The Gasoline Gang: A Cleveland Indians Bullpen Theory- Eric Plunk

By the off-season before the 1992 MLB season, the Cleveland Indians were well on their way to putting the building blocks in place that would one day become “The Dynasty That Almost Was”. Though this era of baseball was as bittersweet as that nickname suggests, there was a lot to cherish from those teams, including six American League Division Titles in seven years and two World Series appearances.

That off-season was likely most memorable for the additions of future long-time centerfielder Kenny Lofton and more short-term power first baseman Paul Sorrento, but there was one more incredibly significant addition that happened that winter as well. Eric Plunk.

That’s right. I said it. Eric Plunk. Probably best remembered for his giant 90s style glasses, and his unfortunate last name, Plunk would pitch for the Indians for the better part of seven seasons before being traded to Milwaukee in July of 1998. He pitched in a staggering 373 games all told during those seven seasons out of the Indians bullpen and helped solidify the bridge between starting pitchers and closers for the very successful teams that came between 1994 through 1998.

However, by the end of his tenure in Cleveland, things had taken a turn for the worse. Namely, with how fans perceived him as a pitcher. The reliever gained a horrible reputation for being what I will call a member of the “Gasoline Gang”.

What is the Gasoline Gang you may ask? In regard to relief pitching, it’s easy as a fan to get hung up on one or two bad outings or blown leads that are especially memorable. Remembering all the small leads relievers effectively preserve in the 6th, 7th and 8 innings usually proves much harder. They tend to be non-descript. Conversely, ever since one very memorable, warm Miami night in late October of 1997, Indians fans have had a very harrowing relationship with relief pitching. This has led me to a theory.

At any point in time since 1997, there is at least one relief pitcher in the Indians bullpen that makes fans queasy every time he steps on the mound. The purposely not-referred-to-by-name Jose Mesa (darn it, I just did it…) would be a perfect example. Further, whoever the Indians’ manager is at the time usually loves to also use this pitcher in question in high leverage situations (also see Mesa, darn it… I did it again). However, if you ask a fan, they will likely say putting one of these pitchers in a game is like throwing gasoline on a fire.

Hence, the Gasoline Gang. A group of pitchers over the course of the Indians’ last 23 years that I will be reviewing as a recurring segment for this space. The premise here will be to separate from the echo-chamber of fandom and decide whether or not each of these players really deserved the torment that they received, or whether there are more of those uneventful but successful late innings then we remember.

Our first nominee for the Gasoline Gang is the aforementioned Plunk. Why? I will let Plunk’s manager with the Indians explain. The following is an excerpt from Mike Hargrove’s biography: Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life (a great read, by the way):

[F]ans were calling him Kerplunk, and things like that… One time I brought him into a tough situation to face Frank Thomas, and as I was coming off the field a guy ran down the aisle right to the dugout, and he’s screaming at me. The veins are popping out of his neck, and his face was purple. I’m thinking ‘this guy’s going to have a stroke’. He’s screaming ‘Bring in Kerplunk? You dumbass! What are you doing?’

Mike Hargrove and the Cleveland Indians: A Baseball Life

From what I understand, the idea behind calling him “Kerplunk” was that balls that the Indians’ righty would pitch would end up landing not just over the outfield fence, but into Lake Erie with a loud “Kerplunk”. Clearly, for some, this perception was a potential harm to their health. That’s the legend at least.

Now what is the truth? Were the fans right to be so weary, and honestly kind of abusive, regarding Eric Plunk? Let’s take a look at the numbers.

As previously stated, Plunk pitched for the Indians over the course of seven seasons. From his time with the Tribe one thing is easily obvious. He was an innings eater. No one pitched more relief innings than his 462 for the Indians over the course of those seven seasons and in fact, no one else pitched more than 350.

Additionally, those 462 innings would count for the 10th most out of any relief pitcher in Major League Baseball between 1992 and 1998 (even without including the innings he pitched after the trade to Milwaukee). Out of the 28 relievers that pitched 400+ innings between those seasons, he ranks in the top half in ERA, adjusted ERA- (where he ranks 5th!), strikeouts (3rd!), WAR and Win Probability Added (WPA).

