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2021 Cleveland Indians: Starters Who Could Breakout

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The 2021 Cleveland Indians’ rotation has the potential to be extremely effective due to the team’s ability to develop good starters. The Cleveland Indians front office has been one of the most progressive organizations in Major League Baseball when it comes to player development since the race by organizations to be on the cutting edge of player development began in the mid-2000s. The organization is known for consistently developing productive big leaguers who have been willing to experiment and step outside baseball’s toxic relationship with traditionalism to figure out the best methods of getting the most out of the individuals they draft, sign, or trade for.

The Cleveland Indians were very competitive during the second half of the 2010s due to the elite starting rotations they possessed year after year, headlined by two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber. The organization’s ability to put above-average arms in all five starting rotation slots begins with its adeptness at acquiring and developing pitchers during their journies through the various levels of Minor League Baseball.

Cleveland’s player development group has been at the forefront of utilizing new methods/terms for measuring and increasing the effectiveness of pitchers since many of them were considered to be heretical throughout the various realms of baseball. What separates this current group of arms from the past groups is the 2021 rotation’s youth and controllability. Effective starting pitchers that are young, cheap, and have multiple years of control are believed to be the most valuable commodities amongst the brain trusts of most organizations.

The player development group’s ability to turn prospects acquired via the draft, international signing, or by trade into quality pitchers is a major factor in the organization’s confidence about contending for a World Series for a prolonged period of time as they move on from the core of the mid to late 2010s. With an impending forty-man roster crunch due to the ever-growing mass of young starting pitchers and switch-hitting teenage shortstops, the front office must soon decide what to do with all of these intriguing options to put the best possible team together.

2021 Cleveland Indians Breakout Candidates

Triston McKenzie

Triston McKenzie is a 23-year-old starting pitcher from Royal Palm Beach, Florida. He is 6’5’’, 165 pounds, and has very long arms and legs. McKenzie throws four pitches: fastball(four-seamer/two-seamer), slider, curveball(2–7), and a changeup. He pitches right-handed from a traditional 3/4ths arm slot. He was drafted in the Competitive Balance A round of the 2015 MLB Draft by Cleveland. McKenzie received a $2,302,500 signing bonus, the largest bonus given to a right-handed high school pitcher in the 2015 MLB Draft.

McKenzie has plus command, averaging only 2.7 walks per nine in his five professional seasons so far. He has clean and consistent mechanics for someone that is 6’5’’ with long limbs and creates deception with his delivery by hiding the ball as long as he possibly can before throwing. His long arms give him a great extension on his fastball. When I reference extension, I am talking about the fact that the release point of his fastball is closer to the plate and the hitter, which creates a higher perceived velocity at the plate and deception because the release point is different compared to what hitters are used to seeing.

McKenzie sits 90–97 with his fastball and throws it a little over half the time (53 percent). It is deemed a plus pitch because of the aforementioned deception McKenzie has in his delivery, and the life/carry it has in combination with the extension he has because of his long arms. McKenzie’s best pitch is his 2-7 curveball, despite its low spin. It plays up because of its movement, in combination with McKenzie’s ability to throw it for strikes and tunnel it with his fastball to make hitters swing and miss at offerings that fall out of the zone. It sits around 80 mph, and he throws it 16.5% of the time.

Throughout Triston McKenzie’s pro career he has struggled to develop a third pitch, which is needed to succeed as a major league starting pitcher. His changeup flashes above average, but is very inconsistent and he struggles to locate it. In the last year or so, he added a slider to his repertoire. Although it is a new pitch and at times he struggles to be competitive with it, it flashes above average as well. McKenzie throws his slider 20% of the time and throws his changeup 10% of the time.

Triston McKenzie’s ceiling is that of an upper-tier third starter or a lower-tier second starter in a five-man rotation in my opinion from a production standpoint. Developing physically and staying in game shape is paramount for McKenzie, as it prevents his fastball velocity from yoyo-ing. If he can be more consistent with his slider and changeup command/shape/movement to complement his fastball and curveball he will be successful. He has plus command, an above-average baseball IQ, the ability to mix his pitches, and a history of performing as a professional starting pitcher. McKenzie will slot in the fourth or fifth spot in the starting rotation of the 2021 Cleveland Indians.

Aaron Civale

Aaron Civale is a 25-year-old starting pitcher from East Windsor, Connecticut. He is 6’2”, and weighs 215 pounds with the preferred physical build for starting pitchers. He has broad shoulders, thick legs, and is very athletic. Civale throws right-handed from a traditional 3/4ths arm slot and throws six pitches. Civale’s repertoire consists of a fastball(sinker/four-seam), curveball (12-6), slider, cutter, and a changeup. Civale has plus command of his arsenal, attacking the strike zone with all of his pitches and limiting baserunners via the walk. Civale was drafted in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians and received a 625,000 dollar signing bonus.

The Indians drafted two other starting pitchers out of college during the 2016 Draft who have made an impact in the starting rotation for Cleveland, 2020 AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and Zach Plesac. Getting one good starting pitcher out of an MLB draft is a huge success for a baseball team’s scouting department, but getting three and having them all contribute to the major league team at the same time is practically impossible. This feat is a testament to the ability of Cleveland’s front office to identify, acquire, and develop amateur arms into professional starting pitchers.

Civale’s pitches have effective movement profiles and he understands what pitch to throw, where to throw it, and when to throw it based on the handedness of the hitter he’s up against. Civale uses his sinker, cutter, slider, and curveball against right-handed hitters. The sinker’s arm-side run towards righties and the cutter’s glove-side break away from righties give Civale plenty of opportunities to garner whiffs and weak grounders. The slider breaks to the glove-side with more two-plane movement and less velocity than the cutter, providing a change of pace and movement profile. The curveball is a 12-6 curveball, providing a north-south profile to contrast the east-west archetype the rest of his pitches fall under.

Against left-handed hitters, Civale uses the cutter, sinker, curveball, and changeup. The cutter runs in on the hands of lefties, inducing weak contact for easy outs and double-play balls when there is traffic on the bases. The sinker runs to the outside edge versus lefties providing a facet of his east-west profile and the curveball makes hitters stay honest at the bottom of the zone, giving them more to worry about than just the inner and outer edges.

Civale only throws the changeup to left-handed hitters and it has run/fade towards the lower outer edge of the zone. The change of pace and deception on Civale’s changeup also keeps lefties and switch hitters honest, which then makes it easier for Civale to use his other pitches. Civale’s pitches having complementary movement profiles makes him very capable of tunneling them to create swings and misses, along with his ability to command his arsenal.

Aaron Civale receives a lot of comparisons to former Indians ace Corey Kluber to their stoic demeanors and the east-west profiles of their arsenals. Civale and Kluber both heavily feature a sinker/cutter/slider mix that heavily hinges on tunneling and late action towards the edges of the strike zone. I am not saying that Civale is the next Corey Kluber, they both have similar pitching profiles, and Civale’s path to success involves attacking hitters as Kluber did. Aaron Civale’s ceiling is that of a slightly above-average #2 in a starting rotation, with his most likely outcome being a very effective #3 that can pitch a lot of innings on a first division team. Civale will be the #3 starter in the 2021 Cleveland Indians rotation.

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Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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Pat Ellington Jr. is a black filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, and sports journalist from Northeast Ohio.

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