Player Profiles 2020: Cleveland Indians Starting Pitchers

Michael Ajeto analyzes the Cleveland Indians rotation for 2020 with in-depth player profiles.

Throughout the winter months of the offseason, the Pitcher List staff will be creating profiles for every fantasy-relevant player for 2020. Players will be broken up by team and role through starting pitchers, bullpen, lineup, and prospects. You can access every article as it comes out in our Player Profiles 2020 hub here.

 

Indians At A Glance

 

The Indians’ rotation starts with a strong top three of Mike ClevingerShane Bieber, and Carlos Carrasco. Each has some minor warts — and Carrasco dealt with leukemia — but they form quite a compelling threesome. Then there’s Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac, who are solid, but underwhelming. We may also see some of Logan AllenAdam Plutko, and Jefry Rodriguez sprinkled in throughout the year as well.

 

 

Mike ClevingerLocked Starter

Nickname: Clev Dog

 

2019 In Review

Clevinger was undeniable in 2019, as he bumped his fastball up around 96 mph before eventually falling to his 2018 levels of velocity, around 94 mph. As a result, he saw his SwStr% bump up to 15.2% and his K rate up to 33.9%. His 30.7% xK rate was surpassed by his 33.8% K rate. People seem pessimistic about the sustainability of his 2.71 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, and 33.9% K rate, but I think he’s legitimately improved.

 

Fastball (46% usage)

The biggest change we saw from Clevinger was a drastically improved fastball. How improved was it? It put up a 19.3 pVAL against the -5.5 pVAL it had previously put up throughout his career. His swinging-strike percentage leaped to an elite 12.7% (from a career 8.0%), and his 34.5% CSW was also much higher than his career 28.0% CSW.

The velocity certainly helps, but his average vertical fastball location prior to this year was below the vertical middle of the zone. 2019 was the first year where he averaged above the vertical middle, and while he averaged in the 50th percentile in vertical fastball location — exactly average! — he had previously ranked in the 13th percentile from 2017 to 2018.

In other words, his average vertical fastball location was like that of Joe MusgroveSonny Gray, and Jon Lester. Nowadays, he’s more in the vicinity of Lucas GiolitoJames Paxton, and Walker Buehler.

So, to recap, he ranked in the 94th and 97th percentile in swinging-strike percentage and CSW, respectively, with his fastball.

 

Slider (26% usage)

Clevinger’s slider was already a good pitch, and it remained a good pitch. He’s gone back and forth between it being a pitch he throws inside the zone a lot or not, and 2019 was a year where he didn’t throw it in the zone as often. With his fastball as dominant as it was, it’s hard to argue with those changes. It saw a small decrease in pVAL/C, but pVAL isn’t predictive. Plus, his slider CSW increased from 38.3% to 39.3%, and this is despite the fact his zone percentage dropped from 49.3% to 34.5%.

With his velocity increase, his slider saw an increase in spin rate and velocity, and a little extra vertical drop too. Incredible stuff (quite literally).

 

Curveball (12% usage)

He started burying his curveball more, too, but this change didn’t reap the rewards that his slider did — its CSW decreased from 32.6% to 27.0%, much lower than it’s been in the past two years. He was probably spiking it too much, as his O-Swing rate decreased from his career 40.2% to 33.7% in 2019.

He lost three inches of horizontal movement on his curveball, but it doesn’t seem too related to its regression.

 

Changeup (11% usage)

Over his career, Clevinger’s changeup has been just short of a Money Pitch, but saw its O-Swing rate lower from a career 39.3% to 33.8% (although its swinging-strike percentage remained intact). Regardless, his 25.9% CSW was the best it’s been, by CSW, since 2017.

 

2020 Outlook

Clevinger’s strengths are mostly his fastball and slider, but it is fantastic that he has four pitches that have the ability to be at least neutral when it comes to pitch value. I do expect some regression, but that’s because I’m unsure his velocity will come back, and because he posted such absurd numbers. How about a 3.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 30% K rate?

