AL CentralAnalysis

The Cleveland Pitching Powerhouse: A Look Into One of 2021’s Best Pitching Staffs

Picking 19 pitchers in 21 selections in the 2021 MLB Draft may have sounded outrageous to fans of some teams. Not to Cleveland. Five of their last nine first-round picks have been pitchers, 2021 included. Even outside of the draft, the team has traded for names that were the textbook definition of average before joining the team and became sleepers for the Cy Young after a few years. Cleveland has found their strength in pitching and continuously puts out one of the best rotations in baseball year after year. But how does their draft-to-majors pipeline get them there?

While their recent position player picks have developed into some of the biggest names in the game – see: Francisco Lindor – Cleveland’s recent pitching picks have been the true stars of the show. Like many other teams, their recent draft strategies have shifted from simply looking at the major stats. If you’ve read or seen Moneyball, you know what I’m talking about. The value of a player can be determined using much more than their batting average, earned run average, and other numbers that are usually used to define them. However, for simplicity’s sake, ERA, WHIP, and strikeouts are used to measure the players below. 

With advanced stats coming to the forefront of teams’ draft strategies, the door has been opened wide for prospects. A power hitter that hits a bunch of solo-home runs in a year may be less valuable than a guy that can get on base once or twice every game. This creates opportunities for smaller high school hitters that may not have been drafted early by old school draft standards. Take a look at Alex Bregman. 

Bregman was the exact opposite of what traditional scouts looked for in a player. Standing below six feet and with an average build, he did not have the looks of a baseball player. However, the Astros scouts looked past that and saw him for what he would become. They saw a smart, growing, confident player. Bregman, now a World Series champion, is currently hitting .283/.366/.422 and is proving to be one of the team’s strongest assets. 

Enough about other teams. How has Cleveland used these strategies on their own draft picks? Their 2021 rotation has quietly been one of the best in baseball, even with all of the injuries. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest pitching names they’ve drafted in recent years. The obvious place to start is Shane Bieber.

Shane Bieber: Drafted in 2016, Shane Bieber was picked by the Cleveland Indians in the fourth round out of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Spending three years at UC, he averaged a 2.91 ERA, 1.189 WHIP, and earned 237 strikeouts across 300 innings pitched. While these numbers made it obvious that he would be a success, he still didn’t seem to be first-round material. Bieber went 122nd overall and signed with the team, beginning his career with Low-A Mahoning Valley. 

Finding immediate success, Bieber pitched to a 0.38 ERA across 24 innings. In 2017, he pitched across three levels. Starting for Double-A Akron, High-A Lynchburg, and Single-A Lake County, he proved that his previous success was no fluke. Splitting time between Triple-A Columbus and Double-A Akron in 2018, he showed he was ready for the majors. Earning a spot on the Major League roster that May, he made his debut on his birthday – May 31, 2018. His debut was about average; four earned runs on eight hits across 5.2 innings. What would come next, however, would be exactly what Cleveland drafted him for. 

After a successful close to the 2018 season and an even better 2019, Bieber went on a tear that other teams never saw coming. Going 8-1 in the shortened season, he earned a 1.63 ERA, 0.866 WHIP, and 122 strikeouts across 77.1 innings pitched. This earned him the Cy Young Award along with the Pitching Triple Crown. While he has been out for most of the 2021 season due to injury, he was on pace for another stellar season.

Aaron Civale: Taken one round higher than Bieber in 2016 was Aaron Civale. Like Bieber, he spent three years in college ball, but with Northeastern University. Over those three years, he pitched to an average 2.72 ERA, 1.234 WHIP, and threw 196 strikeouts in 192.1 innings. This caught the attention of Cleveland scouts who picked him 92nd overall. Signing with the team later that year, Civale began his professional career with Mahoning Valley. 

His success from college seemed to immediately carry over to the pros as he pitched to a 1.67 ERA across 37.2 innings with the Scrappers. Splitting his time in 2017 between Lake County and Lynchburg, he enjoyed the same success. This earned him a spot on the Double-A roster for 2018’s opening day, a season where he put up his worst numbers yet. If you consider a 3.89 ERA and 1.279 WHIP “bad numbers”. Spending that entire season in Akron, he split 2019 between Akron and Columbus. He put up a combined 7-1 record with a 2.35 ERA, giving Cleveland a decision to make. On June 22, 2019, he got the call.

Finding immediate success, he tossed six strikeouts in six innings in his debut, earning the win over the Detroit Tigers. He then went on to become the 10th pitcher in MLB history to allow two or fewer runs in his first six appearances. 2020 was a bit rockier, pitching to a 4.74 ERA and leading the league in hits allowed and batting average against. He put what was a weird season (for everyone) behind him and has brought his usual form back in 2021. Prior to being placed on the Injured List on June 23, Civale led the league in wins (10) and posted a 3.32 ERA. Civale is slated to make his return this Tuesday. 

