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Corey Kluber: A Latter Day Chris Sale (Or at the least, a pretty good pitcher)

In 2012 the Chicago White Sox, in a bind and needing pitchers, promoted young bullpen man Chris Sale to the starting rotation. Being that the Sox had what was widely considered one of the worst farm systems in the Majors, few noticed or cared, figuring Sale wouldn’t amount to much beyond depth and a near-replacement level pitcher at best. How wrong we all were. Sale went on to have a dazzling season, boasting a 3.05 ERA (3.25 SIERA) over 192 innings, striking out 192 batters and earning himself a fat new contract and the 2013 Opening Day start for Chicago. He was even sixth in Cy Young voting. He and Jake Peavy’s resurgence were a driving force in the Sox contending as long as they did.

Baseball is funny that way, where an unheralded guy or low draft pick can take the league by storm. Sale is just the latest example of it. Or, at least, he was. I’m of the opinion, however crazy, that Cleveland Indians pitcher Corey Kluber is going to do it again.

On the surface, it definitely looks crazy. Kluber is 27, fully three years older than Sale. He’s shuttled back and forth between the minors and Cleveland since he arrived in the system in 2010, finally getting a dozen starts in 2012 and now again this season because of injuries. He’d competed in Spring Training for a rotation spot to start the season and got lucky with the Carrasco craziness. But it took him awhile to get through the minors and find himself. It’s possible that he finally has.

The good in Kluber: he’s got a power arm with a mid-90’s fastball as well as a slider that sits in the high 80’s with a tickling up to 93. It’s probably his best pitch and when he’s locating his fastball it’s downright deadly. The problem, historically at least, is that location. Over seven years in the minors he’s walked 3.6 batters per nine innings, but in the last two years that number has cratered, to 2.2 per nine. One caveat, that’s a span of 120 innings since he didn’t become a starter until late last year, but it’s more than encouraging.

What’s most surprising is his jump in effectiveness against left-handed batters. In 2012 they had an .891 OPS against him, and that’s down to .698 this season. Whether it’s increased effectiveness of his slider or better command of all his pitches, he’s getting lefties out quite well. What makes it the most strange is an almost reverse split – his .796 OPS against righties doesn’t make a ton of sense. Part of it can be attributed to a .342 BABIP against them, and I like to think Miguel Cabrera being 2-for-6 with two homers doesn’t help much either with the slugging part of the OPS. He’s given up seven homers all year, so Miggy has done the damage.

So what’s changed from a year ago to now, that’s got me so amped? A combination of location and pitch selection, based on what I can read from the myriad data at Fangraphs. I know, surprising. But the biggest change really, he’s trusting his fastball more (usage jumped from 39% to 42% in 2013) and mixing in a sinker in the low 90’s. That, and he’s throwing less changeups. Some of us writers at Wahoo’s on First have noted Kluber’s cutter gets hammered, but according to the ‘Graphs, he’s never thrown one. I’m willing to bet it was a changeup with no break at all. Or in common parlance, a batting practice fastball. Plus, look at his aggregate heat maps from last season

Now look at 2013:

Looks to me like he’s hitting more toward the edges, not giving batters a good pitch to hit as much. Though it’s far from definitive, it’s definitely emboldening.  He’s not giving lefties a lot of pitches down and in the middle, which as a left-handed hitter myself, I know is a delicious place to swing for a pitch. He’s keeping it away from righties. Plus, there’s just less bright color down the middle of the plate. That’s a good sign.

Despite what early returns have shown, he has the talent. Though his ERA was bloated to over five last season his SIERA was a more comfortable 3.87, pretty good for a guy with minimal starting experience in the Majors and who was expected to be little more than a warm body. This year he’s even better- a 4.08 ERA, fully a run better than a year ago, and a 3.10 SIERA. That’s up there with Chris Sale (3.23 SIERA) and even Clayton Kershaw (3.37). Sale is striking out 8.4 and walking 2.1 per nine, compared to Kluber’s 8.9 and 1.4 per nine.

For what it’s worth, Kershaw is at 8.6 K’s and 2.5 walks per nine. That’s not to say Kluber is as good a pitcher as Kershaw, that would be right foolish to think. Clayton has the strikeouts (though rate wise not so much) and the hardware to prove it, and he lasts longer in games.Plus, for you old baseball types out there, Clay has the swagger Klubes doesn’t. So far. But it does tell us Kluber does what it takes for a team to win the game most times out. What’s amazing is this leap he’s made – nobody saw it coming, and it took the debacle of Brett Myers for us to learn.

In case you didn’t get it already, Corey Kluber is right on the verge of being nasty, and I’m kind of jazzed about it. A lot of people are. The Indians have been hoping to hit on a lucky pick or prospect, and for all I can tell, this dude is one of the best chances they’ve got. He’s been pretty good all year, great the last month, let’s see where this goes. It’s fun getting excited about these guys again.

Thanks to Fangraphs for making this all possible. Cistulli, if you read this, know I’m a member of the Kluber Appreciation Society.

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Tags: Clayton Kershaw Cleveland Indians Corey Kluber

  • tribescribe

    Biggest problem I have with this article is your assessment of Sale as “an unheralded guy or low draft pick.” He was the 13th pick in the 2010 draft, a college starter who many thought profiled best as a reliever. By Opening Day 2012, he already had 94 dominating major-league innings in relief and was still just 23 years old. He definitely exceeded expectations with his Cy-caliber season, but I don’t think most people thought he would provide no better than replacement level or depth innings.

    Kluber was drafted in the 4th round in 2007, like Sale a 21-year-old college starter. Sale, however, pitched just 10.1 minor-league innings before being promoted to the Sox pen in his draft year, while Kluber amassed over 500 innings before receiving a call-up.

    It’s true that Kluber has posted Sale-like strikeout and walk rates this season, improving significantly on his numbers from last season. His performance so far doesn’t appear to be a BAbip-induced mirage either. But he still has a greater tendency to get hit (and hit hard) than either Sale or Kershaw, as is evidenced by his opponents’ BA and SLG numbers. And he doesn’t pitch as deep into games, averaging 4-5 fewer hitters per start.

    None of this takes away from your conclusion that Kluber’s encouraging start is possibly a consequence of greater command of his pitches and/or a new approach versus left-handed hitters. Just saying that his performance hasn’t reached a Sale-acious (or Kershavian) level just yet, and if it does it will be all the sweeter because Kluber had a much taller hill to climb.

    • tribescribe

      Let me qualify my statement that Kluber “doesn’t pitch as deep into games” by saying that, after removing his rain-shortened start versus the Rays, the difference in batters faced is much less pronounced (2.5-3 hitters per start). Have to be excited because Kluber definitely has swing-and-miss stuff. Let’s hope he can harness consistently enough to be, as you say, a “pretty good [starting] pitcher.”

    • Ed Carroll

      Ya, believe me, Sale was noticed in his draft. Indians considered taking him at #5 before they went with Drew Pomeranz. Many people (including myself) figured long-term, he ends up in the pen, mostly due to his delivery (violent, injury potential). He’s proven us wrong so far, but to say he was unhearlded is incorrect.