It’s no surprise that the Cleveland Indians have had one of the best starting rotations in baseball this year. Last season, four of their starters eclipsed the 200-strikeout mark, the first time in history that had happened, and all four seemed primed for another big year. Some observers even labeled them the best group in the sport.
Cleveland’s starters have indeed been outstanding — tied for the fourth-lowest E.R.A. in the majors — but they have done it with a much different group than anyone expected. By midseason, only one of the four who surpassed 200 strikeouts last year, Mike Clevinger, remained on the active roster, the other three gone to injuries or trades.
But all that did was pave the way for three new faces who have risen through the Indians’ ranks together and have now helped carry the club to the brink of a playoff berth. Three years after they were all selected in the same draft, the trio of 24-year-olds — Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac — are part of the youngest rotation in the American League.
“Seeing guys that I got drafted with in the same rotation as me is crazy,” Plesac said. “I don’t know if any of us would have seen it happening like that. Us working together and seeing each other all in the same place gives us a feeling that we are in it together.”
Only Bieber was a starter to begin the season, but then the Indians’ formidable rotation started falling apart: Corey Kluber, 33, has been out since May with multiple injuries; Carlos Carrasco, 32, was placed on the injured list June 5 after a diagnosis of leukemia (he has since returned as a reliever); and Trevor Bauer, 28, was shipped to Cincinnati in a three-team trade at the end of July.
So in came the next crop of players, who picked up right where the others left off. Entering Thursday, the Indians were one-half game out of an American League wild-card spot.
“They’ve been rushed, and we know that,” Manager Terry Francona said of Plesac, Bieber and Civale. “But they’ve handled themselves so well that it’s allowed us to compete.”
Bieber, who was called up in the middle of last season, is having a breakthrough year. He was named the All-Star Game’s most valuable player and has a 3.17 E.R.A., the fifth-lowest in the American League. Plesac, who has shut out opponents on three occasions, has a 3.64 E.R.A. Civale, the last of the three to be called up, has made eight starts and had a 1.93 E.R.A. entering Friday’s game against the Twins.
Despite their similarities in age and development, Plesac, Bieber and Civale’s approaches to the game are starkly different. Plesac is considered the flamboyant one. Bieber is the wild card, his teammates pointing out that although he may seem innocent with his million dollar smile, his mischievous side inevitably shows itself (notably during Players’ Weekend, when he put “Not Justin” on his jersey). Then there is Civale, who barely speaks above a whisper.
All three were selected in 2016 out of college rather than high school, a deliberate move by the Indians as they sought mature players. This, Francona said, is part of the reason the three were able to succeed in the majors so quickly.
Bieber was called up last season, but Francona said Plesac and Civale were not even on his radar during spring training as possible members of this year’s rotation. Plesac finished last season in Lynchburg on the Indians’ Class A advanced team, and Civale was in Class AA. So there was still a significant learning curve once they reached the majors; Plesac said it took time for him to feel comfortable just being himself in the clubhouse.
“At first I was a little timid, shy,” he said. “I didn’t want to step on toes. There’s also that sense of I didn’t want to be seen as ‘that rookie.’”
Clevinger, who is in his fourth and best season as a major leaguer, said he still feels like the new kid rather than an elder statesman. The rotation is close, he said, and very supportive of one another, which made the turnover easier.
“Each one of us wants to set the bar for the next guy,” Clevinger said. “If one of us has a rough one, we’re all so close, you want to pick him up so the next game he can do even better.”
Because the veterans of the rotation are absent, Plesac said, he has looked to position players for advice. He has since learned not to worry about what he called the silly things, like his clothes or what other people are doing. During a series last month against the Mets, Plesac exited the clubhouse in a different printed button-down shirt each night, his blonde hair perfectly styled.
“Plesac is a little on the rebellious side,” Clevinger said. “On his own wave length and in his own world. Space cadet, I guess you could say.”
The de facto veteran of the three, Bieber has drawn comparisons to Francisco Lindor, the Indians shortstop, who known for his infectious personality.
“No matter where he is, he fits in with every group,” said James Harris, the director of player development for the Indians. “He comes in every day and knows exactly why and what he’s doing every day, which allowed him to work quickly through our system.”
Bieber, who was a walk-on at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has developed into the staff’s ace this season, filling the void faster than even his teammates might have expected.
“Seeing him and what his stuff entailed, I knew he had potential to do what he’s doing,” catcher Kevin Plawecki said. “Did I think it was going to happen this soon? Maybe not. but I knew it was definitely there.”
Harris said he tells all of his players that they should be the C.E.O. of their careers. For Civale, who tends to be deliberate, that means taking the initiative to approach Harris’s staff when he needs something.
“He doesn’t speak very often,” Harris said, “but, when he does, he’s going to tell you exactly what is going on with him and what he needs.”
Civale has impressed Francona during his limited time in the majors, especially with his ability to stay calm when he’s down in the count.
“His poise outnumbers his experience level,” Francona said. “There’s no guarantee that he’s going to win, but you pretty much know that he isn’t going to beat himself.”
In between starts, Plesac, Civale and Bieber work with the Indians coaches, who are careful not to overload the three with information, striking a balance between helping them improve for the long run and giving them time to rest and soak it all in.
“They’re not finished products,” Harris said. “Development doesn’t stop when they get to the major league level.”