Among those 28 relievers is a respective who’s who of the best set-up men and closers of the time. Names like 1997 World Series MVP John Wetteland, Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman, 2-time All-Star Roberto Hernandez and fellow trusted Indian reliever Mike Jackson pervade this list. If nothing else, these are the 28 most depended on relievers of this mid 90s era, essentially one per team. And there Plunk is, holding his own in many major statistical categories.

So, what gives? What bridges the gap between what we know to be true about Plunk, and how the fans perceived him? Something that Hargrove said, and I initially left out, is ultimately key to all of this.

Toward the end of his time here fans were calling him Kerplunk, and things like that…

This. This is the key. I ran the same statistical analysis that I just described for Plunk, but I ran it using two separate time frames. First, I ran it from 1992 to 1996.

And Plunk was masterful. His 355 innings pitched out of the bullpen were once again the most of any Indians reliever and this time were the 6th most of any reliever in baseball. Of the 21 relievers that pitched 300 innings or more over that course of time he finished 4th in ERA (2.81) and 3rd in ERA- (63, lower numbers are better, and 100 is average), 5th in WPA (7.35), 6th in WAR (6.2) and 7th in FIP (3.39). All in the top third of his class.

If all that sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo, just know that he gave up earned runs at a lesser clip than Randy Myers (36.2 saves per season), pushed his team towards wins more often than Hernandez (2.71 ERA) and was more valuable to his team than Mel Rojas (84 1/3 innings pitched per season) over the course of those 5 seasons.

He still seems great, probably even better! But then, I ran the same stats again, this time for the combined 1997 and 1998 seasons. The results aren’t nearly as pretty.

For one, Plunk’s usage went down greatly. No longer was he in the top 10 in relief innings, but rather his 106 2/3 IP (excluding his innings after the trade to Milwaukee) would rank 102nd among relievers. Remember how he was ranked 3rd in ERA- among that smattering of the most depended upon relievers of his era? This time he ranks 96th out of the 122 relievers that pitched 100 innings or more over the course of the 1997 and 1998 seasons. He also logs both negative WAR (-0.1) and WPA (-1.49), meaning he performed worse than a “replacement level” pitcher and did more in the aggregate to cause his teams to lose than to win. His WHIP of 1.47, coming in at 89th, is his best statistic.

Clearly, Plunk was really darn good, until he wasn’t. That one thing that made him special, that ability to eat innings, was likely the thing that led to his demise. By the time, the 1997 season rolled around, the 13-year veteran had pitched in 578 Major League games and had logged 1041 innings. He had made 50 or more appearances in six of the last seven seasons and threw fewer than 71 innings in a season just once in his career.

And THAT is likely why he started getting called “Kerplunk”.

He would bounce back a little bit after the Milwaukee trade and post a 3.69 ERA for the remainder of the season for the Brewers, but 1999 would be Plunk’s last season in the show. As rubber-armed as ever, he would pitch another 75 1/3 innings and make 68 appearances, but he would do it to the tune of an ERA- of 110, the worst of his career as a full-time reliever.

Verdict

So, does Plunk make the Gasoline Gang?

Hardly. A dependable and sometimes dominant performer for five of his seven years with the Tribe, Plunk posted the kind of numbers that you would love to get out of a setup man in any era that involves bullpens. His bad reputation is likely caused by two factors. For one, his unfortunate performances came at the end of his tenure with the Indians, leaving them as the last thing that Indians fans remember. His performance in 1997 ALDS Game 1 vs the Yankees (see below), for instance, would be the type of meltdown fans would remember more than a smooth 1-2-3 7th inning in April. The second factor is the curse of Hargrove’s continued trust in the bespectacled righty. Even in Plunk’s final month as an Indian, when you think confidence would be wavering, Plunk came into games where the Indians either led by 3 runs or less, were tied or were losing by 3 or less in 4 of his 7 appearances. He allowed at least one run in every one of those opportunities. Hargrove and the Indians’ front office just cut ties too late.

Ultimately, the sum of his tenure with the Tribe is greater than some weak moments towards the end. I’d rather choose to remember Plunk as the guy with the goofy glasses that bridged the gap to the closers’ role and did it proficiently night after night. Anything else isn’t worth the stroke-inducing frustration.

 

Have a thought about Plunk or any of the other 90s Indians? Disagree with my decision or have a suggestion for who should be the next former Indian reliever to be up for the Gasoline Gang? Leave a comment or reach out to me at my literally brand new Twitter account @PUSTCLE

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