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 3.75 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 26% K rate in 150 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 2.75 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 35% K rate in 210 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Mike Clevinger 2020 projection:

3.00 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 32% K rate in 200 IP

 

 

Shane BieberLocked Starter

Nickname: The Singer

 

2019 In Review

Bieber had himself a breakout 2019 in which he posted a top-five K-BB%. Many people doubt this is sustainable, especially since his 3.28 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 30.2% strikeout rate are so darn good, coming from someone whose fastball isn’t very good. Regardless, he made several in-season changes, and I think his 2019 is mostly legitimate. He’s probably my favorite pitcher I’ve written about.

 

Fastball (45% usage)

This is perhaps the sticking point in the Bieber debate — is his fastball legit? As I wrote in my July article, I don’t think Bieber’s fastball got any better, but I do think his secondary pitches are helping mask his fastball’s flaws. I’ll touch on it later, but I’m a believer that his fastball will continue to be serviceable in 2020. I’m one of the few people who believes so, it seems.

With a 5.0% swinging-strike percentage, yeah, I understand people’s hesitance to believe in it. But he also has plus (or plus-plus!) command that allows him to spot his fastball consistently, which is why so many of his strikes are called.

I consider June 15 to be the point where things changed.

Pre-June 15, fastball: .560 xwOBAcon, 4.2% swinging-strike percentage, 32.1% CSW.

Post-June 15, fastball: .380 xwOBAcon, 5.6% swinging-strike percentage, 32.0% CSW.

The numbers still aren’t good, but with the command and secondaries Bieber has, an xwOBAcon around league-average seems sustainable enough. His swinging-strike percentage improved marginally, and his CSW is essentially equal, but the reason Bieber’s fastball has been so miserable is that hitters have barreled it up. It’s unclear how sustainable this is, but it’s encouraging to me.

 

Slider (28% usage)

Bieber’s slider continued to be utterly dominant in 2019, racking up an 11.1 pVAL, with a 41.5% O-Swing rate, 35.2% zone rate, and 23.0% swinging-strike rate.

 

Curveball (20% usage)

It doesn’t show up in his yearly numbers (at least to this extent), but Bieber’s knuckle curveball was insane after the June 15 mark. Its 23.0% swinging-strike rate was the seventh-best swinging-strike rate of any pitch after June 15. Of the six pitches that had better swinging-strike rates, Bieber’s knuckle-curve had a better xwOBAcon than all of them except two. Pretty good!

My theory is that Bieber’s previous curveball had a “hump” as it came out that was easily identifiable from hitters. So, while his spin axis changed from a perfect 180-degree differential with his fastball to a 116-degree differential, throwing a harder, more spike-able curveball was better for him than a loopier curveball. He really did a good job of spiking it, too (which makes sense, especially when he doesn’t elevate his fastball). Plus, it theoretically should have become more difficult to differentiate from his slider, because it went from a pitch with nine inches of horizontal movement to a curveball with more 12-6 movement.

A lot of this is conjecture, and I seem to be biased because I love Bieber, but it makes enough sense to me to believe in it until we see him in 2020.

 

Changeup (7% usage)

The forgotten pitch. Bieber’s changeup seems like a good pitch to me when looking at its velocity differential and horizontal and vertical movement differentials.  But … it’s just not. (Perhaps it gets too much horizontal separation?) Although sparsely thrown in 2019, it returned a 33.8% O-Swing rate, 39.8% zone rate, and 9.3% swinging-strike rate.

One thing: His release point between his fastball and changeup have about two inches of separation between them. Perhaps that matters, but probably not.

 

2020 Outlook

I love seeing pitchers like Bieber shine. He was a 45-grade pitcher who is balling in spite of a middling fastball. He has two potentially plus-plus secondaries, and I think his fastball can be good enough, especially with how he (generally) commands his pitches. Assuming his second-half changes remain intact, I can get with a 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 28% K rate, but we’ll be keeping an eye on his fastball’s batted-ball quality and the shape of his knuckle curveball.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.20 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 25% K rate in 110 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.10 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 30% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Shane Bieber 2020 projection:

3.40 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 30% K rate in 200 IP

 

 

Carlos CarrascoLocked Starter

Nickname: Cookie

 

2019 In Review

The new version of Shane Bieber isn’t all that different from Carrasco, with Carrasco putting up a 22.7% K-BB%, 1.13 WHIP, and 76 FIP- since 2015, and Bieber putting up a 23.4% K-BB%. 1.15 WHIP, and 74 FIP- since 2018. 2019 was something of a lost year for Carrasco, as he dealt with leukemia and only started in about half of his games, but it appears he should be locked and loaded for 2020.

