On August 4, 2020, Jake Mailhot of Fangraphs wrote a piece about Zach Plesac being the next success story in Cleveland. Mailhot suggested that Plesac was set to be the next no-name as a prospect pitcher to come into his own via Cleveland’s pitching development. How things can change with one incident.
On August 8, 2020, Plesac and Mike Clevinger left their Chicago hotel to have dinner with some friends. They went back to the friends’ home and were late getting back. That violated MLB imposed curfew rules. Plesac was initially caught and Clevinger was not. Later it was found out that Clevinger lied about breaking curfew, and he traveled with the team back to Cleveland while Plesac traveled by car alone.
Both pitchers went into 72 hour quarantine and were summarily sent to Cleveland’s alternate training site. Clevinger is back with the team, and Plesac is not. Cleveland has let Plesac know that they have no opportunity for him at the major league level right now. I imagine a lot of other major league squads might have a place for the young right hander, and one of those squads would be the Milwaukee Brewers. More on that in a bit.
Prior to breaking curfew and potentially putting his teammates in harm’s way, Plesac was arguably Cleveland’s best pitcher not named Shane Bieber. In three starts this season, he posted a 1.29 ERA and a 2.39 FIP across 21 innings. In those three starts, he punched out 24 batters.
In his 2019 rookie season, Plesac pitched relatively well too. Over 115.2 innings, he posted 3.81 ERA and a 4.94 FIP. Not bad for a rookie, but there might be something significant going on with Plesac and his pitch usage that had his performance go from decent to exceptional beyond acquiring another year of experience.
Mailhot points out in the aforementioned article that Plesac’s usage of the four-seam fastball decreased substantially from 2019 to 2020. Slider and changeup usage increased. The results have been fantastic over three starts. You can see the change in pitch usage in Maillot’s spreadsheet below across two of the three starts.
Looking at how the pitch mix differs between games, it looks like Plesac and the pitching coaches along with whomever is catching formulate a plan and attack hitters based on something they’ve identified. The 7/29 start was against the White Sox. The 8/3 start was against the Reds. The Reds are a bit more left handed, which could provide the simple answer to why more change ups against the Reds and more sliders against the White Sox. Nonetheless it looks intentional that he is using his four-seamer a lot less and the other two pitches much more depending on how opposing teams construct their lineups.
Ultimately Plesac’s fastball likely plays up more if his slider and changeup are used at a similar level of usage. Plus his slider and change up are better pitches for him. Mailhot does an excellent job of outlining the improvement of his slider in change up in the article I highlighted at the beginning of this post. I highly suggest reading it if you are a baseball nerd like me. To give you an example of his analysis on Plesac, here is a quote about his slider and change up from the article.
His slider is nearly vertical with very little horizontal break. But rather than the looping arc the pitch had in 2019, his slider now has sharp downward action much closer to the plate. Opposing batters have definitely felt the effects of this new, honed slider. They’re swinging and missing 46.7% of the time they offer at the pitch, a rate 34% better than the league-average whiff rate for a slider.
His changeup also looks much more deadly this year. It was consistently his best secondary offering in college and throughout the minors, but he’s continued to work on it. This year, he’s added nearly two inches of horizontal break to the pitch. That additional arm-side tail has made the pitch even more effective when it’s located on the outside corner against left-handed batters.
Zach Plesac made a mistake. One can even argue it was a stupid mistake that he doubled down on by showing little remorse in a Instagram message recorded while driving his car. Here is the thing, he is 25 years old. Stupid mistakes by 25 year old, young men are a common occurrence in this world. If the Cleveland organization is not willing to forgive then maybe he can go to another team for a fresh start.
Milwaukee could be that team. Unlike Mike Clevinger who would require a lot to acquire, Zach Plesac would be less expensive. The reason, Plesac just doesn’t have the track record of Clevinger. Plesac is 12th round draft pick. He has never been a top level prospect. He pitched well enough in his rookie year to compete for a back-of-the-rotation role.
Here is how Plesac differs from Clevinger in the positive that makes him maybe even more valuable than Clevinger to a team like Milwaukee. Plesac is 25. He has a ton of team control, and he is cheap. What Milwaukee would have to send to get Plesac is a bit of a mystery, but no where near what they would send back to acquire Clevinger. It is a bit hard to put a value on a pitcher that has become notorious in a high profile way, who at the same time, has yet to demonstrate what his consistent level of performance is.
Much of that would ultimately be determined by Cleveland’s front office. How they value him means everything. Are they giving up on him? I doubt it, but they certainly are not enamored with him right now. Might David Stearns be able to swoop in a make a deal that works for both teams, and allows the Milwaukee fanbase to see the name Plesac on the back of a Brewers’ jersey once again.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs