sure to be a rock in the rotation for several years to come. He’s not the best, but for a second year pitcher, someone with fewer than 200 career innings under his belt, to rank as a top ten player on a contending team, one that prides itself on pitching no less, that’s unexpected and pretty special. At the end of the day, bumps and missteps and all, that’s how you describe Zach Plesac in 2020.