Most Cleveland Indians fans are in agreement: Corey Kluber is the ace of the pitching staff. For good reason -- he’s been there the longest, he’s won a Cy Young Award, he’s durable, he’s stoic, which I guess counts for something. But what is an ace? Is it what some consider a "stopper", a pitcher who will halt a losing streak? Is it just a guy to set a tone for the rest of the pitchers, which by many accounts Kluber has done? Or is it just the best pitcher at the moment, and not something that carries over from year to year? If that’s the case, Danny Salazar is the ace. Whatever it is, Kluber isn’t doing the things that so excited Tribedom in 2014. Maybe something is wrong.
Outside of an inflated ERA, Kluber seems to be just as good, if not better than, he was a year ago. Yes, he had a losing record in 2015 at 9-16, but we’ll ignore that because I have respect for my readers. He’s got a lower FIP (2.94 to 2.97 last year) and he’s already earned 2.5 fWAR, on pace for about six wins if he throws the same number of innings last year when he earned 5.5 fWAR.
But some other predictors paint a less rosy picture. His SIERA is a bit higher at 3.38 as opposed to 2.98 last year. Unlike FIP, which only accounts for strikeouts, walks, and homers, SIERA pays attention to batted balls as well, and is a bit more accurate at predicting ERA. This tells us something, mostly that he’s striking out less batters than last year, 24.9 percent compared to 27.7 percent last year and 28.3 percent in 2014. The walks have held firm, and his 48 percent ground ball rate has reset to where it was in 2014, rather than 42 percent last year. SIERA doesn’t like ground balls as much though, they turn into hits more often than fly balls.
I do expect most of the Indians pitchers to try a bit more pitching to contact (except Salazar, who feasts on strikeouts) simply because the left side of the infield is so incredible behind them with Lindor and Uribe/Ramirez. Perhaps Kluber recognizes what is behind him and is trying to make his own life a bit easier, thus negating the increase in SIERA. If it’s intentional at least.
But all runs earned stats are climbing, while the strikeouts are falling, each year since he won the Cy Young. Again, perhaps it’s the pitching to contact, but he’s also 30 years old, and has likely crested. He’s also thrown a lot of innings the last few years, nearly 700 since he became a full time starter. Wear and tear are a thing, and just because he broke in at 27 doesn’t mean he was frozen in ice and thawed only to destroy major league batting. It does seem that way since he came from near-obscurity, but he’s been throwing baseballs at high velocities for a long time. Even if it doesn’t mean a breakdown, it does mean less raw physical effectiveness. That’s why he has to come up with new pitches for his arsenal, and learn to actually pitch better. But even that may be a problem.
A year ago on another site, I wrote about Kluber’s increasingly throwing a four-seam fastball in lieu of his sinker. Here’s another graph, giving you an idea of what he’s been up to.
What I like is how he’s increasingly mixing his pitches, which in theory is great news for future success. The changeup in particular is a key pitch for him, even if he does throw one of the best pitches in baseball in his slider. And he’s cut back on the cutter. But he found such success two years back with a much more simple attack. I’m not suggesting he should go back to the old ways, but change for the sake of change is not a good thing. Trevor Bauer is a fantastic tinkerer, but it’s his recent simplifying of things and outright ditching of pitches that has led to a string of excellent starts.
Mechanically, Kluber is a quiet pitcher. It’s a compact motion, but judging from this graph from Brook’s Baseball, his release point has been steadily dropping since 2014.
The lower you release the ball, the flatter its plane when coming in, and the less bite sinkers, curves, sliders, really any pitch with any break, will have. The batter has to contend with less drop, and can square up easier. Now, it’s only a few inches, 5.8 feet to 5.6 feet, but Kluber’s three-quarter’s delivery never gave him much downward angle in the first place.
Since Kluber is not throwing from way out on the side like Chris Sale or Randy Johnson, these inches can be a major difference maker. Whether he needs to make the mechanical adjustment, whether he even can, that’s up to him and Mickey Callaway. Correlation and causation aren’t alway related, but as the release point has dropped, even just a bit, so has his effectiveness. Even if it’s just a bit, this would be the guy the Tribe counts on in those hugest of games. There is no margin for error.
Evidence of a mechanical issue shows up in his location charts. Check out the difference from last year to this year:
That’s a lot more in the middle of the plate this year. Just the other night, that fastball to Salvador Perez that turned into a three-run home run was the grooviest of grooved fastballs on a 1-1 count. It’s not something you expect out of Kluber, who we expect to be pinpoint and dominating. Perhaps that’s part of the book on him, that he is prone to more middle of the zone fastballs and other get-me-over pitches to get up 1-2 or 0-2 because then he can eat you up. He’s not a nibbler early. It got him into trouble a lot last year. It’s a tough tendency to fight, and against teams like the Kansas City Royals who like to swing the bat and put it in play, it can be dangerous. Plus, if his release point is dropping, he might not be able to get on top of pitches as much and get them located down as much. Again, that means more balls being more hittable, and means more hard hit pitches.
It’s possible there’s still time for Kluber to turn it around and get back to consistent outings of seven or more innings with two or less earned runs. It’s what’s expected of him, really, and I fully expect him to be able rip something like that off. And just two starts back he threw a complete game, albeit against an Los Angeles Angels team that has two and half actual major league hitters, and two of those are Mike Trout. It’s still a long season, and the indians are still in first place with his struggles. With so much not going right and them still succeeding, it’s potentially great news especially if he turns it around and some other things break right. Kluber just needs to rediscover his own greatness, otherwise he’s going to go from ace to just one of the guys pretty darn quick.