The Cleveland Indians are a small market team that cannot build itself through free agency due to budget constraints. In a way, it’s fitting that the team’s ace continues to be Corey Kluber. Like the Indians organization itself, he took time to develop, and needed a couple of crucial tweaks in order to become worthy of a World Series.
Whenever it seemed that the Indians needed a dominant start to help them refocus, Kluber stepped onto the mound and dispatched hitters. They would flail, whiff, and groan; Kluber would stare as they returned to the dugout and waited for the next.
I think it’s best to take a look at Kluber at his best and at worst. By looking at the ace of the staff at either extreme, I think you see the essence of what he’s provided the Cleveland Indians.
June 21st, 2016, vs. Tampa Bay Rays
In nine innings of work, Kluber struck out nine, allowed three hits, and kept a runner from crossing the plate. This marked the third shutout of Kluber’s career, and his second on the season. His two-seamer and breaking ball zipped and plummeted, and hitters couldn’t catch up. Just how much did the Rays struggle with these pitches?
I don’t know what the record is for most strikeouts completed by throwing to first, but Kluber will set it soon if he continues to have days like this. Kluber’s other CGSO — May 4th against the Detroit Tigers — featured seven strikeouts, and a season-high sixteen ground balls.
Kluber excelled in the middle of the summer, and also in the postseason.
October 25th, 2016, vs. Chicago Cubs
Kluber did not go the distance against the Cubs in Game One of the World Series, but there are few occasions on which he’s been as dominant. Through the first three innings, Kluber struck out eight hitters.
When he left the game in the seventh inning, he’d held the Cubs scoreless and put his team in position to take the World Series lead. Kluber dazzled once again in Game Four on short rest, winning his fourth game of the postseason and putting his team a single win away from the title.
Not all of the moments this season for Kluber were glorious.
May 9th, 2016, vs. Houston Astros
I wasn’t quite sure how to explain the performance as it happened, although the URL betrays how it felt. Kluber fell apart in the third inning, allowing four runs on two swings of the bat after loading the bases.
What did he have to say about the performance? “The first few guys, I fell behind on and tried to get back in the zone to get in the count, but they took advantage of pitches that weren't well located,” according to the Associated Press recap of the game. This kind of statement typical of Kluber in defeat; he doesn’t deflect any of the blame, and still credits his opponents for doing well.
Fortunately, Jose Ramirez gave us something delightful to take some of the pain away.
November 2nd, 2016, vs. Chicago Cubs
I do not believe that this is one of Corey Kluber’s worst performances of the season. I do not think that he did a particularly bad job given the circumstances. For the first time in his entire career, Kluber was asked to make two consecutive starts on short rest. He pitched as well as he could. John Smoltz pointed out several times during the national broadcast that Kluber couldn’t keep his fastball down. The same pitch that befuddled the Cubs in his first two World Series starts now danced up and away.
This is why it feels like the worst, to me: despite his willingness to give every iota of effort for a team that asked more of him than any other player in baseball, Kluber came up just short. There have been many words written about the game, and many more are still to come. I think that Kluber’s immediately after are among the most important.
On the wings of the largest stage imaginable, he once again accepts that he made mistakes, and the other team managed to take advantage of them. He praises his teammates, supports his coach, and lays the foundation for how the Indians need to think of the 2016: Game Seven, as a microcosm of the entire season. Obstacles, one larger than the next, neutralized right up until the very end. Huge moments from completely unexpected players. When even the weather conspires against a team, it’s difficult to keep going. “But we never quit,” Kluber says. “I think that’s a big thing.”
One of the biggest reasons the team never quit? It’s ace. Kluber’s stoic demeanor but refusal to pass the blame in defeat, dominance against opponents but deference in victory, and relentless preparation in every facet of the game set an example for the rest of the team. And they followed, right to the very end.
They will follow next year, too. And maybe, with a couple crucial tweaks...