 

Fastball (46% usage)

Aside from their overall lines, Carrasco and Bieber are similar in that they both have solid command (or better) and poor fastballs. Since 2015, Carrasco’s fastball’s wOBAcon is .441, while Bieber’s is .414 since 2018.  Carrasco’s fastball took a step forward in terms of swinging-strike percentage in 2019, but it was solely because he spent time in the bullpen. His career swinging-strike rate is 5.0% with a -66.1 pVAL. By pVAL/C, he has one of the worst fastballs since 2009 of qualified pitchers. A touch better than Jon Gray and Dylan Bundy, but worse than the fastballs of Corey KluberDaniel Norris, and Nick Pivetta. Yikes.

As for his sinker, he doesn’t use it as much, but it’s been a significantly better pitch for him over his career. Since 2015, its .347 xwOBAcon is 90 points better than his fastball’s .437 xwOBAcon. Its effectiveness would surely decline with a bump in usage, but it’s a better pitch. (It’s the only reason his -66.1 pVAL for his fastballs isn’t far worse). While he throws his sinker 12% of the time, perhaps he could throw it a little more often. At the very least, it means he’s throwing his four-seamer less.

 

Slider (34% usage)

After bumping his slider usage from 16.5% in 2017 to 31.7% in 2018, Carrasco threw his slider about as often as his four-seam fastball for the second straight year. Carrasco’s slider is filthy. Once again, Carrasco’s slider/changeup combo is similar to Bieber’s slider/curveball tandem in that they’re both incredible pitches with swinging-strike percentages that can exceed 20%. His slider has averaged an obscene 50.1% O-Swing rate over his career, with a 42.6% zone rate and 25.6% swinging-strike percentage. Carrasco does a fantastic job of locating his slider to his glove-side at the bottom of the zone against lefties and righties. It’s his best pitch, as well as one of my favorite pitches in baseball.

 

Changeup (19% usage)

Carrasco’s changeup is beautiful. As with his slider, it has a ridiculous career 49.7% O-Swing rate, paired with a 35.9% zone rate and 18.7% swinging-strike percentage. From his 2018, there’s reason to think his swinging-strike percentage might go up, though, as he increased it to 23.5% by reducing his zone rate by about 9%. He obviously uses this more against lefties, but he can throw it against righties, too. He lets it go arm-side and, as you saw in the tweet I linked, it disappears below the zone.

Since 2015, he’s had one of the best changeups in baseballs — at least for starting pitchers. His changeup ranks in the 75th percentile in CSW, so it not only gets swinging strikes and induces weak contact, but it’s a good strike-getter too. There are few changeups in baseball that can do all three things.

 

Curveball (1% usage)

I normally omit pitches that are thrown less than 5% of the time, but Carrasco’s curveball marked 7.3% of his pitch mix in 2018, which was more of a normal year for him. Perhaps part of the reason it’s so effective is that he throws it so sparsely, but it’s been a Money Pitch over his career! With a 40.9% O-Swing rate, 40.6% zone rate, and 16.8% swinging-strike rate, it just ekes out every Money Pitch criterion. It’s a hard curveball that could be confused for a slow slider, and I imagine he could use it a good deal more than he did in 2018. It’s not as good as his other secondaries, but it’s a pitch that a lot of pitchers would probably love to have. Not many have the luxury of three good secondary offerings. At the very least, he can do better than 1%.

