Cleveland Indians: What Happened with Corey Kluber?


What happened with the reigning Cy Young this season? Is there a reason for the dropoff in performance?

There are a lot of adages in baseball that can be proven wrong quite quickly with just a hesitance of thought. From using your best reliever to shut down the ninth inning even if three Miguel Cabreras are batting in the eighth to the idea of lineup protection actually mattering, some things in this game stick around just because baseball itself moves slowly. If there’s one that seems to hold consistently true though, it’s that a team that wants to contend needs an avowed ace. Which makes sense, good pitchers are key to success. Every team has an ace of course, it’s your best pitcher by default. But real playoff-type teams have that stopper, the guy that ends losing streaks and gets key series off on the right foot by shutting down the opposing lineup.

Up until 2014, the Cleveland Indians hadn’t had that type of pitcher since the Lost Season of ‘08, when Cliff Lee did his best Steve Carlton impression and was 19 games over .500 on one of the worst teams in the league. The pitcher win doesn’t mean much, since the complete game is almost a museum piece at this point, but Lee earned every one of those wins. Since then, the Jeremy Sowers’s and David Huff’s of the world highlighted a dearth of talent besides Justin Masterson’s mirage 2013. But then 2014 happened, and Corey Kluber happened.

Kluber’s Cy Young campaign was astounding, in no small part because it came from seemingly nowhere. Seeing him in 2013, you may have gotten the sense he’d be a solid starter down the line, but nothing like what he became. To outpace a tremendous season by Felix Hernandez, to have your strikeout rate jump six points to 28.3%, to utterly dominate day after day with seemingly no hiccup or blemish, it almost made the disappointing end to the season okay.

Coming into 2015 then, there’s a reason Sports Illustrated placed the black mark on the Tribe and cursed them as presumptive World Series champions. Kluber was great, so was the rest of the rotation, and the team as a whole had grown up. As we know, nothing went according to plan. A slow start magnified an April where Kluber logged a 4.24 ERA and injuries wracked the Indians. He turned it around in May, a 2.97 ERA and 60 strikeouts to only six walks in 48 innings just a taste of what we’d come to expect from him.

But as the season wore on, there was something off about him. He was giving up substantially more home runs in 2015 than the year before – 22 compared to only 14 a year past. Everything else went great, he struck out 27.7% of batters while walking only 5.1% (5.4 last season), his line drive rate rose less than half a percent to 21.7, yet his home run rate jumped more than three points to an admittedly still good but not great 10.7%.

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Is it all just the way of things? Was last year just an outlier and this is more what we can expect out of Kluber? Most teams would kill for a 5.5 WAR player, but after the 7.3 steak, this ground chuck is only decent. There are a couple explanations, some of which could have contributed to this spike, and hopefully he can deal with.

First, in 2014 he threw 48.5% sinkers, compared to just 30% in 2015. This corresponded with a four-seam fastball usage that jumped from 3.9% to 21.8%. His change-up also felt a usage boost, from 3.82% to 4.66% in 2015. While not a huge percentage, it’s a raw total of 19 new off-speed pitches and something he didn’t throw a lot. When thrown wrong, the change-up hangs and turns into a batting practice fastball that gets turned around very quickly and ends up very far away.

The key here though has to be the huge leap in four-seam usage as well as location. As detailed on Fangraphs, back in May when Kluber had his Return to Form day and struck out 18 Cardinals in eight innings, he did it with a lot of straight fastballs and living up in the zone. The high fastball is a tantalizing target for many hitters – it looks like you can get it but because of the perceived velocity you really are dealing with a pitch that rather than being 94 or 95, you have to react to it like it’s a 100+ mph ball were it in the middle of the plate.

Batters just want it so bad, but can’t get it. If it’s located of course. If it’s a smidge too low though, all that speed gets turned around on the sweet spot of that bat and ends up rocketing out toward the bleachers. Kluber lived up there on his best day, but when he was off, it could be that some of those would-be strikes turned into laser beams instead.

In studying his location charts on Fangraphs, there was a decided focus of sinkers down and away to batters of both sides in 2014. That’s the prime location for the sinker of course, it either leads to a soft grounder or a swinging strike. in 2015 though, Kluber was way more in the middle of the zone with the sinker as well as the fastball.

Fastball and sinker pitch locations in 2014 c/o Fangaphs

Fastball and sinker pitch locations in 2015 c/o Fangaphs

That’s just not a safe place to live. His pitch usage adjustment, perhaps a minor injury or tweak, any number of things could have led to his being slightly off. Though it could also be a stylistic choice – hitters are increasingly getting better at hitting the low pitch and sinker since so many pitchers feature it. He could be trying to get ahead of the game and work where even the best hitters, even Mike Trout for a while, struggle up in the zone. If that’s the case, the man is even better than we think to be improving on the fly like this.

In April, while the team was struggling and indeed part of the reason for it, Yan Gomes got hurt and was out for a few months. Some weeks later Kluber admitted that the sequencing was an issue with he and Roberto Perez, which could speak to some of his problems. He wasn’t on the same page as the guy calling the game so pitch selection itself wasn’t optimized.

His excellent May speaks against that idea, but even with Yan back perhaps the league had figured something out about Kluber. In 2014, he gave up only two first-pitch homers. In 2015, that leaped to five. Getting that first pitch makes any pitcher more dangerous so it could be Kluber was grooving a fastball (again, a pitch he was still working into his repertoire) early in counts to get ahead and the smarter hitters were jumping on that. They’re paid to hit, after all.

Kluber was pounded worst in August, though, at least with the long ball. Bad timing for a team on the stretch run and it ended up being revealed that he was dealing with a couple of nagging injuries leading to a DL stint. We saw what a minor pull or some such sapping pain can do to an All-Star caliber player with Jason Kipnis and his muscle strains all through 2014, or back pains for Carlos Santana in 2015. It sucks you of your ability to play the game correctly because you are always subtly overcorrecting. That can’t be done in such a fine game as baseball, where each millisecond of response is key. It could be that Kluber just wasn’t healthy. He threw a career-high 235 innings in 2014 and was at or near the top of innings pitched in all baseball before being shut down for a couple starts this past August. Wear and tear could have felled even this mighty cyborg.

It was likely a combination of all these factors that led to Kluber’s spike in homers, not just one glaring error. Still, seeing his evolution as a pitcher, working in two new pitches as teams adjust to the plethora of sinkerballers that have entered the league the last decade, it tells me that he’ll at least stay near the top of the game for the foreseeable future. He was still excellent, sixth in the AL in WAR and in the top 10 in baseball in a wide range of stats. Likely he’ll find a happy medium between this year and last and we’ll have that true ace trotting out there once every five days, emotionlessly mowing down helpless batters and injecting much-needed revenue into the bat making industry.

Next: Will Sandy Alomar Be With the Tribe in 2016?