We’ve hit a point in Zach Plesac’s career where we can almost perfectly cut it into two distinct segments.
There’s the 2019-20 stretch of 171 innings that told us he was the next product of the Cleveland Pitching Machine. Sure, he didn’t have the velocity of Carrasco or Bauer, nor the breaking pitch of Kluber or Bieber, but he seemed — or at least some of us convinced ourselves — that he was more than the sum of his parts. The world of pitch tunneling, of hiding one inside another, was where he would live and find success, baffling the major league hitters he would face for the next fifteen years.
Then there's the 2021-Present stretch: 191 innings, where he looks, well, terrible. His strikeout rate has fallen into the 15’s, he’s handing out home runs like they’re candy, and gets battered every time he’s faced anything more than a Royals-esque lineup this year. He competes his ass off, plainly dumping everything he has into every outing. Effort is important, giving it your all is vital in this game especially when you have merely fringe stuff. Maybe though, even in that run in the first half of his career, maybe he’s always been this way.
There are easy ways to look at this. For instance, just look at the numbers in bold type:
Zach Plesac’s two faces
It’s plain he was playing a bit with house money in 2019 and 2020, and that pandemic year was an odd one in so many ways. Shane Bieber looked like Bob Gibson, Jose Abreu won an MVP, and the Dodgers won the World Series. Lots of strange stuff was going on that made no sense in a normal season. Certainly, we looked at the 2.28 ERA that Plesac logged, along with what he was offering in his repertoire, and had to raise an eyebrow or two. And there’s also the drop in fastball velocity. One mile per hour is a vast gulf, pulling him from roughly a smidge above league average to the equivalent of Josh Tomlin seven or so years ago. We all remember what that looked like.
It’s just that he seemed so useful, Plesac did. Maybe not as a Robin to Bieber’s Batman, but certainly mid-level starter, someone that could gobble up 180 innings and keep the team in the game. Kind of what Cal Quantrill is doing now, though without the bowling ball sinker. And there’s the lurking spectre of the sticky stuff ban. We don’t know who that impacted or how much but it’s not like Plesac was living in the world of reality-warping spin rates. If anything, the fact that his curve spin rate percentile has gone from second to 20th between 2019 and ‘22 proves that he was someone who wasn’t mucking the ball up, and now he’s just normally cruddy.
There’s probably no big, silly secret here. He’s just not missing bats. His two out pitches, the ones that were supposed to let him build those tunnels to the world of sad batters, are the slider and change. They're basically equal in pitch use, a dual secondary offering of sorts, and should allow him to be pretty effective to all sectors. Especially because his curve isn’t very good at all. The results are not great though, and getting worse:
The real trouble being that he’s not improving on his offerings. For instance, both his change and slider are just not moving any more than they used to horizontally:
He’s getting a bit more from the slider in vertical movement, but again, it’s not like it’s turning into some kind of Kluber-ian breaker:
Whether this is an indictment of the organization’s ability to develop him, his own ability to turn practice into in-game results, or whatever, that’s just not good. Look at all the pitchers that have come through Cleveland in the last fifteen or twenty years, and think about the successes versus the failures. From Sabathia to Lee to Kluber and Bauer, there was evidence on the field of them honing their craft and becoming the best versions of themselves. Those that didn’t or just couldn’t, fell by the wayside.
I’m not used to seeing a young Cleveland pitcher do anything except come up, show a glimpse of greatness, and then actualize that potential. If he were following the trajectory we’re used to, this should be the year that Plesac is a Cy Young dark horse. It’s happened so many times in the first part of the last decade, so seeing all these guys churn through the last couple of seasons just reminds me that maybe that was the fluke, and that building a pitcher isn’t just what they can do over and over. How many other teams just never find pitching, like, ever, even with high draft picks?
None of this means that Plesac — or, in fact, the entire Cleveland pitching production — is finished, but realistically, we’ve got nearly 400 innings of what is effectively the same pitcher, if not one that’s been getting worse. Maybe this is just it.