 

2020 Outlook

I think Carrasco was taking a step forward in 2018 before leukemia thwarted his 2019 season. It’s unclear how his year is going to go in terms of health after his 2019 scare — and I’m not 100% sure how the Indians will handle it — but I’m expecting him to have a pretty normal year. I think a 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 28% K rate is in order.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.00 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 25% K rate in 80 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.00 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 30% K rate in 180 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Carlos Carrasco 2020 projection:

3.40 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 27% K rate in 170 IP

 

 

Aaron CivaleLocked Starter

Nickname: The Addict

 

2019 In Review

In ten starts, Civale put up a 2.34 ERA that is absolutely, positively not going to happen again. However, that’s not to say that he can’t still put up good numbers. We’ll need to see a larger sample out of him, but perhaps there’s more to Civale than people think. He showed some elite contact suppression, which I’ll get to.

 

Fastball (38% usage)

Civale’s sinker was fantastic last year. With a 5.7 pVAL and 1.9 pVAL/C, he had one of the best fastballs by pitch value. (If you omit his four-seam fastball, he’s sniffing Gerrit Cole territory). Of course, Civale can’t keep this up. His 2.3% swinging-strike rate is a joke, as is its 94.0% contact percentage, but he limited hitters to a .256 wOBAcon and .297 xwOBAcon with it.

The question, then, becomes how sustainable is this? (As you can see above, there’s already regression to be bad from his wOBAcon to his xwOBAcon.) You would think not very, as the league average wOBAcon is .373 for sinkers, but for some reason, I think Civale can make it work to an extent. There will be some wOBAcon and BABIP regression — his sinker returned a .258 BABIP and .289 xBABIP — but I’m buying in a little as someone who can consistently limit the damage done against his sinker. In any case, it’s still not a good pitch, and I’ll be watching to see if his sinker continues to avoid barrels.

With that said, don’t be surprised either if his sinker gets beat up in 2020. He throws it over the plate a ton — I just have a weird feeling.

 

Cutter (30% usage)

Civale does a great job keeping his cutter to his glove-side on the edge of the strike zone. It slightly outperformed the league average xwOBAcon and BABIP for cutters, but it’s not significant enough for me to think it’s purely good luck. Perhaps it’s, in part, repeatable. With someone like Civale, that’s what you’re banking on after all. The sample size isn’t big, and it gets smaller with every pitch we’ll look at, but Civale throws his cutter in the zone plenty, with a 49.8% zone rate. It’s likely his best pitch since he can throw it in the zone with frequency, but also get hitters to chase (41.1% O-Swing rate) and misses some bats (12.2% swinging-strike rate).

 

Slider (14% usage)

Civale’s .097 wOBAcon is not anywhere near sustainable, but everything else looks alright. When he has thrown it, he’s done a great job locating to just outside of the strike zone to his glove-side of the bottom of the zone. In this way, it’s a “changeup” to his cutter. He only threw 130 of them, but his slider’s 35.1% O-Swing rate, 27.7% zone rate, and 12.3% swinging-strike rate are all good enough. It was one of his three pitches with positive pitches values, although that could change next year.

 

Curveball (11% usage)

Again, our sample is minute (95 pitches thrown), but the results are encouraging — 48.5% O-Swing rate, 28.4% zone rate, and 14.7% swinging-strike rate. It’s a huge, loopy curveball, so don’t expect much of it outside of a change-of-pace offering. FanGraphs gave it a 55 present/60 future grade, for what it’s worth.

 

Changeup (7% usage)

This is probably his most underdeveloped pitch, which is likely why he used it so sparingly. He only threw it 56 times, so it’s hard to say much about it, other than it doesn’t seem to be a pitch that he commanded well.

 

2020 Outlook

The error bars are wide, since we haven’t seen him much and he relies so much on inducing weak contact. I like Civale for what he is, but he’s probably headed for a much rougher year than 2019. Everything hinges on the sinker, and despite my optimism, it’s possible I am misled. I’m going to err on the side of ATC’s projection over Steamer and say we’ll see a 4.30 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 18% K rate. If it doesn’t work out in the rotation, it could in the bullpen.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 18% K rate in 120 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 24% K rate in 190 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Aaron Civale 2020 projection:

4.00 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 20% K rate in 170 IP

 

 

Zach PlesacLocked Starter

Nickname: Court Letters

 

2019 In Review

Plesac has a history of really good walk numbers in the minor leagues, but he doesn’t miss many bats. His 1.48 HR/9 is high (and maybe deservedly so), and his .255 BABIP is low. He was certainly worse than his 3.81 ERA in 2019, but he’s a serviceable arm who needs to work on mitigating home runs. It worked in 2019, but it probably won’t continue to, considering his .349 wOBAcon and .407 xwOBAcon. Unless, of course, something changes.

