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Starting pitching will carry Cleveland in 2021

Where Bieber goes, we all go

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Close your eyes.

Picture the best part of the 2021 Cleveland baseball team.

Is it Francisco Lindor? Go back, you’re in the dream too deep. Wake up.

Ok, close your eyes again.

Is it the pitching staff? Good, correct, that’s the obvious answer. Is it an angelic silhouette of Shane Bieber emblazoned across a sun-splashed morning sky? That’s even more correct.

The 2021 Cleveland baseball team will go as far as their pitchers will carry them. Maybe a few breakouts will help them ascend higher, but without Shane Bieber and friends proving they can seamlessly make the jump from 60 games to 162 games, this team is in trouble.

Luckily, things are looking good so far. The big three starters — Shane Bieber, Zach Plesac, and Aaron Civale — are all healthy with one start to go until Opening Day. Civale’s arm hasn’t fallen off since switching to a shorter arm angle, and it’s only a matter of days until we see his new split-changeup in action against real batters.

Shane Bieber and his ever-growing stable of pitches will look to repeat his 2020 Cy Young performance, wherein he won the pitching triple crown with 122 strikeouts, a 1.63 ERA, and the very important eight wins. He also led the league in strikeout rate (41.1%), ERA- (36), xFIP- (45), and SIERA (2.52). Find any stat you want — reliant on defense or measured in a vacuum — and he probably led all of baseball in it.

That won’t be easy to repeat, of course. Bieber was able to do it last year thanks to pinpoint control and the benefit of a shortened season. As much as I believe in his ability to be the best pitcher in baseball again as long as he keeps throwing five pitches wherever he pleases, it’s hard to imagine he breaks records over 32 starts as opposed to 12. He is human after all. Allegedly.

Zach Plesac was equally brilliant in a short season. He finished 2020 with a 2.28 ERA, 3.50 xFIP, and he issued just six walks in 55.1 innings. That’s an incredible line for a pitcher that wasn’t considered much of a prospect before his debut. He’s an incredible athlete, but not a flashy pitcher at all. You’ll watch him every start, marvel at his pick-off move maybe, forget about him between starts, then look up and suddenly he hasn’t walked anyone in a month. He attacks the zone with a four-pitch mix with a fastball that sits 91-94 and just enough movement to not get hammered. He’s basically Josh Tomlin on theoretical (please only be theoretical) steroids.

Behind them, Logan Allen, Cal Quantrill, and Triston McKenzie are engaged in a battle for the final three spots. Allen is the clear winner if spring stats determined roster spots, as Quantrill has struggled against spring competition. I still think Quantrill has the edge, based on how highly Cleveland seems to think of him and how he pitched for them down the stretch last year. Nothing seems to be mechanically or mentally off for him in spring, the results just haven’t been there yet. And luckily they don’t matter.

McKenzie, on the other hand, looks like less of a lock for the starting rotation. The slumping velocity that plagued his last few starts last year appears to be back in spring, and he hasn’t been able to maintain his typical mid-90s stuff over the course of a game. There will always be questions about his health and durability until he pitches a full season’s worth of games, and so far he hasn’t been able to answer them.

If there was a knock on McKenzie last year, it was giving up too many home runs. He finished the year giving up six in 33.1 innings, with a HR/FB rate of 17.1%. When he missed bats, he was great. When bats found the ball, they usually found the barrel. Therein lies the problem with McKenzie — he needs to strike out everyone to succeed and he can’t do that without velocity.

It wouldn’t surprise me (and it shouldn’t surprise you) if McKenzie suddenly sheds these issues when the season starts. If he’s able to keep his velocity up and can paint the corners with his fastball, none of this ultimately matters. But there’s still a small chance he doesn’t start the year in the majors, and if he does it might not be in the rotation. If nothing else, it might be out of an abundance of caution and doing whatever it takes to keep him healthy down the stretch.

Logan Allen found success in three extended relief outings last year in which he threw a total of 10.2 innings. He mainly served as a multi-inning garbage man, so it’s safe to say it wasn’t a reflection of how he’ll likely be used in 2021 and beyond. He’s a four-pitch pitcher, using a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, and curveball all at least 13% of the time in 2019. Before Allen even stepped on the field for spring training, he impressed everyone by dropping doughnuts in the offseason and losing 35 pounds. He’s cleaned up his mechanics and overall looks like he’s ready to have a bigger role in the majors.

The important thing about Cleveland’s rotation this year is depth. That feels weird to say considering how many quality pitchers they’ve traded over the last three years, and how young their new depth is, but it feels true. All six guys listed in this article are quality in any rotation, and they also have Adam Plutko as an emergency starter, then Sam Hentges, Scott Moss, Eli Morgan, and maybe even Joey Cantillo as further depth as needed. This team has no shortage of No. 5 guys who have the potential to rocket to the upper end of the rotation with some time in Cleveland.