Adding Final Middle Reliever to All-Time Indians Team
By Ronnie Tellalian
Continuing through the bullpen of the Cleveland Indians All-Time Team, we round out the middle relievers with a righty from the 1990’s. He helped guide the Indians to three playoff appearances and two AL Pennants. He had a sub 3.00 ERA for four consecutive years, and made more relief appearances for the Indian in the 1990’s than any other pitcher.
Middle Relief: Eric Plunk
Plunk bounced back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation from 1986-1991. In that time he pitched for the Athletics and Yankees, making 41 starts in 247 games pitched. In Cleveland he would finally have a defined role. He spent half of his 14 Major League seasons with the Tribe and earned half of his career victories in an Indians uniform.
His first season in Cleveland was filled with highs and lows. Plunk won a career high 9 games while making a then career high 58 appearances. He managed an ERA of 3.64 in 72.1 innings. On the downside, he struck out only 6.3 batters per nine innings and the Indians managed only 76 wins on the season.
Things picked up for Plunk in 1993. He won 4 games with a 2.79 ERA and pitched in a career high 70 games. His strikeouts were back up, whiffing 77 batters in 71 innings pitched. He struck out 25.2% of the batters he faced. That strikeout percentage is equal to the one posted by Dennis Eckersley in 1988. In a season where the Indians searched for a closer, Plunk saved a career high 15 games. The Indians once again won only 76 games, but things would soon get a lot better.
The following season brought change to the Indians and to Cleveland. The Tribe moved out of Municipal Stadium, and into the modern and more baseball friendly Jacobs Field. With a roster of young stars, the Indians exploded onto the MLB scene. Plunk too came out with a strong season. He posted a record of 7-2, the best of his career. He threw 71 innings in 41 games, struck out 73 hitters and allowed only three home runs on the season. His 2.54 ERA not only lead the team, but it was a full run lower than any Indians pitcher that appeared in at least 10 games. The Indians played to a 66-47 record in the strike shortened season, finishing in 2nd place in the AL Central Division.
The 1995 season would be one of the best in Indians history. The Tribe would win 100 games in a shortened 144 game season. Those 100 wins are the second most in team history, and the second highest winning percentage in team history, in route to their first AL Pennant since 1954. The strong point of the pitching staff that year was the bullpen. Plunk had another strong season out of that very bullpen. He pitched to a 6-2 record, making his total over the last two seasons 13-4. His 2.67 ERA was among the team’s best. He struck out batters at a torrid pace of 10 per nine innings, and posted a career best 2.63 strikeout to walk ratio.
The Indians made the playoffs and faced the Boston Red Sox in the Division Series. In all important game one, Plunk pitched 1.1 innings of scoreless ball to help the Tribe win in 13 innings 5-4. His pivotal moment came in the 8th inning with two men on base and one out. He struck out Matt Stairs, and then coaxed Luis Alicea to fly out to Center Field.
Plunk would find continued success in 1996. The Indians once again won the Central Division crown, but this time around, the bullpen would struggle mightily. Only two members of the staff managed an ERA under 3.00, while five pitchers posted ERA’s over 5.00; Plunk, however, remained consisted. His 2.43 ERA lead all pitchers on the Indians staff. He again mowed down hitters with a 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings.
From 1993-1996, Plunk put up some incredible numbers for a reliever. He won 20 games over that span and pitched to a 2.60 ERA. He struck out 306 batters in 283.2 innings, and recorded 22 saves. Over his seven year career in Cleveland, Plunk had a record of 36-23. He managed a 3.25 ERA over 462 innings of work in 373 games and struck out 460 batters, for a 9.0 strikeout to walk ratio. In those seven seasons, he helped the Indians to three post season births, and two Pennants. He indeed was one of the best middle relievers in Indians history.