The Indians’ rotation is off to a stellar start this season. Before Mike Clevinger allowed four runs in four innings on Friday, the team had a streak of seven straight starts of at least six innings and two or fewer runs allowed -- tied for the longest such streak to start a season in history. They’ve had a slew of 10-strikeout performances, and generally have kept opposing teams off the board.
In the past, the Indians had a number of big-ticket names in their rotation, including Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer. Now, two of those three are gone from the team via trade, and others have stepped up.
Shane Bieber and Clevinger have already emerged as top-of-the-rotation pitchers over the past few years. They’re already well-known enough to make yearly top 100 lists and be talked about among dark-horse Cy Young candidates.
Now, the next wave is here. In addition to those two and Carrasco, the Indians have also gotten strong performances from Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale. The two are the latest examples of Indians pitchers who weren’t particularly high Draft picks or top prospects, like Clevinger and Bieber, who’ve reached the Majors and had good results.
“I think we’re just having [a] healthy, competitive rotation and this group of guys really put the work in and started off really knowing what they want to do when they take the mound,” Plesac said after his first start of the year on July 29. “And each time I watch all my boys throw, they outperform me, it hypes me up and [gets] me ready to pitch so really I’m just super excited watching those guys throw. We work together to make each other better and it’s really just a fun group.”
Here’s a look at two of the up-and-coming pitchers in Cleveland’s rotation.
The Indians drafted Civale 92nd overall in the third round of the 2016 Draft. He’s already amassed 1.7 career WAR, second only to the D-backs’ Zac Gallen (2.6) among players in that year’s third round.
He was never a top 100 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, but he was the team’s 19th-ranked prospect entering the 2018 season. He was called up on June 22, 2019 for a spot start against the Tigers and threw six scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. He became just the 12th player in franchise history with six-plus innings pitched and no runs allowed in his Major League debut.
He returned to the Majors in early August, and overall posted a 2.34 ERA in 10 starts for the Indians last year. In 74 career Minor League starts, Civale had a 3.12 ERA, but still, there was little hype surrounding his name before he reached the Majors.
This year, Civale appears to have picked up where he left off, allowing two runs in six innings in his season debut on July 28. One particular area of strength for him is limiting hard and solid contact. Last season, Civale allowed just four barrels all season, tied for second-fewest among all pitchers to throw at least 750 pitches. In his first start this year, he allowed an average exit velocity of just 83.5 mph.
He spoke about the breadth of his pitch arsenal, which in 2019 included a sinker, cutter, slider, curveball, changeup and four-seamer, after his first start of the year.
“But comfortability with all of my pitches has definitely gone up and continues to go up the more I throw them. Just an experience thing. Curveball felt pretty good today. Changeup felt good,” he said.
He allowed just one hit on his curveball in that start, and did not allow one on his changeup. He induced a 46.2% whiff rate on swings against his curveball, and 50.0% whiff rate against the changeup. Last year, he had whiff rates of 34.1% and 39.1% against those pitches, respectively.
Plesac, the nephew of MLB Network analyst and former Major League pitcher Dan Plesac, was drafted in the 12th round in 2016. He’s one of three players from that round to make it to the Majors, along with Taylor Widener and Mike King.
Like Civale, Plesac was never a top 100 prospect, but unlike Civale, he was never in the team’s top 30, either. In 50 games (49 starts) at the Minor League level, he posted a 3.02 ERA. He debuted on May 28 last season at Fenway Park, allowing a run in 5 1/3 innings.
He went on to post a 3.81 ERA in 21 starts for the Indians as they vied for a postseason spot. His signature performance came on Sept. 10, when he shut out the Angels in Anaheim. And thus far this year, shut out is precisely what he’s done -- turning in an eight-inning, 11-strikeout scoreless start with no walks on July 29.
The emergence of his slider was a big reason for his success in his first start. He used it 33% of the time, holding batters to 0-for-11 in plate appearances ending on the pitch, with seven strikeouts and a 56.5% whiff rate. In 2019, Plesac threw his slider 19% of the time, allowing a .237 batting average on the pitch and inducing a 36% whiff rate. He had just 15 slider strikeouts in all of 2019 -- a number he’s already almost halfway to in ‘20.
“His work ethic is second to none. It’s really hard to look at anybody and say they work harder than that kid. I mean his development of his slider I think is really — because he’s got that fastball he powers through the zone, he’s got the curveball, now his changeup is getting more and more refined, that slider’s starting to separate and start to get him those separations in pitches, which allowed him to keep doing the kind of stuff he did last night,” Clevinger said the day after Plesac’s start.
Plesac spoke to his work on his non-fastball pitches, too, which combined to account for nine of his 11 strikeouts in his first start.
“As of late, I’ve really been working on those pitches just through Spring Training and the quarantine, I have a lot of confidence built up in them and I have a really good idea what I want to do with them and compared to last year they have definitely sharpened up more, and I have a better feel for each pitch,” he said.
Moving forward, keep an eye on Plesac’s newly-improved slider, Civale’s limiting of hard contact, and the rest of the Indians’ rotation.
Mandy Bell contributed reporting for this story.
Sarah Langs is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @SlangsOnSports.