While Cleveland has what one can confidently call the best starting rotation in all of baseball due to the fact that they lead the league in ERA, FIP, xFIP and K% among other statistics, the success of the pitching staff may come as a surprise to many. What makes their success this year particularly surprising is the fact the team has traded away 3 of their better starting pitchers in Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger over the last 14 months. It is also worth noting that the team has also faced a ton of uncertainty surrounding their longest tenured starter, Carlos Carrasco, as he has been working his way back following his leukemia diagnosis last year.
Cleveland has become somewhat of a hub for high level starting pitching over the last couple decades and they have won a combined 4 CY Young Awards since 2007, which is the most for any Major League team over that time period. Cleveland has been able to accomplish much of this by becoming a pitching development machine of sorts as they have been able to transform a number of marginal and even non-prospects into quality Major League Pitchers.
While the starting rotation has had a ton of success in recent years, the outfield has been a glaring weakness and this has especially been true following Michael Brantley’s departure in free agency after the 2018 season. While the group collectively wasn’t exactly knocking the cover off the ball with Brantley still there, they have particularly struggled offensively since he signed with Houston and have ranked dead last in wRC+ and are tied for the lowest Barrel% amongst all outfields in Major League Baseball since his departure. Cleveland has tried to utilize their starting pitching depth in an attempt to, unsuccessfully so far, fix some of these other areas of weakness on their roster.
Cleveland has been able to build such expansive pitching depth by utilizing a data-driven pitching development approach. It also helps that they have a fantastic coaching staff, which includes guys like Ruben Niebla and Brian Sweeney, who have done a great job utilizing data and presenting it to the players in a clear way that allows the players to take it and use it to improve. While there are individual differences among the different pitchers Cleveland has been able to develop, there are certainly some common themes. Some of these clear themes involve tweaking deliveries to add more deception while simultaneously increasing velocity, maintaining or even improving command while also improving one or more of each pitchers secondary offerings.
The rest of the league has certainly started to take notice of Cleveland’s fantastic pitching development and Matt Blake was hired by the Yankees this past offseason after spending time as Cleveland’s assistant director of player development. His hiring by the Yankees came mere days after he was promoted to be Cleveland’s pitching director.
A lot of Cleveland’s current pitching success can be traced back to what is turning out to be a fantastic 2016 draft class. Three of their current starters were selected that year and while there were certainly similarities between these pitchers as draft prospects and the improvements they have made as pros, Cleveland has implemented an individualized approach with each of them to turn them into the pitchers they are today.
While none of these starters came from major college programs or were even highly thought of as draft prospects, they all shared the similar, perhaps most important trait, in that they were willing and open to listening to the information the coaching staff was presenting to them and then utilizing the information to improve.
Cleveland’s best pitcher this year has been Shane Bieber. Bieber was drafted in the 4th round of the 2016 draft out of the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a draft prospect, Bieber was widely regarded for his command but lacked the stuff many scouts look for in top level pitching prospects. This trend continued in the minor leagues and the results of this were Bieber typically being graded out as a potential back-end starter in the Major Leagues. Despite these facts, Bieber has shown improvements in each of his 3 major league seasons to the point where he is now the favorite to win the American League CY Young award this year and he even boasts the leagues best strikeout rate among qualified starting pitchers.
The first thing that really stands out about Bieber since his time as a prospect is his improved slider. While scouts typically graded the pitch out as below-average to average during his time in the minors, the pitch has transformed into one of Bieber’s best overall pitches and he’s using it to generate swings and misses a very impressive 67.2% of the time opponents swing at it this season. The pitch features a relatively low-spin efficiency which creates the vertical break the pitch features.
Bieber has been able to improve his slider in each of his 3 major league seasons, but he has simultaneously been decreasing the rate at which he is using it against left-handed batters and now is using it almost solely against right-hander. This explains, at least in part, why the overall usage rate of the pitch is down this year despite the good results he has gotten using it.
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Another pitcher from the 2016 draft class that is making his name known around the league is Aaron Civale. Civale has appeared in 109.2 innings for Cleveland over the last 2 seasons and has generally impressed with a 2.95 ERA, a 3.38 FIP and a 4.12 xFIP.
Civale was drafted by Cleveland in the 3rd round of the 2016 draft and was generally thought of as a guy who lacked overpowering stuff and profiled realistically as a back-end or even spot-starter at the Major League level. Civale has never been a high-strikeout guy but he has always been a high groundball guy who also features the ability to command all of his pitches.
The improvement of Civale’s curveball has been what’s most impressive about his development so far. Civale’s curveball has a plus (nearly plus-plus) raw spin rate and it has actually become a pitch he can rely on to generate swings and misses.
The rest of Civale’s arsenal is rounded out by a rather unremarkable sinker, cutter and occasional change-up and slider. He has been able to cut down on the walks this year and he is still getting groundballs at a high rate. These are a lot of the reasons why he has had success at the Major League Level so far.
