It was perceived to be their strength coming into the season, but 2021 saw the starting rotation for the Cleveland Indians in flux. Many believed it would be the portion of the team they would lean on after propelling the club to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. However, 2021 turned into a season of reloading for Cleveland’s starters. Many of the names that had pervaded the staff of the course of the previous playoff runs had run their course. The Indians built an amazing pitching infrastructure that they felt they could continue to draw from, but as the team’s new talent graduated to the Majors either by plan or by necessity this past summer, there were some legitimate growing pains.
As we progress out of 2021 and into the new year, the Guardians have seven starting pitchers on their current 40-man roster. All of them, including a former Cy Young Award winner, will be 27 or younger in 2022. All of them also saw Major League action in 2021. In some cases, that wasn’t always the plan. In other cases, they were planned to pitch even more than they did but faced injury or ineffectiveness. And in one more case, early-season bullpen action was a launching board for starting rotation success.
Perhaps a little more depth in the rotation would be nice, especially with the injury struggles the team has faced in the last two seasons, but it appears that the starting rotation’s reload is near complete. Today, we will take a look at how the Guardians’ seven starters stack up. I am looking at this in terms of power rankings, but it also can be looked at as a pecking order for how the rotation may be laid out from ace to minor league depth. The conclusions below are largely based on a mixture of statistics with particular boosts for improved play and relevant narrative pieces. Some of those stats and narratives follow each ranking.
We start with the Guardians ace and hopeful Opening Day starter.
1. Shane Bieber
Despite an injury to his throwing shoulder that cost him most of the summer, Bieber is far and away the certifiable ace of the Guardians staff heading into 2022. Even with the slight hit that his numbers took in 2021, probably in part due to the injury he suffered, Bieber’s stats speak for themselves. Since his promotion to the Majors in 2018, Bieber has the 7th best Ks per 9 Innings rate of any pitcher to throw 350 innings or more. He also has the 4th best Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) statistic, with only Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Gerrit Cole being better. Bieber was initially a strike zone pounding, pitch to contact type of hurler when first brought to the Majors but in his four Major League seasons has learned how to attack the zone more effectively as well as get hitters to chase. This has led to him being in the top 3% of baseball in Whiff Rate (how often a hitter misses when he swings) for the last two seasons. Bieber largely features three pitches- a 4-seam fastball, curveball and slider, but it’s the slider that has been especially deadly as a swing & miss pitch. Batters whiffed on it in over 60% of their swings in 2020. All this is should suggest that Bieber’s 2020 Cy Young Award was not a short-season aberration. He has gradually accumulated great success at the Major League level which should culminate in his next healthy, full-length campaign. His progression as a pitcher dictates it.
Speaking of health, showing commitment to his team, Bieber didn’t use being put on the 60-Day Injured List as an excuse to pack in his season early. He used the summer months following his June 14th IL designation to rehab and gave himself the goal of pitching again in 2021. He was able to reach this goal, allowing just 1 run in 6 innings in two short but successful starts against the White Sox and Royals in late September. Fans hope the Guardians’ front office and ownership group can return the same type of commitment back to Bieber. As arguably the most or second most valuable player on the team, the organization would do well to try to provide a contract extension to the 26-year old right-hander. Admittedly, the current lockout likely muddied those waters for both sides. I could see neither side wanting to commit to a long-term deal until knowing what the league’s future financial plan is and perhaps all parties involved will have a better understanding of their financial positioning after the owners and union come to a new financial agreement (hopefully before the year 2525). For whatever it is currently worth, Bieber has three years of service time banked and was arbitration-eligible for the first time this current winter.
There is a significant drop-off from Bieber to the rest of the field, but I think that speaks more to Bieber’s dominance than any problems with what has been historically one of the best pitching rotations in baseball. Civale was another member of the 2021 staff that became injured during the season and really caused the Indians to be devoid in terms of what they thought to be a strength in their starting pitching. In short, his absence was both noticeable and impactful in 2021. Before that downtime though, he spent most of the early summer eating innings and being a saving grace for a pitching staff that was becoming stretched far too thin by the injury chaos around him. A sprained finger on his pitching hand ultimately took Civale away from the mound for nearly 2 months after the team had already lost Bieber as well as Zach Plesac.
As far as actual mound action, Civale was strong in those early days of the season, but a bit up and down after. He is another pitch-to-contact type guy, much like Bieber was when first entering the Majors, and he is another pitcher the Guardians have tried to transform into more of a strikeout pitcher. He spent the past off-season working on a new split-change and emphasizing his 4-seam fastball over his sinker. Both changes led to mixed results. I still think that the seeds of something significant are apparent though despite some lukewarm outcomes so far. Civale has the best Spin Rate of any Guardians starter. That heightened Spin Rate is most deadly on his breaking pitches- a curveball and slider. Emphasizing these, or using them to put away hitters much like Bieber does with his slider could be Civale’s next step. In total, he features a whopping 6 pitches in his arsenal- cutter, 4-seamer, curve, split-change, slider and sinker. Civale’s cutter also has great horizontal movement that works away from a right-handed hitter. The movement on it was measured to be among the top 10 among starting pitchers in baseball in 2021 per Statcast. For all of the tools that Civale has at his disposal, he just needs to put them together. Before any of these improvements have even come to fruition he has been a steady force that has provided quality innings for the Indians over the course of the last three seasons. Combined, this gets him in the second spot.