Zach Plesac: Another gem from the 2016 draft, Zach Plesac was chosen in the 12th round. Attending Ball State University, he put together three exceptionally strong years for the program. Averaging a 3.21 ERA, 1.341 WHIP, and earning 193 strikeouts, Plesac won 20 games in his time with BSU. Showing up on Cleveland’s radar late in the draft, he was chosen 362nd overall. Signing later that month, he did not begin his professional career until 2017. 

Splitting that year between Mahoning Valley and Lake County, Plesac averaged a 2.47 ERA in 14 games. Spending 2018 with Lynchburg and Akron, he found himself in a bit of a rough patch, but still managed to end strong with a 3.79 ERA and 1.244 WHIP. Pitching for Akron and Columbus in early 2019, he earned his best numbers yet. A 1.70 ERA, 0.801 WHIP, and 65 strikeouts in 63.2 innings earned him a spot on the Major League roster. He was called up and made his debut on May 28, 2019. 

Closing out that season with a 3.81 ERA and a 1.228 WHIP, Plesac’s most successful season was 2020. While it was nearly impossible to compete against Bieber for the Cy Young award, he certainly made a case for it. Ending the season with a 2.28 ERA, 0.795 WHIP, and 57 strikeouts in 55.1 innings, Plesac was proving to be a dangerous weapon in an already strong rotation. Going 10-4 so far this season with a 4.49 ERA, he has been up and down with injury. Recently returning to the team on July 8th, he has since gone 6-1 with a scoreless outing in his last start against Kansas City. 

Eli Morgan: Joining the team a year later than his aforementioned teammates, Eli Morgan was picked in the 8th round of the 2017 draft. Spending three years with Gonzaga University, he put together quite the resume. Going 21-5 with a 2.98 ERA, 1.160 WHIP, and 281 strikeouts in 257.1 innings, he was named Rawlings WCC Pitcher of the Week five times in his junior year. With stats like that, it’s a bit shocking to hear that he was the 252nd pick of the 2017 draft. 

Signing with the team later that month, he began his professional career with Mahoning Valley that July. In a successful rookie season, he pitched to a 1.03 ERA and 0.943 WHIP across 13 games. Beginning the 2018 season with Lake County, he eventually split the season with Lynchburg. Finishing the season with a 3.77 ERA, 1.102 WHIP, and 156 strikeouts in 143.1 innings, Cleveland decided to keep him in High-A for the beginning of the 2019 season. He quickly grew out of that, however, moving up to Akron in early May. Not having his best stuff there and struggling in Columbus, he finished the season with a 3.39 ERA, 1.166 WHIP, and went 9-6 across the three levels. 

Since the Minor Leagues did not compete in 2020, he opened the 2021 season with Columbus. Not spending much time there, he was called up on May 28th after a slew of injuries struck the Cleveland rotation. In near-hurricane conditions, he made his Major League debut giving up six earned runs in 2.2 innings. He has since cemented his place in the starting rotation, giving up three runs or less in nine of his last thirteen starts, including two scoreless outings. Whether in the starting rotation or the bullpen, Morgan has proven he belongs at the Major League level.

Triston McKenzie: Going back a couple of years, Triston McKenzie was chosen by Cleveland in the first round of the 2015 draft. Committed to pitch for Vanderbilt University, he forwent that commitment after being drafted out of Royal Palm Beach High School. In that same year, his senior year, he went 9-5 with a 0.79 ERA. While teams usually stay away from selecting high school pitchers, especially in the first round, Cleveland took a chance and took him with the 42nd pick. 

Beginning his professional career with the Arizona Indians in the Rookie Leagues, McKenzie earned a spot in the Minors with a 0.75 ERA, 0.583 WHIP, and 17 strikeouts in 12 innings pitched. Starting 2016 with Mahoning Valley, he split the season with Lake County. Finishing the season with a 1.62 ERA and 0.960 WHIP across 83.1 total innings, he began 2017 with Lynchburg and stayed there the whole year. His 3.90 ERA and 1.049 WHIP earned him a spot with Akron for the 2018 season. Here, he finished with a 2.68 ERA, 1.004 WHIP, and 87 strikeouts in 90.2 innings. He did not compete in 2019 due to lat and pectoral muscle strains. 

