Monday afternoon's performance against the Tigers was Corey Kluber's worst game of the season. He lasted only 2.2 innings, making it his shortest start of 2014, and after having allowed only 11 home runs in 192.2 innings all year, and not having given up more than one home run in any of his first 28 starts, he allowed three of them yesterday.
Pitchers have bad games. Kluber's opposite yesterday, Detroit's David Price had the worst start of his career in his previous start, giving up 9 straight hits to begin the 3rd inning and being charged with a total of 8 runs while recording only 6 outs... He bounced back to throw 7 strong innings yesterday. Kluber might bounce back in similar fashion and pitch a gem this weekend against the White Sox.
This was the third start in a row though, in which I thought Kluber didn't look that good. Now, to some degree that's a matter of him having set an incredibly high bar this season, especially with the two month stretch he had from mid May to mid August, when he posted a 1.19 ERA over 10 starts, with more than seven times as many strikeouts as walks and only two home runs allowed.
By comparison, the 3 runs he allowed in 7 innings on August 21 didn't seem so great, especially with 4 walks, and the 3 runs he allowed in 6.1 innings on August 27 didn't seem very good either, especially with 4 extra-base hits allowed. For a more ordinary pitcher, those wouldn't have registered as "off" games, but having watched almost every game Kluber has pitched this season, I didn't think he looked as sharp in those games. Yesterday's debacle may just be confirmation bias, leading me towards my worst fears.
Kluber's velocity has not been down, and until yesterday he was still striking a lot of guys out. I am completely open to the possibility that the previous two games weren't all that bad, and yesterday was just a bad day. But...
Kluber is now 35.2 innings beyond his total from 2013, and 7 innings beyond his career high as a professional, and he's thrown those innings in just 5 months, not the 6 of a full season. Because he's been so good, he's pitched deeper into games than most pitchers, and deeper than he usually has in the past. It's entirely possible that he's hitting the wall, or running out of gas, or whatevering whatever idiom you prefer.
Even as Francona has used relievers at a record pace, Kluber is the one starter he's felt he could depend on, and he's leaned more and more as the season has gone on. In Kluber's first 15 starts this season, he averaged 98.7 pitches per game and exceeded 105 pitches only 4 times. Prior to being pulled early yesterday, in Kluber's previous 13 starts he averaged 108.6 pitches, and was never pulled before reaching 105 pitches (though he did throw only 85 pitches on July 30, it was because that's all it took him to get through 9 innings, as he pitched a Maddux).
Does an extra 10 pitches a game for weeks and weeks make a difference? I don't know. Probably for some pitchers it does, and for some pitchers it doesn't. Kluber has thrown the fourth-most pitches (2,950) in the American League, and unlike Price, James Shields, and Max Scherzer, he's never thrown this many in a season before.
If Kluber is running out of gas, what it there to be done about it?
Nothing, for now. The Indians are still in contention and Kluber has been easily their best pitcher this season. One terrible game (and/or three not good ones in a row) don't mean you pull the plug on your ace. In the absence of an injury (which there have been no reports of), you keep sending him out there for as long as the team is in playoff contention.
He might be brilliant the rest of the way, and make my worrying look foolish. He might be just so-so, the way he was in his last two games before Monday, in which case he gives the Tribe a decent shot of winning. If the Indians fall out of the race though, serious consideration should be given to shutting Kluber down for the last couple weeks of the season.
Hopefully it doesn't come to that.