As Adam Plutko continues to start baseball games for the contending Cleveland Indians, my perceived understanding of the game of baseball slips further out of reach. It was already somewhat distant to start — but Adam Plutko has rocked that world.
Smoke and mirrors? Perhaps. Only five pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched have a higher FIP. With that same parameter of 70 innings, he has the highest xFIP in Major League Baseball. That is, 143rd out of 143.
It seems utterly impossible that his earned run average would fall under the five threshold. Yet, somehow Plutko has posted an ERA better than 49 other 70-plus inning hurlers. It’s even more remarkable that two of these starts have resulted in victories over the New York Yankees (scoring 19 runs in one of the contests helps a little, I suppose).
Plutko hasn’t been stellar by any standard. A 4.67 earned run average is nothing to write home about and is likely the rosiest possible way of viewing his campaign. The eye test has done him no favors, either, as each time he trots out to the mound to take the ball suspense builds towards the great implosion.
Adequacy can best define his season. A much needed dose of adequacy thanks to a myriad of arm injuries and a trade of Trevor Bauer. The underlying metrics do not offer much hope for Plutko, either. Beyond an elite walk rate — his 1.39 walks per nine is fourth among those with 70-plus innings — there are few redeeming qualities. Only Miami’s Caleb Smith induces fewer ground balls, but he at least pairs it with an elite strikeout rate. Only three pitchers accumulate fewer strikeouts per nine innings.
Plutko is the antithesis of the three-true-outcome pitcher. He allows more balls in play than just about any other starter. It’s a borderline miracle that he has held it together in even this less than stellar capacity… until considering the quality of batted balls he has allowed.
In fact, Adam Plutko has actually been less than fortunate on balls in play. His 0.343 weighted on-base average permitted is considerably higher than his 0.328 expected weighted on-base average against. Essentially, the balls he has allowed in play have been more damaging than expected based on launch angle and exit velocity inputs.
That expected mark of 0.328 is perfectly mediocre, which would suggest why — despite allowing a barrage of balls in play every game — he has been able to outperform his peripherals to such a large degree. It is aided by an effect mitigation of contact authority. The average ball put in play against him has an exit velocity of 88 miles per hour, slightly under league average.
The Adam Plutko route isn’t an optimal one. There are legitimate questions revolving around the sustainability of allowing major league hitters to put everything in play and allow everything put in play to leave the ground. But Plutko has been called upon to fill in as an emergency starter for an extended period of time and his performance with that context considered has been admirable. However, with Corey Kluber’s impending return, Plutko should be headed back down I-71 to Columbus. Aaron Civale has a much more enticing skill set and relies less on the close your eyes and let them smack it — hopefully directly at a fielder — approach.