Quantrill had a Spring Training ERA above 8, which could have led him to miss the final 26-man roster entirely. Instead, the righty started the season coming out of the bullpen as an early inning option. As the established pieces of the Indians 2021 rotation began to deteriorate around him due to injury and ineffectiveness, Quantrill became an obvious option for the team to move into the rotation, particularly because of how strongly he performed out of the bullpen. He came into his first start on May 31st with a 2.03 ERA. He would gradually build his arm back up to a starters’ workload over the course of the next four months and would be pitching regular starters pitch counts by Independence Day. His biggest blip on the season would come as he approached that summit of stretching out his arm when he allowed 10 earned runs over 7 2/3 innings in 2 starts at the end of June. But from July 10th until the end of the season he would post a 2.11 ERA in 94 Innings Pitched and not only make but solidify his case for 2022’s starting rotation. Arguably, he has been the most productive player to come out of either side of the Mike Clevinger trade.
Much of Quantrill’s success can be attributed to growing confidence in his slider. He went from throwing it about 25% of the time in July to about 40% of the time by the end of the season. He also spoke about his increased ability to command it as the season wore on and it was far and away his best pitch in 2021. Batters’ wOBA against Quantrill’s slider was a mere .264 while batters hit only .204 against the pitch as well. Quantrill also throws a sinker, 4-seam and changeup with his sinker being the 2nd best pitch in his arsenal. He has done well to limit hard contact in his Major League career, being in the top fifth of the league in limiting such contact in each of his MLB seasons. If there is a foil to be concerned about with Quantrill, I believe it would be that his peripheral numbers, such as FIP, weren’t as good as his basic stats like ERA. His FIP in 2021 was 4.09, more than a run higher than his ERA and much more in line with his career numbers overall (4.13 FIP & 3.64 ERA in his career). There could be some concern that he could regress, but the fact that his avoidance of hard contact is so good- something NOT measured very well by FIP- and with a newly acquired confidence in a key pitch, maybe this new Quantrill is here to stay. We can’t be so sure yet, but he certainly deserves this decent spot on this list.
4. Zach Plesac
Coming in a close 4th for the Guardians rotation is Zach Plesac, who isn’t quite able to distinguish himself against Civale and Quantrill despite a bulldog mentally on the mound, mostly due to poorer numbers on things he directly controls- strikeouts and walks in terms of Civale and hard contact in terms of Quantrill. Plesac, despite this, is nothing in comparison to his fellow rotation-mates. He has, however, been a dependable piece of the starting rotation for the Guardians, having pitched the 2nd most innings of any Guardians starter since 2019 and doing so with a solid career ERA of 3.93. His summer appearance on the Indians Injured List was shorter than either Bieber and Civale, which made him an important force in the rotation when he was available and led him to be key to getting the team deep into ballgames when it was his turn on the mound.
Plesac differs from starters like Bieber and Civale as well because he is probably never going to be someone that strikes a lot of hitters out. This characteristic of his pitching style is going to be all the more reason why it’s imperative that he doesn’t generate a lot of walks and keeps the ball in the park. This is something Plesac was devastatingly good at in 2020 when he walked less than a hitter per 9 innings and had the stingiest home run rate of his short career. Lo and behold, he also had a 2.28 ERA in that shortened season. Plesac remained adept at keeping his walks down in 2021, being in the top 14% of the league in that matter, but wasn’t able to stay away from hard contact. Batters slugged .626 against his 4-seam fastball in 2021 and the expected Slugging Percentage on that pitch, which is based on the quality of contact, was an even slightly higher .636. With the 4-seamer being his only fastball to go along with a standard changeup, slider and curve it is going to be a necessity that Plesac uses the heat more effectively. Still, even without it, he has proven to be a reliable Major League starter and someone that Francona and company can trust. Which puts him in this #4 spot.
McKenzie is probably the most curious case of all Guardians pitchers with the ability to be both boom or bust still in front of him. He made his Major League debut in 2020 as he was cast into a starting role when the Indians were looking for arms to eat innings due to other injuries and suspensions. Due to his injury, as well as the pandemic wiping out minor league baseball in 2020, he hadn’t pitched in a professional game in nearly two calendar years when he made that first appearance for Cleveland. He’s been an up and down prospect, both in terms of outcomes and promotions and demotions ever since. For instance, May of this past season saw McKenzie pitch 25 innings with a horrid 7.56 ERA that was partially attained through a staggering 21 walks. That month concluded with McKenzie being sent down to the minors briefly before he was forced back up to the show due to the aforementioned injuries that wrecked the front end of the 2021 rotation. He would spend the next couple of months bouncing between levels. But having secured himself back in the Majors in August, McKenzie pitched 28 innings and put together a 1.93 ERA. He only walked 2 batters. That success was followed by a short stint on the IL due to fatigue. That fatigue seemed to come to bite him in September as McKenzie didn’t replicate August by any means, posting a 5.34 ERA for the month.