To open the 2020 season, he was placed on the Indians 40-man roster. He made his debut on August 22, striking out ten across six innings against the Detroit Tigers. He put together a stellar rookie season with a 3.24 ERA, 0.900 WHIP, and 42 strikeouts in 33.1 innings. Throughout the 2021 season, he has pitched to a 4.62 ERA, 1.110 WHIP, and 113 strikeouts across 97.1 innings. He has clearly become an integral part of Cleveland’s rotation, and looks to stay that way as we close out the 2021 season. 

Cal Quantrill: While Cleveland’s draft strategy has proven extremely successful, so have their trade strategies. Spending two years at Stanford University, Cal Quantrill was a weapon in the Pac-12. Pitching to a 2.31 ERA, 1.176 WHIP, and 118 strikeouts in 129.1 innings, he was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2014. Although he had his sophomore season cut short by Tommy John surgery, he still caught the attention of Major League scouts. He was chosen in the first round – eighth overall – by the San Diego Padres in the 2016 draft. 

Splitting his rookie year between three teams, he averaged a 5.11 ERA, 1.270 WHIP, and threw 46 strikeouts in 37 innings. He found much greater success in 2017 with the Padres High-A and Double-A affiliates, earning a 3.80 ERA over 116 innings. The next two years were similar to his rookie year with a higher ERA but more strikeouts. He began the 2019 season with the Padres Triple-A affiliate, but eventually got the call later that year. On May 1, he made his Major League debut with the Padres. Giving up only two runs in 5.2 innings, he finished the season with a 5.16 ERA, 1.301 WHIP, and 89 strikeouts in 103 innings. 

After making 10 appearances with the team in 2020, Quantrill was traded to Cleveland along with Austin Hedges, Josh Naylor, Owen Miller, Gabriel Arias, and Joey Cantillo on August 31, 2020. The return to San Diego was Mike Clevinger, Greg Allen, and Matt Waldron. Splitting time between the bullpen and the starting rotation, he finished 2020 with a 1.84 ERA and 1.091 WHIP – the best of his career. So far this season, he has made 36 appearances in which he has pitched to a 3.15 ERA, 1.223 WHIP, and 101 strikeouts in 122.2 innings. As a starter, he has made five scoreless appearances and 10 appearances of three runs or less. Whether in the starting rotation or the bullpen, he has proven to be a vital asset to the future success of Cleveland baseball.

Emmanuel Clase: Perhaps one of the biggest steals in recent trade history, Emmanuel Clase began his professional career with the San Diego Padres. Signing as an international free agent on February 11, 2015, he was sent to the Padres’ Dominican Summer League for the 2015 season. He spent the following year and the beginning of the 2017 season with their Arizona League affiliate. While his first three years were quite rocky, he found his footing in Low-A. 

On May 7, 2018, Clase was traded to the Texas Rangers as the player to be named later from a prior trade. Through 28.1 innings in Low A, he pitched to a 0.64 ERA, 0.776 WHIP, and 27 strikeouts. Splitting 2019 between High A and Double A, he averaged a 2.82 ERA, 1.052 WHIP, and 50 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. On August 4th, he made his Major League debut for Texas. Coming out of the bullpen in the fifth inning, he pitched 1.2 scoreless innings. He finished the season with a 2.31 ERA, 1.114 WHIP, and 21 strikeouts in 23.1 innings. 

On December 15, 2019, Clase was traded to Cleveland along with Delino DeShields Jr. for ace Corey Kluber. While many fans (myself included) hated to give up Kluber, it turned out to be the trade of the century. In his time with Texas, Kluber pitched just one inning before being taken out due to injury. That would be his only appearance for the Rangers. While Clase did not pitch in the majors in 2020 after being suspended for PEDs, he has been having a breakout season for Cleveland this year. He has pitched to a 1.54 ERA, 1.029 WHIP, and 63 strikeouts in 58.1 innings and is in the running for Rookie of the Year. With a recent stretch of 20 scoreless appearances, he has earned 20 saves. 

Going back to the 2021 draft, Cleveland picked 19 pitchers. Their first round pick, Gavin Williams, is often compared to White Sox ace Lance Lynn. With East Carolina University, he went 10-1 in his junior season with 1.88 ERA and 130 strikeouts over just 81.1 innings. As somewhat of a dark horse pick, he wasn’t among the big names that were expected to go first. Much like they saw the talent in guys like McKenzie, Morgan, and Bieber, Cleveland hopes to develop Williams into another one of them. They may even have a sleeper in one of the lower picks like they did with Plesac. However it plays out, it is likely to be another year of dominance from the Cleveland Pitching Factory. 

Featured photo from John Kuntz / Cleveland.com

Madelyn Hipp

Madelyn is currently a student in Aviation Management at Purdue University. She is a huge Cleveland and Big Ten baseball fan, among other sports such as hockey, golf, NASCAR, and air racing. She can be found @baseballcontext on Twitter.

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