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Cleveland’s League-Leading Rotation Relies On Homegrown Talent … From A Single Draft

The Cleveland Indians’ pitching has been excellent early this season. Entering play Monday, Cleveland’s starters led the majors in WAR (5.20), according to data from Baseball-Reference.com, and in ERA (2.96).1 But beyond the rotation’s strong showing, what’s noteworthy is how the majority of the group’s best performers were acquired: in the same draft class.

In June 2016, the Indians drafted staff ace Shane Bieber in the fourth round, Aaron Civale in the third round and Zach Plesac in the 12th round. The three right-handers were relatively unheralded, signing for a combined total of less than $1.2 million. Even with Plesac’s extended absence from the team for violating coronavirus protocols, the three have been the club’s most valuable three arms so far this season.

For a club to field three or more starting pitchers who it had drafted in a single class is rare. Since the June draft began in 1965, only 77 team seasons have featured three or more starting pitchers who pitched in the same season for the club that drafted them, according to Baseball-Reference.com.2 And of those groups, Cleveland’s 2016 class has pitched two seasons together and been first and second in ERA+, a metric that adjusts for ballpark and run environment factors.

Cleveland’s 2016 draft produced rare pitching results

Top seasons, by combined ERA+, of groups of three or more starting pitchers in the same rotation playing for the team that drafted them in the same June amateur draft class

Combined stats
Season Team Draft Starting pitchers WAR avg. ERA+
2020 CLE 2016 Bieber, Civale, Plesac 4.5 259
2019 CLE 2016 Bieber, Civale, Plesac 7.8 145
2019 TBR 2013 Stanek, Wood, Pruitt 1.5 124
1971 KCR 1968 Splittorff, Clemons, Montgomery 2.9 122
1996 CHW 1990 A. Fernandez, Bere, Baldwin 8.3 117
2016 MIA 2011 J. Fernandez, Conley, Esch 6.0 117
1993 CHW 1990 A. Fernandez, Bere, Bolton 6.9 115
1987 SEA 1981 Langston, Moore, Guetterman 9.4 114
1983 BAL 1979 Davis, Ramirez, Swaggerty 4.2 113
1983 BOS 1980 Brown, Boyd, Nipper 3.0 113
2013 WSN 2009 Strasburg, Jordan, Karns 2.5 113

Through games of Sunday, Aug. 23. Draft classes since 1965.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

When evaluating the 2016 class, Brad Grant — Cleveland’s vice president of baseball operations who at the time oversaw the club’s scouting efforts — said the players shared traits that the scouts valued. The scouts liked the poise and command of Civale and Bieber, two of the top command pitchers in the class — the duo ranked fifth and 13th in strikeout-to-walk ratio in Division I baseball. They liked the command, athleticism and family history of Plesac, the nephew of former major leaguer Dan Plesac, and Grant thought he would have been selected earlier if not for an injury.

“They could have been somewhat undervalued by the industry because they didn’t throw as hard, they didn’t have that scout-type stuff you are looking for,” Grant told FiveThirtyEight. “But what they did have is that they all were extremely good athletes. All of them had very good control. All of them had very good deliveries. If you have that side already, it’s easier to add to the fastball or develop pitches.”

Bieber, a walk-on at the University of California, Santa Barbara who led his mid-major team to a College World Series appearance, went to work on his arsenal. “Early on, the story on me was, ‘not the best swing-and-miss stuff,’ so I had to learn how to pitch,” he told Cleveland.com. “Just being able to locate my fastball, establish it and then work off that.”

Bieber learned to be a swing-and-miss pitcher in the majors, and he ranks first in swinging-strike rate among starters this year. Bieber’s fastball velocity improved over time, starting in the 88-to-92 mph range in college, bumping up to 90 to 94 mph in his first full season in the minors, and now averaging 94 mph. Plesac’s fastball was reportedly 87 to 90 mph in his last spring at Ball State, after an injury that required Tommy John surgery, but it has averaged 94 mph in the majors, according to pitch-tracking data.

Cleveland’s evaluators were interested in the pitchers’ control but also in how curious and open to coaching they were. Grant said that as Cleveland scouts spoke with Civale in college, they came away impressed with how the CAA All-Academic standout at Northeastern University could recall every pitch from his recent starts.

“It’s not just their competitiveness on the field, or off-field issues,” Grant said of the nonphysical characteristics. “Really digging deep into, ‘Are they already at the peak? Or are they going to continue to work to get better?’”

That can include adopting new methods of development. Plesac, for instance, adheres to a weighted-ball program, which Cleveland assistant pitching coach Ruben Niebla says became a year-round organizational focus in 2017 and has also become widespread in the game (though the practice is not without its skeptics). Niebla says the organization prides itself on staying ahead of the curve in player development.

“We are dependent upon building a championship club from within,” Niebla said.

The tools Cleveland uses are meant in part to shorten the throwing motion. One striking aspect of the Cleveland pitching-development factory is how similar some of the throwing motions are, Plesac said. Many Cleveland pitchers do not extend their throwing arms back toward second base; rather, they keep their form compact.

“It’s harder to time your pitches up when your arm is longer,” Plesac said. “So I was really working through after my first full season of pro ball on how to create that short arm action. I know that it’s something that’s helped with my command and also my velocity.”

Another new training tool in the modern game is the high-speed camera, which Plesac said tracks most of the Indians’ bullpen sessions. Pitchers use the detailed images to refine pitch grips to optimize movement. Bieber began developing a curveball in 2017 and has rapidly improved it, from ranking 123rd in vertical drop last year (1.1 inches above average) to ranking 15th this year (7 inches above average). As of last week, Bieber was tied for the fourth-most strikeouts through six starts to begin a season

Cleveland has been focused on finding new ways to improve a variety of pitching skills for several years, as former pitching coordinator Matt Blake (now the Yankees’ pitching coach) and former front-office executive (and current Twins chief baseball officer) Derek Falvey implemented “evidence-based” and “individualized” plans for pitchers. Those kinds of plans seem to be paying off for the 2016 draft class. During the offseason and four-month pause due to COVID-19, Bieber added a cut fastball to his arsenal so he’d have an option with more horizontal movement, and it has already become an above-average pitch. Coming out of college, Civale was graded by MLB.com as having above-average command but just one above-average pitch. But in his major league career to date, four of his five pitches have rated above average, according to FanGraphs pitch metrics.

The Indians have gained a reputation in recent years for developing quality starters, including Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger. They might have found another one in 2015 first-rounder Triston McKenize, who enjoyed a dominant debut on Saturday. But it’s their 2016 class that could be the club’s finest homegrown success story, a historically rare class that could form a foundation for success for years to come.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The next-closest team in starting rotation ERA — the Los Angeles Dodgers — was more than a third of a run behind at 3.34.

  2. Seven classes have produced four starters pitching in the same rotation for the team that drafted them, the most on record.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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