When thinking back to spring training, it’s hard to imagine that August would find fans using phrases like “heartbreaking” and “potentially devastating” to describe the sudden absence of Corey Kluber from the rotation. While those words might be a bit excessive, Kluber’s extended stay on the disabled list truly is a major blow to the Indians’ pitching staff. The 27-year-old has been the team’s biggest surprise this season, and they will certainly miss him during the next few weeks.
His debut as a starter in 2012 was so mediocre that it the Tribe never seriously considered him to make the major league roster out of spring training. Technically, he was “competing” to become the fifth starter, but the organization seemed to value Scott Kazmir, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, and even Dice-K over Kluber. He was inevitably sent to Triple-A.
Although his stay in Columbus was brief, neither of his two outings went well. Luckily, for Kluber, injuries to the big-league pitching staff forced the team to call him up and he has proven that it was the right decision for them to make.
Kluber posted a 3.54 ERA through 122 innings during 19 starts and two relief appearances. He had a win-loss record of 7-5, but his underlying stats are what was really impressive. His 2.98 xFIP is the eighth-best among all qualified major-league pitchers, just below Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer. He also has the fifth-best strikeout to walk ratio, at 4.46. In addition, Kluber is also ranked ninth among qualified American Leaguers (and 22nd overall) in strikeouts per nine, and seventh in walks per nine (16th overall).
For the season, he Kluber faced 499 total batters and allowed just 26 walks, compared to 116 strikeouts. Twenty-six walks over 122 innings is something to get excited about. Tribe fans are accustomed to seeing the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to free passes — Ubaldo Jimenez actually holds claim to the third-highest BB%, and Justin Masterson isn’t doing much better despite his stellar season.Kluber’s 5.2 percent walk rate is the best of his pro career, and far below the major-league average. It’s not as though he struggled consistently with his control last season, but this is still a welcome improvement. The issue that hurt him the most in 2012 was being an extremely hittable pitcher. Last season, 10.3 percent of plate appearances against him ended with an extra-base hit. He’s steadily decreased that number in 2013, dropping it to 8.2.
One factor that could be contributing to this sudden spike in performance is a decrease in flyballs, from 33 to 28 percent, and an increase in ground balls and strikeouts. Consequently, he is allowing fewer home runs. The changes that he’s made in his delivery and pitch selection, including reducing the use of his cutter, have paid off in dividends.
In fact, Kluber has been so good this year that some of his stats are even better than Justin Verlander’s. Verlander has undoubtedly struggled in 2013, but it’s still impressive that a pitcher once regarded as – at best – a fifth starter could post numbers that are even comparable to his.
Does all of this mean that Kluber is an elite starter? Of course not. He was having a great season and giving his team a chance to win every time he took the mound, but it’s still only one season of data.
However, he has proven that his ceiling is considerably higher than what nearly every expert had predicted it would be. Over half of his outings have been quality starts, and he has only allowed more than four earned runs twice this season. Baseball-Reference.com lists Kluber as having five “Wins Lost” – games where the bullpen gave up the lead he entrusted them with – and one “Tough Loss”, when he provided a quality start, but the Tribe’s offense failed to show up. Wins mean nothing in terms of player evaluation, but he’d have a much more impressive record if the bullpen would cooperate with him.
When considering just how good Kluber has been, it’s disappointing that the Indians will be without him for 4-6 weeks while he recovers from his injury. There’s always the risk that he’ll return and be less effective after missing so much time, so the Tribe probably shouldn’t count on him to continue at this pace if he comes back in September.
Next season, however, the Indians can expect him to be a key contributor in their rotation. Kluber has done what Zach McAllister did for the Tribe last season. He’s provided consistency and given the team another starter that they can rely on for a quality outing every fifth day. When it becomes time to set the rotation for next season, Jimenez will be certainly be gone, and Scott Kazmir’s future with the team is still undetermined, but Masterson, Kluber and McAllister will make a good core that the Indians can build around.
The most important thing for the team to do right now is make sure that Kluber does not rush back from the disabled list. Even if they need him to return, it’s much more important to think about the future. The Indians know just how troublesome a finger injury like this can be, and they can’t let it become a recurring problem that will affect his career going forward.
Now that he has established himself as an above-average pitcher, Tribe fans can look forward to seeing Corey Kluber play a key role in the rotation for many seasons to come.