Corey Kluber is in the midst of arguably his best season as a major league pitcher.
Short of a string of five or so straight shutouts, Kluber won’t top his WAR output from his Cy Young season, but everything else is just dazzling. There may be some recency bias, too, but hey, he’s got a career-high strikeout rate (34.5 percent) that is coupled with a career-high strikeout-to-walk ratio (29.5 percent) due to another preternaturally low free pass rate at 5.4 percent, and his 2.03 DRA is the lowest in his career by a vast margin. It also leads baseball. He’s been as good as a pitcher can be. But I did it. I found a blemish: Kluber has the highest home run to fly ball ratio of his career.
That number, 14.8 percent of fly balls, is one point higher than league average. Without a doubt a major outlier in his season. We saw this in action on Monday night in the Bronx. Kluber went eight innings and allowed two runs, one on a home run. The other came on a grounder through the left side, unaccountably not snagged by Gio Urshela or Francisco Lindor. Unlikely things happen. We just saw a total eclipse just last week.
Kluber has allowed eighteen home runs this year, just four fewer than he allowed each of the last two seasons despite missing a few weeks. If he were to hit the 215-225 inning plateau he would break that barrier handily. It’s a bit concerning, except he’s taken care to not allow them to do too much damage.
Those eighteen home runs have come in fifteen of Kluber’s starts. Three of those were on Opening Day, and only five have come with men on base. This brings to mind a teammate of Kluber’s, Josh Tomlin. Tomlin has a problem Kluber doesn’t — his raw stuff is merely middling, so he has to work to negate unforced errors. That means cutting down on the walks and pounding the zone. He makes the opponent beat him on base hits, made all the harder by an excellent Cleveland Indians defense the last couple years.
The Tomlin Tax is about one home run per game, give or take, but they are rarely back-breakers. It’s been like that with Kluber this year. While his 5.4 percent walk rate is about on par with his career numbers, he’s throwing pitches in the zone at 47.4 percent rate, surpassing any previous career-high and more than two percent higher than his career average. He’s making other teams beat him, and that works into his plan.
Along with the zone rate, Kluber also is boasting a 46.2 percent ground ball rate, the second-highest of his career after that amazing 2014 season. So he’s pounding the zone more and forcing more ground balls than he has since he won an award. To add to that, his infield fly ball rate is 14.5 percent, so despite having a merely career average 34.3 percent fly ball rate (actually one tick above his career rate and the lowest since 2014) more of those than ever are soaring harmlessly into the gloves of his infielders.
Basically, I figure that because Kluber is throwing more pitches in the zone than he ever has, he’s going to let a few more get barrelled up. But because his fly ball rate is lower than we’ve seen in a while, and he’s not giving guys a chance to get on base, and he has a career-low .191 batting average against him, that’s not going to be as much of a problem. It’s less balls in the air, more just sneak over the wall.
It all shakes out to basically the same outcomes he’s seen in the past, just less multi-run homers. In the world of Three True Outcomes, eliminating at least one of the two bad things is vital for a pitcher. Kluber already makes it hell to square up a ball anyway, and now he’s giving less chance to work walks. It’s what allows Tomlin to have any semblance of a major league career, and it’s allowed Kluber this year to force his way into the Cy Young conversation. He just gives “grip an rip” guys more of a chance, is all. We’re seeing more home runs per game this season than in any other season since the Ulysses S. Grant administration.
Nobody is safe from the dinger. Kluber is just rolling with those punches and mitigating everything else through pounding the zone and filthy, filthy pitching. Better a solo dinger than six hits in two innings, I suppose.