Orbiting Cleveland: The pleasant surprise of Corey Kluber

Sometimes help can come from the places that you least expect. Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber is proof of that.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the Cleveland Indians. The team recently endured a 4-16 stretch, and they also watched their American League Central lead plummet to a 4 ½ game deficit.

During that awful, atrocious 20-game stretch, there were numerous occasions where the Tribe was in desperate need of a stopper — someone needed to go out, pitch like an ace, put the team on his back and end the losing streak. At first glance, it seemed as if there were a number of likely candidates.

The resurgent Justin Masterson and his team-leading eight wins seemed like the easiest choice. Also, a case could be made that breakout starter Zach McAllister might have been the most probable option. Heck, one could even argue that the suddenly revitalized Ubaldo Jimenez could have been capable of stopping the streak.

Yet, when the dust had settled, none of these men stopped the streak. Rather, it was none other than Corey Kluber.

Corey who?

Remember him? He was that guy who went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts and 63 innings last year. You know, that same guy who was basically an afterthought during this year’s competition for the fifth starter job in Spring Training.

Yet, while he has not impressed in the past, Kluber certainly seems to be making up for lost time. Through 11 games, nine starts and 57 1/3 innings this season, Kluber is 4-4 with a 4.08 ERA. Baseball Reference estimates that Kluber has already been worth 0.5 wins this season while FanGraphs has an even more generous estimation at 1.0 wins.

It was a known fact that the Indians needed some players to step up this season, but who really ever expected this from Kluber?

I’d garner to guess that not even the IBI’s resident Kluberatic, Jake Dungan, could have foreseen this type of success from the right-hander?

While Kluber’s numbers are decent, the most startling is that it appears as if he’s actually been quite unlikely. According to FanGraphs, Kluber sports a shiny FIP of 3.40 and xFIP of 3.05 to go with his 4.08 ERA. In other words, he’s actually pitched better than his numbers suggest.

In many ways, Kluber has really been the best surprise of the 2013. Yes, Jimenez’s progress has been nice, but he did show some signs of coming around during Spring Training. Kluber’s success, on the other hand, has completely come out of left field.

One might even go ahead and make the claim that Kluber has been a “staff saver,” and it’s really not as outlandish as it may seem.

When the Indians began the season on Opening Day, it appeared as if their rotation would be Masterson, Jimenez, McAllister, Brett Myers and Scott Kazmir. The next two options were supposed to be right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer.

As you can tell, this is just more evidence that nothing ever really goes according to plan.

Kazmir was placed on the disabled list in the early going while Myers and McAllister have since endured trips to the disabled list. Carrasco and Bauer both ended up making spot starts, but Carrasco showed he was not yet ready (mentally) while Bauer showed he may not yet have the control to be a consistent Major League starter.

Enter Corey Kluber.

Since entering the rotation this season, the 27-year-old Kluber has exceeded expectations. Kluber has always had a decent arsenal of pitches, including a plus slider, but the problem is that no other pitch really ever stood out as a legitimate Major League second option.

However, his fastball could be on its way to changing that.

For the season, Kluber is striking out an impressive 8.9 batters per nine innings (57 strikeouts) while walking just 1.9 batters per nine innings (12 walks). The key difference could be fastball velocity. The graphic below indicates both Kluber’s average fastball velocity and high fastball velocity during the past three seasons:

While Kluber’s fastball still seems to sit in the lower 90s, the difference has been that he’s been able to reach back and put a little extra bit of life on it. This also has probably been one of the reasons behind his high strikeout totals this season.

Kluber was always been good at racking up strikeouts in the minor leagues, but it’s been somewhat surprising to see it translate so well in the Major Leagues; the right-hander has had two games this season where he struck out eight batters and one where he punched out 10.

With that in mind, what if the best is yet to come? If Kluber’s fastball velocity continues to increase, it’s possible that the strikeouts will increase as well.

The other key to remember is that Kluber’s fastball has now become a legitimate Major League weapon to complement his slider. He now has the luxury of being able to attack the zone with his fastball before coming back and looking for the swing and miss with his slider.

Speaking of attacking the zone, this is the other area where Kluber has made immense progress.

Truth be told, Kluber has always had some pretty decent stuff. However, he unfortunately never really was able to consistently harness that stuff.

Take a look at the graphic below:

It’s astonishing to see the up-and-down nature of Kluber’s walk rate throughout his first six professional seasons. The rate basically continually fluctuated somewhere between 3.0 and 4.0, but there was never really any consistent progress made.

Whenever Kluber would have a season where he would walk fewer batters, the rate would immediately increase the following season.

However, Kluber is now walking a career-low 1.9 batters per nine innings. This also is not a slight career-low either — it’s a massive improvement from the walk rate that he has posted in previous seasons.

Since he’s only pitched 69 2/3 innings this season between Triple-A Columbus and Cleveland, it could be that it’s still too early to come to any conclusions in regard to Kluber and his improved walk rate. But with that being said, what if something has suddenly clicked for Kluber, and he is taking that next step in his progression as a Major League starter?

Remember when the Indians signed Brett Myers this past offseason to be the pitcher that would go out there and eat up innings? Now ask yourself, have you missed him?

The answer to that question is probably a resounding no, and a big reason for that has been the development and progression of Kluber.

There are really only two questions remaining with Kluber. One, can he keep it up? And two, if so, what is his ultimate ceiling?

Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is unknown. The progress he’s shown has been tremendous, and he’s definitely been a staff saver, but the sample size is still too small to make any concrete conclusions.

The positive thing to remember though is that all the signs seem to point toward Kluber having the ability to keep it up. Remember, the walks are down while the strikeouts and velocity are up. Those three things can only be considered positives.

If Kluber does indeed prove over the course of this season that his hot start is not just smoke and mirrors, it could be that he is a solid No. 4 starter, and he could even have a ceiling as a possible middle-of-the-rotation guy.

The strange thing in this all is that Kluber just turned 27 years old on April 10. It seems somewhat unlikely that a player would see such a dramatic rise in performance and stuff at this age, but perhaps Kluber is just a late bloomer.

Or, perhaps a case can be made that Kluber has learned the finer details of the game and is taking steps toward becoming more of a pitcher than thrower. That would at least explain the sudden decrease in the amount of walks that he’s allowed.

The bottom line is that the Indians need to ride the hot hand of Kluber while they can. The woes of the rotation cannot be understated: McAllister is injured, Carrasco is immature, Bauer is not ready, Kazmir may not hold up and Myers may not even pitch again this season. It’s hard to believe it, but an argument can be made that Kluber has been the Indians’ most consistent starter behind Masterson.

There is no way that anyone can legitimately say they saw that coming.

Now the key is ensuring that Kluber holds up and continues to make strides in his development. Personally, I’ll be rooting for him.

Also, let’s be honest. The word “Kluber”just has a great verb-like ring to it.

Can you imagine some of the future headlines that could be in store?

“Tigers Klubbered by Tribe 10-2”

“It’s Klubbering time!”

I dunno about you, but that’s something I see myself getting very used to.


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