What Is Wrong With Corey Kluber?

by Gordon Watkin | Posted on Sunday, May 10th, 2015
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Corey Kluber

Last year’s Cy Young award winner has been sporadic at best for the Tribe this season.

Some Context

Corey Kluber emerged as one of the premier pitching talents in Major League Baseball last season. Mixed within a conglomeration of names including Felix Hernandez, Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, Kluber gave Indians fans the same hope his predecessors Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia once had. Armed with a fastball in the mid 90s, Kluber appeared at times masterful throughout 2014, striking out over 10 hitters per 9 innings, and boasting a 2.42 ERA.

This season however, has been anything but brilliant. Kluber has struggled out of the gate sinking to a 5.04 ERA while striking out 9.27 batters per 9 innings; both dramatic regressions from his Cy Young season. Even a casual baseball fan would be able to identify Kluber’s 2015 season k/9 ratio to be impressive, but strikeouts are not to blame for his declination in production.

Ironically Kluber is averaging a quality start per appearance, uncharacteristic of a struggling starting pitcher. Throughout his Cy Young season Kluber averaged a touch over 6.2 innings per start, while pitching 6.1 innings on average this season.

Quite frankly, Kluber has allowed far to many base runners, and has experienced inflating opposition batting averages on balls in play (BABIP). Kluber also is walking 2.27BB/9 this season, in contrast to his 1.95BB/9 during last season.

So are hitters simply putting the ball in play, and testing a porous Indians defense?

While this is certainly part of the problem (Cleveland ranks 13th in MLB with .983 Fielding Percentage, committing 17 errors), it does not explain the entire picture. Below are some additional contributors to Kluber’s recent ineffectiveness:

Pitch Selection/Sequence

Other than the increased BABIP, there really is no conclusive explanation regarding Kluber’s struggles, except for one potential contributor only noticeable when watching him pitch. Kluber has become over dependent on his cut fastball, a pitch he has thrown 4% more than last season, while throwing his curveball 3% less. This combination has allowed hitters to anticipate the cutter (once an “out pitch”), shorten their swings and put the ball in play, without ever changing their eye level.

Kluber’s cut fastball was in fact a slider upon arriving to the Indians organization from the San Diego Padres, a pitch that eclipsed 94 mph but had a flat plane with torrid movement right to left. Due to the pitch lacking depth, velocity became irrelevant and the slider became ineffective as the lineup turned over. Kluber than had no choice but to make alterations to his arsenal, and along with Mickey Callaway (Indians Pitching Coach), changed Kluber’s grip and developed a cut fastball. The rest is history as Kluber went on to use his cut fastball in dire situations, commanding the pitch on inner and outer corners, to both right and left-handed hitters.

The curveball coincidentally allows Kluber to graze all depths of the strike zone and often the contrast of his cutter’s violent horizontal plane, enhances the deception of his curve ball. Both pitches compliment one another symbiotically, enhancing each other as each pitch’s effectiveness increases.

Kluber himself agrees with my sentiments as expressed in an interview with the Associated Press following a poor start against the Toronto Blue Jays: “I’m not doing that good a job of keeping guys honest,” he said. “For the most part guys are hanging out over the plate and when they do that, they eliminate one half of the plate. When you do make a mistake it’s kind of magnified.”

Cut Fastball Movement

Kluber has at times been demonstrative of how to throw a perfect cutter, possessing a pitch that is the epitome of deception. As aforementioned, the incentive of transforming his prior slider into a cut fastball was to add depth to the already terrific movement, but this season the pitch has lacked the tilt it had last season. In order for the pitch to regain its effectiveness, depth to the cut fastball must be restored and complimented with his other pitches.

Lack of Run Support

Kluber renewed last season’s dominant play through his first three starts, but came up unfruitful due to awful hitting displayed by Indian players. Following his start in Minnesota, an 8-inning gem of 2 run baseball, Kluber began his sharp regression. Three prior starts where only 6 total runs were allowed, translated into three losses.

A pitcher cannot win games without runs, and throughout his first 4 starts the Indians provided 5 total runs of offense, not per game, TOTAL. Normally, it would be difficult to attribute a lack of runs to a ballooned ERA and WHIP, but pitching from behind certainly weighs on a starter. This is especially true when a pitcher feels that inevitably even in a scoreless start, the potential exists to still have victory elude you. The Indians presently rank 16th in MLB in Runs, 17th in batting average and 23rd in Plate Appearances/game. The offense is mediocre at best, and inflated by the production of Michael Brantley and Brandon Moss. Kluber denies the lack of run support to be attributable to his struggles, and proclaims his job isn’t to hit, its to pitch; a realistic outlook, but not dismissive of the alarming trends that are developing in Cleveland who by some were considered World Series dark horses.

The Long Ball

Last season, Kluber gave up 14 homeruns in 235.2 innings, using his cutter to induce groundballs and neutralizing some of the sport’s best hitters. Thus far, Kluber has allowed 4 homeruns in 44 innings, and is on pace for 21 homeruns allowed should he eclipse 225 innings. His schedule may be partially to blame in conjunction with the aforementioned  factors, as Kluber has faced the likes of the powerful Toronto Blue Jays and Detroit Tigers, and the white hot Kansas City Royals.

Corey Kluber remains an intriguing story to be followed throughout the 2015 season, and is still to be an arm feared by hitters league wide. The strikeout numbers despite being slightly down remain excellent, and he is producing quality starts despite struggling with command and giving up more home runs. These trends imply a pitcher trying to regain form and refocus his approach, not a pitcher who is trying to invent one. It would not be surprising whatsoever to see Kluber finish the season with more than 200 innings, 190+ strikeouts and an ERA somewhere between 3.00 and 3.45 despite his horrible start, he is that talented and can be that dominant. It is not a matter of “if” Kluber can return to form; it is a matter of “when”, at least in this Indian fan’s opinion.

 

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Gordon Watkin
About the Author

Gordon is a Sport Management graduate from Brock University. He has a background playing professional soccer, but is an avid sports fan particularly of the Cleveland Indians. Follow Gordon on Twitter @GordonWatkin.







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