McKenzie’s physical build remains an obvious question mark. He is incredibly slight. Strictly speaking in terms of stature, he makes Cavs forward Evan Mobley look like The Rock. McKenzie’s biggest barrier could very well be building up his strength, which would not only help with durability but with his ability to repeat good mechanics and therefore throw strikes. If he can get his body right, McKenzie has a lot of tools he can work with. He largely throws a 4-seamer, slider and curveball and both of his breaking pitches fair incredibly well in terms of the quality of contact that they encounter. Hitters batted only .132 and .114 against them, respectively. He largely throws the slider against righties and curve against lefties, which seems to be a smashing strategy. What really appears to be key to his future success though is working ahead in the count. Hitters slugged 1.000 against McKenzie in 2-0 counts and .692 when the count was 3-1. However, they slugged only a paltry .055 when down 0-2 and .151 when down 1-2. This might sound like common sense, but I do think it has a deeper meaning when looking at the more disappointing results McKenzie’s fastball provided in 2021. Rather than the idea that McKenzie’s fastball was actually bad, I think it was these poor counts that caused its statistics to be poor. He was telegraphing his fastball by falling into so many bad counts and then needing to resort to it when behind. McKenzie threw fastballs in 71% of 2-0 situations and 89% of 3-1 situations. The game plan against him must be to be patient, get ahead and then sit dead red. He will have to combat this in 2022.
All Major League debuts are memorable for the player that is getting their first shot in the bigs, but for Morgan, it was probably even more memorable than most. He was pitching in the remnants of a literal hurricane. The outing wasn’t particularly good, but he certainly couldn’t be blamed for that. Conditions were horrific and Morgan showed a lot of gumption in making the spot start. He would show even more gumption by persevering in a starting rotation that needed him when perhaps he wasn’t quite ready. Morgan posted a 9.37 ERA through the end of June but had a much improved 3.90 ERA by September and October.
Morgan largely throws a 4-seamer, slider and changeup and featured heavily as a flyball pitcher in his rookie season. Groundballs were only about 30% of balls put in play against Morgan in 2021. That’s nearly 15 percentage points lower than the league average and most of that deficit went to flies. Morgan can be a Major League starter, but he will need to induce weak contact in order to keep the ball in the park. He will be 26 for the 2022 season and while popular consensus would probably predict that he is in a similar lane as former Indians Josh Tomlin and Adam Plutko as a strike-thrower with slightly underwhelming “stuff”, such a distinction doesn’t necessarily need to bring a negative connotation. There is a market for these types of hurlers throughout baseball. Tomlin pitched for the Braves at 37 years old this past season. It’s an absolute fact that if things go well, then Morgan should not break Guardians camp as part of the 2022 starting rotation, but that doesn’t necessarily speak poorly of how Morgan could contribute to the ballclub. It would not surprise me if he was an important piece for the Guardians in 2022 unless the team decides to skip over him in the name of flashier prospects that haven’t yet made it to baseball’s top level. With the perseverance and improvement that Morgan displayed though, I believe he deserves another shot first.
There’s no other way to put it. Allen’s 2021 was abysmal. He had a 6.26 ERA in 50 1/3 innings for the Indians, which is bad enough. However, he also threw 48 2/3 innings at AAA Columbus… and had an even worse of 7.95. Still, he remains as part of the 40-man roster and was kept instead of the other Indians starter who mightily struggled this past season in J.C. Mejia who has been dealt this off-season. Allen is going to be 25 in 2022 and is still a rookie in terms of service time, so he has plenty of time yet to figure it out, which is likely why he remains as the last starter on the 40-man right now. Still, career ERAs above 5.75 in both the Majors and AAA are concerning.
Allen throws a 4-seamer, slider, changeup and occasional curveball. His fastball has been particularly poor, hitters slugged .684 against it in limited action in 2020 and then .611 against it in 2021. However, he didn’t walk batters nearly at the rate of McKenzie, rather he doesn’t seem capable of striking batters out. Contributing to this may be poor Spin Rate on his fastball. Allen was in the bottom 5% of all pitchers in 2021 in Fastball Spin Rate, which essentially means regardless of his decent velocity (93 mph average), his ball lacks life and doesn’t surprise hitters. What might be most troubling is that as far as we know the only way to increase Spin Rate appears to be through artificial means (foreign substances). In short, Allen may need to learn to pitch with the tools he doesn’t have as well as the ones he does or his future may be bleak.
This rotation looks incredibly different than it did just a mere two years ago. In retrospect, perhaps it was foolhardy to believe that a staff being born from the ashes was ready to fly in quite the way that it had been expected to in 2021. Coming into the 2022 season Shane Bieber remains a top-of-the-line ace for the Guardians to hang their hat on. Beyond that, there are at least five starters that are Major League ready with high ceilings. We don’t know quite where each of those individuals will quite land yet, but each of them have shown a propensity for success while also showing they have weaknesses that can be improved. These feel like high floor-high ceiling type pitchers, and that can make for a high floor-high ceiling type season.