The return of Corey Kluber to the Cleveland Indians is drawing near. The two-time Cy Young winner worked up to 60 pitches in a rehab start on Tuesday night.
Corey Kluber logged four innings and 60 pitches in his second rehab start on Tuesday night–this one for Double-A Akron. His velocity reached the low 90s range customary to his repertoire, and his final line read as follows: 4 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 ER.
Kluber will make at least one more rehab start before the Cleveland Indians make a determination on when to bring him back to the MLB rotation. And 80-or-so-pitch outing five days from Tuesday could be his last before returning to the Indians if all goes well.
When Kluber does indeed return, the baseball world will watch as he tries to amend the 5.80 ERA he built across seven starts and 35.2 innings to begin the season. Perhaps more telling than his ERA itself is the fact that he was averaging just slightly north of five innings per start. That’s not the same Corey Kluber we are used to seeing.
His strikeout rate of 22.6% would be by far his lowest since 2013, and his 8.9% walk rate would be his highest in a full season. With these numbers accompanying his ERA and an uncharacteristic inability to consistently pitch deep into games, it would stand to reason that there’d be overwhelming evidence behind Kluber’s 2019 struggles. But there isn’t.
Kluber’s deadliest weapon is the deceptive movement on his pitches; he doesn’t have to light up a radar gun to induce swings and misses, and he can throw his breaking balls for strikes that don’t look like they’re going to be strikes. He had been doing that before a line drive to his throwing arm knocked him out of the rotation.
Kluber’s 12.3% swinging-strike rate is right in line with what he’s done every year since 2014 (except for his 15.6% mark in 2017). He’s sporting a slightly more even GB/FB ratio (1.08) than normal, but even that number isn’t enough of an outlier to explain why he failed to make it through the sixth inning in four of his seven starts.
There’s also nothing else in his batted-ball numbers to suggest he was especially ineffective: his 37.5% hard-hit rate would be a career high, but that’s hardly eye-catching when it’s still that low. Moreover, it’s worth noting that his .370 BABIP would be the highest among qualified starting pitchers in 2019. Especially in Kluber’s case, that’s a number you’d expect to see go down over a longer sample.
Is it possible, then, that the two-time Cy Young winner was just going through a rough patch to start the season? His walk rate is concerning, and you’d like to see his strikeout rate climb closer to his career average. Other than that, he’s limiting hard contact and still inducing more grounders than high-danger fly balls and line drives.
Maybe Kluber’s discouraging start to 2019 was just like that of most of his teammates. The Indians couldn’t buy a hit for the first two months, but that’s very obviously not the case at the moment. One way or the other, Kluber’s return is going to be sooner than later. And then we’ll know.