Orbiting Cleveland: Trust in Corey Kluber
Kluber has emerged as one of the Cleveland Indians' most valuable players
A team doesn't win 92 games without a bit of luck, and that was probably true for the Cleveland Indians in 2013.
Who knew that Ryan Raburn's struggles in Detroit were the outlier and not a trend?
Who could have expected Ubaldo Jimenez to suddenly return to ace-like form when it mattered most?
Who would predict that Corey Kluber would suddenly make the jump from fringe Major Leaguer to solid starting pitcher?
Certainly, luck had to be involved, right?
In some cases that may have been true, but let's get one thing clear: there was nothing lucky about Corey Kluber's performance.
That may seem like a bit of stretch, especially when you consider just how poor Kluber was in 2012. During that season, he posted a 5.12 ERA in 63 innings of work. His FIP of 4.29 and xFIP of 3.99 suggest that he may have been a tad unlucky, but ne honest: no one was clamoring for Kluber to get a spot in the rotation in 2013.
At best, he looked like a sixth or seventh starter in the Major Leagues. He could make for a spot start here or there, but he's hardly someone a team wanted to rely on over the course of an entire season.
Yet, at every chance possible, the Indians front office seemed to make a point to say that they were pleased with Kluber's progress. On the surface, that seemed somewhat odd. After all, just consider the case of Kluber in 2012.
He was a 26-year-old pitcher who had good stuff, but really had no track record of success, even in the minor leagues.
He had a career BB/9 rate of 3.6 in the minors. Yes, he was able to create some solid swing-and-miss (9.1 K/9 rate in the minors), but not much of that translated to the Majors.
It appeared as if he was just the remnant of a failed Jake Westbrook trade. He was 26-tears-old after all. How many pitchers, more specifically power pitchers, can be classified as late bloomers? It's a short list for sure.
But what if the Indians' front office was on to something when they would apply praise toward Kluber that seemed unworthy? It certainly appears as if they were.
Kluber was one of the feel-good stories of the 2014 season for the Indians. Everyone points to pitchers like Jimenez, Justin Masterson and Danny Salazar as playing a central role in the Indians making the postseason, but the same thing can be said for Kluber.
Ask yourself, if Kluber does not take that giant step forward in 2013, do the Indians still make the playoffs?
In fact, WAR tells you definitely not. FanGraphs estimates Kluber was worth 2.7 wins in 2013. Where would the Indians be with 2.7-less wins? Not playing in October, that's for sure.
In 26 games and 24 starts, Kluber went 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA. Even more impressive, he posted a FIP of 3.30 and an xFIP of 3.10. All the indicators seemed to point toward Kluber's performance being the real deal.
So, what exactly went right for Kluber? Why did he suddenly make the jump from mediocre starting pitcher to a guy who looks like a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter at worst?
Obviously, the easy answer is that Kluber cut down on his walks and increased his strikeouts. He walked just 2.02 batters per nine innings, which is a stark comparison from his minor league numbers. Also, he struck out 8.31 batters per nine innings, which was a nice jump from his previous big league stint.
However, while improved command and better swing-and-miss stuff is the obvious answer as to why he was improved, what was it that allowed Kluber to make such huge strides in these areas?
If it's not luck, then something must have changed because this was definitely not the same Kluber that fans had seen on previous occasions.
When dissecting and analyzing pitchers, one of the clichés thrown around is that the pitcher started to trust his stuff more. That was said last season with Kluber, but there also seems to be some evidence to support that assertion.
The graph below indicates Kluber's pitch usage in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons:
There are some telling differences. It's clear that Kluber's bread-and-butter is his sinker, yet it's a pitch he did not use nearly as frequently in 2012 when compared to 2013.
For example, the most he threw that pitch in 2012 was in September when he threw it 44.3 percent of the time. However, in 2013, he threw the pitch 49.8 percent of the time on average in any given month.
The eyes told you that Kluber was trusting his stuff more, but the numbers back it up as well.
The Indians have always raved about Kluber's arm and his plus-stuff. He can clearly bring the gas, and that was clear in 2013 as Kluber averaged 93.4 miles per hour on his sinker with a high of 97.5 miles per hour. When a player possesses that type of velocity, why waste it? In 2013, Kluber didn't.
Kluber's newfound confidence in his sinker also allowed his secondary stuff to become more effective. While he still used his slider around the same amount, his changeup became a rarely-used weapon that he would bring out just 9.07 percent of the time in a given month. That was a significant difference from 2012 when the changeup was Kluber's third-most used pitch in his arsenal, behind only his sinker and cutter.
With the changeup now tucked away, the slider became Kluber's out pitch, and that may be one of the reasons why there was a nice rise in his strikeouts.
Progress was also made in the area of fly balls. In 2012, Kluber had a HR/9 rate of 1.29. In 2013 though, that number dipped to 0.92.
Take a look at the graph below:
This indicates Kluber's percentages of fly balls allowed for every ball in play. It's clear that teams were having less success at putting balls in the air, which likely directly relates to his increased usage in the sinker.
These various factors led Kluber to having a breakout campaign, but it all started with a change in how he approached hitters. He's now positioned himself as a possible rotation staple for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps the only concern with Kluber is the middle finger injury that he encountered last season. The worst thing about it may have been the timing; it came right after Kluber's best start of the season where he blanked the Tigers for 7 1/3 innings.
When he returned from the disabled list in September, he was not exactly the same. In five September starts, he posted a 5.33 ERA. He also barely averaged five innings per start.
This will likely end up being a non-issue, but it does warrant some concern. After all, it's easy to excuse any concerns associated with middle finger injuries given the Indians' past (ex. Adam Miller and Alex White).
However, what if this is just the tip of the iceberg with Kluber?
Remember, the newfound confidence in his sinker just developed last season. Look at the progress made in one year. Knowing that, where can we expect Kluber to be in two years? What about three?
The truth is that Kluber seems to have the stuff, durability and mentality to be something special. In fact, his floor may be a middle-of-the-rotation starter, and that says a lot.
The best two things a starting pitcher can do are generating strikeouts and getting groundballs. Kluber's sinker combined with his solid off-speed stuff allow him to do both.
Many topics have been frequently discussed this offseason. The competition for the fifth starter's spot, Carlos Santana's move to third base and the possible extension of Justin Masterson have been some of the most prevalent conversations.
Yet, through it all, no one seems to have said much about Kluber. It's almost as if everyone is just expecting a solid season from him, and that is telling considering where he was in fans'minds exactly one year ago.
It seems quite apropos though.
Kluber has started to trust his stuff, and now the Indians' fanbase suddenly trusts him.
Steve can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I don't think that's it. I'm hoping for a solid season, but not expecting it. For me, its more like a sense that we captured lightening in a bottle, and if we don't draw too much attention to him, maybe he won't turn back into a frog, i.e. the old Corey Kluber. I know, too many metaphors...