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The final pitcher from the 2016 draft class that is making his impact felt at the Major League level this year is Zach Plesac. Plesac was even more of an afterthought than Bieber and Civale, as he was the teams 12th round selection in the 2016 draft. Plesac, in fact, never even appeared ranked among the teams top 30 prospects at any major publication during his time in the Minor Leagues.
While Plesac has had success over the course of his Major League career so far, pitching to a 3.25 ERA over 149.2 innings, his defensive independent statistics aren’t as impressive. This is primarily due to his lower strikeout rate and higher walk and homerun rates last year. He has, however, been able to improve in each of those areas this season. Despite his placement on the restricted list and subsequent optioning to the teams alternative site following his violation of health and safety protocols after his August 8th start in Chicago, Plesac has recently returned to the Major League’s and he has essentially picked up right where he left off. Over 34 innings so far this season, Plesac has a 1.32 ERA, a 2.86 FIP and a 3.18 xFIP. One of the most notable improvements this year for him has been with his walk rate, which has decreased from 8.4% last year to 1.6% this year. While his current levels of performance this season are likely unsustainable over the long-run, it has no-doubt been impressive what he’s done on the mound this year.
Plesac was mostly known for his fastball during his days as a prospect and he often showed very inconsistent secondary pitches during this time. These inconsistencies were the reasons behind many scouts projecting him as a likely reliever at the Major League Level. In fact, it has been the development of these secondary’s (primarily slider and change-up), combined with his improved strike-throwing ability that have been a driving force behind his success at the Major League Level so far.
His change-up, which has been his best pitch overall this season, plays well off his fastball and has emerged as a good pitch for him to use to generate swings and misses. He has struggled with command at times in the past but his ability to locate his pitches more consistently in the Major Leagues so far has also been one of the contributing factors behind his success. He is particularly doing a better job locating his change-up at the bottom of the zone this year which has been one of the reasons behind the pitches improved success this season.
His slider has also emerged as a very good pitch for Plesac during his Major League career so far. The pitch is a low-spin, lower spin efficiency pitch, which means it relies on gyro spin to create the vertical movement it features and allows it to be his top option for generating swings and misses.
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Plesac has increased the usage rate on both his change-up and slider so that he now throws both pitches about 25% of the time. His ability to turn some of his secondary’s into more reliable, consistent pitches has been one of the biggest reasons behind the success he has found at the Major League level.
While he wasn’t drafted in 2016 like the previous starters mentioned, Triston McKenzie has emerged in recent weeks as another viable, good young starting pitching option for Cleveland. The 42nd overall pick from the 2015 draft has impressed over his 21 Major League innings as he so far, has a 2.57 ERA, a 3.26 FIP and a 3.27 xFIP to go along with his 34.2% K%.
Given the fact he was a higher draft selection and that he has been ranked near the top of the teams top prospect lists and even among baseballs top-100 overall prospects, McKenzie’s emergence as a another good starting pitching option for Cleveland shouldn’t be as surprising as some of the others previously mentioned. What is particularly surprising about McKenzie however, is how well he’s looked so far this year after not throwing a competitive inning in almost 2 years prior to this due to injuries.
During his Major League debut on August 22nd against Detroit, McKenzie showed a greatly improved change-up and slider along with better command than he had during his time as a prospect. McKenzie was also working up to 97 with great plane on his fastball primarily due to his 6’5″ frame. The fastball, combined with the previous mentioned pitches and his curveball, gives him 4 quality Major League pitches to go along with his good command.
The final starter for Cleveland right now is Carlos Carrasco. He is the longest tenured member of Cleveland’s rotation as he has been pitching primarily as a starter for Cleveland since 2009. He originally signed as an International Free Agent in 2003 and was generally thought of as one of Philadelphia’s better, if not best, prospect before being traded to Cleveland in 2009 as part of the return package for Cliff Lee. Carrasco was ranked so highly as a prospect due primarily to his fastball and change-up. While he still throws the fastball and change-up that made him the top prospect in Philadephia’s farm system all those years ago, his fastball has lost some velocity over the past couple years and isn’t as effective as it once was. To compensate for the decreased effectiveness of his fastball, Carrasco has been able to develop his slider into his best overall pitch.
Over 1223.1 career innings pitched, Carrasco has a 3.79 ERA, a 3.42 FIP and a 3.24 xFIP. As previously mentioned, he was diagnosed with leukemia last season and it is quite remarkable that he has been able to return from that to pitch as well as he has this season while striking out batters at one of the higher rates of his career. Despite the good strikeout numbers and solid overall performance this year, the walks have been quite an issue for him this year. His current BB% of 9.8% is amongst the worst in the league for qualified starters.
While it is certainly fair for fans to question the current motives of the front office as they appear dead set on cutting salary by any means possible, one cannot deny how impressive they have been on the pitching development side of things. Even if the team continues to part ways with their more well known, star players, the ability they have shown to develop quality Major League starters out of seemingly nowhere should allow them to remain somewhat competitive over the long run.