The injury suffered by Carlos Carrasco last weekend left the Cleveland Indians starting rotation down a man. To help buffer the loss some, the team purchased the contract of minor league starter Adam Plutko from Triple-A Columbus, well after the season ended for the Clippers.
The belated move was the icing on the cake for the 24-year-old right-hander out of Upland, California, and the Indians’ eleventh round pick out of UCLA in 2013. He had just wrapped up his third season in the Indians’ farm system, finishing his year with a combined 9-8 record in 28 starts with a 3.73 ERA for the season.
Plutko was on a bit of a fast track from the moment he hit the minor league level. He spent just ten games working in the rotation for the Single-A Lake County Captains to start the 2014 season, going 3-1 with a 3.93 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Before the month of May was done, he was advanced to High-A Carolina, but struggled some to a 4-9 mark in 18 starts with a 4.08 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 97 innings of work.
The following season, he started at the High-A level while working for the club’s new affiliate at Lynchburg. After a scorching hot 4-2 start in eight games with a 1.27 ERA and 0.70 WHIP, he again earned a late-May advancement, this time moving north to Akron to play for the Indians’ Double-A affiliate with less than a season and two months under his professional belt.
Unlike his numbers after his first promotion, Plutko’s numbers remained strong in 19 starts to finish up the 2015 season, going 9-5 with a 2.86 ERA and 1.02 WHIP with the RubberDucks.
Plutko returned to the Akron rotation to start this season, later earning a third straight midseason promotion, although this one waited until the middle of June. In 13 starts with the RubberDucks, he made six quality starts and only three times allowed more than two runs in a contest. Not a big strikeout pitcher, he notched a season-high 13 on June 8 in seven and two-thirds innings in a no-decision against the Reading Fightin’ Phils (matching his pro-best previously established on May 8, 2014, with Lake County). He was promoted after his next start, heading to the state capital with a 3-3 record for Akron with a 3.27 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in his second stint there.
After averaging less than a walk per start in Akron, control became an issue in his first work at the Triple-A level. He walked five in his first start for the Clippers in a win and walked 19 over his first half-dozen starts for Columbus, more than one and a half times as many free passes in half as many starts as he had in Double-A. He would walk 15 over his final nine starts.
Seven of his 15 appearances with the Clippers were quality starts and just four starts resulted in outings with four or more runs allowed. He won each of his first four starts in August while on a tear on the mound, earning his selection as the International League Pitcher of the Week on August 21.
If the promotion wasn’t enough of a highlight for his season, he flirted with perfection deep into his start on July 26 against the Norfolk Tides. He retired each of the first 22 batters before a one-out single to center in the eighth broke up the bid for a perfect game. A double and single followed to drive in two runs in what would turn into a tough 2-1 loss on the night.
He went 6-5 with a 4.10 ERA and 1.34 WHIP in 15 starts with the Clippers.
Plutko has at times drawn some comparisons to a guy in the Indians rotation, Josh Tomlin, who is similarly known for pinpoint control with a fly ball tendency while not being a flamethrower on the mound. In his three seasons of work (477 1/3 innings) in the minors with the Tribe, Plutko has a 0.57 groundout/fly out ratio (Tomlin has been at 0.84 or lower in five of his seven MLB seasons with a career mark of 0.90 heavily skewed by a 1.21 mark this season).
The pitching prospect will make strong use of his control to minimize the free pass, helping to prevent unnecessary damage. He averaged 2.6 walks per nine innings this season and is at a 2.0 rate across his professional career. The number spiked some this season after walking 34 in 90 innings at Columbus, on the heels of just 12 walks in 71 2/3 innings at Akron.
The home run ball has not been an issue throughout Plutko’s career, despite his fly ball tendencies, eliminating some of the comparison to Tomlin. He has allowed 37 deep flies, a 0.7 homer-per-nine rate, averaging just a tick over 12 homers per season. By comparison, Tomlin is at a 1.6 HR/9 rate in his career.
Plutko will feel a little bit at home in the Tribe dugout, as he played with current Indians and former Clippers Abraham Almonte, Adam Moore, Erik Gonzalez, and Jesus Aguilar this season, as well as eight other pitchers in Terry Francona’s expanded September bullpen who spent time on the shuttle back and forth between Cleveland and Columbus throughout the year. He is also well acquainted with fellow starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, his college teammate from the pair’s time at UCLA during the 2011 season.
With just a week and a half left in the Major League schedule, Plutko likely will not see much action. He is within four and one-third innings of tying his professional career-high for innings pitched at 166, set last season. The Indians intend not to use him until Saturday’s “bullpen game” against Chicago at the earliest, leaving just eight other games for him to possibly get in to. All 83 appearances of his career within the Indians organization have been starts, so it will already be unfamiliar territory for the right-hander. When he does appear, he will be just the third player selected by the Indians in the 2013 draft to make his Major League debut, joining reliever Kyle Crockett and former Cleveland farmhand Ben Heller, who made his debut with the New York Yankees this season after being dealt as part of the Andrew Miller trade.
While his taste of the Majors may be brief this season, Plutko’s solid effort in the minors and his placement on the 40-man roster will now add his name to the list of depth rotation options for the future for the Indians. As the last couple of weeks have reminded all, no matter how comfortable a club might be with the arms that it has on its pitching staff, there is never such a thing as too much pitching.