 

Fastball (51% usage)

Plesac throws a lot of fastballs. It served him well. Er … well enough. Its 6.1% swinging-strike rate is higher than I would have guessed without seeing it, but its 0.1 pVAL and 0.0 pVAL/C say that it was just about pitch value-neutral — which can be valuable! The thing is, that probably won’t continue. His fastball BABIP was pretty low at .282, but his wOBAcon was especially low, with a .466 xwOBAcon that is (a) quite bad, and (b) significantly higher than his .386 wOBAcon.

It’s the same kind of deal as with Civale — he’s not going to miss many bats with it, so he better hope he can limit how much it gets beaten up. It doesn’t help that he throws it in the middle of the zone. He would actually benefit some from elevating his fastball at times to his arm-side — he’s dabbled with it before.

 

Changeup (21% usage)

His changeup gets thrown in the zone an awful lot at 52.6% — the pitcher who throws his in the zone more often is Lucas Giolito, but Giolito’s actually misses bats. It’s not bad, by any means, but its only redeeming quality is the vertical differential from his fastball. With a 30.8% O-Swing rate, 52.6% zone rate, and 12.8% swinging-strike rate, it was good, but not great. By CSW, his changeup is middle of the road, as it ranks in the 51st percentile. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’m not a huge fan of the pitch.

 

Slider (19% usage)

With a 3.2 pVAL and 0.9 pVAL/C, Plesac’s slider was his best offering. With a 32.5% O-Swing rate and 17.2% swinging-strike rate, I think it’s his best pitch too. It’s a good pitch that he’ll let loose sometimes and throw in the upper 80s. It has 12-6 shape and gets solid late movement. He would really benefit from keeping it down in the zone.

 

Curveball (10% usage)

This is a show-me pitch. It doesn’t get whiffs, but it doesn’t get beaten up either. Meh.

 

2020 Outlook

Civale and Plesac are in similar boats for me, although I like Civale more for 2020. Plesac has the better track record, but he can’t give up dingers like he did in 2019. I think a 4.50 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, and 18% K rate is reasonable.

 

Realistic worst-case projection: 4.60 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 18% K rate in 140 IP

Realistic best-case projection: 3.60 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 24% K rate in 200 IP

 

Nick’s reluctant Zach Plesac 2020 projection:

4.10 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 20% K rate in 180 IP

 

 

Logan AllenFringe Starter

Nickname: Borland

2020 Outlook

Interesting secondaries, but that fastball is so meh. He’ll likely see some starts, but they won’t be great.

 

Adam PlutkoFringe Starter

Nickname: Not Plinko

2020 Outlook

The Indians have such a type. Plutko is probably the least interesting of them all. ATC and Steamer have him projected for HR/9 rates around 2.00. Yuck.

 

Nickname explanations:

Mike Clevinger: Clev Dog. No idea how it started, but there it is.

Shane BieberThe Singer. Because a friend of mine named Shane is a singer. Yep, that’s totally it.

Carlos CarrascoCookie. It’s what they call him.

Aaron CivaleThe Addict. Anyone who has had played too much Civ or had too much Ale understands this.

Zach PlesacCourt Letters. He’s a sack of pleas.

Logan AllenBorland. Al Borland from Home Improvement was a lumberjack kind of guy. Log. Al.

Adam PlutkoNot Plinko. I think we all wish it was Plinko. We all love Pinko.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Michael Ajeto

Michael co-founded Sounding Off Blog, where he wrote about the Mariners. Now he writes Going Deep articles here. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mikeyajetoPL, or you can not.

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