Whenever Corey Kluber starts and the offense does almost anything, we hear that amazing stat that says the Indians are undefeated when they give him four runs of support. Whether or not it’s cherry-picking, whether or not it’s actually amazing, it seems incredible to me.
This stretch of games runs back to June 11th, 2013 — Kluber’s first full year and a time when he was still just some guy. Nobody knew then what he’d become. That day might just be another day in a long string of starts for the Indians ace, but maybe there was something special about that day, some little shift that portended greatness.
Coming into that game against the Texas Rangers, Kluber owned a career 5.01 ERA in 116.1 career innings. He was a smidge better in 2013 than his career numbers, but even then his seaseon ERA was a mere 4.56. Still, there were twinklings of something better. His strikeout rate was 26.5 percent, his walk rate a spare 4.4 percent, and his FIP was 3.37. People watching him saw a better pitcher than the scoreboard suggested. But baseball is a results game, and Kluber’s were poor. The attention at that time was on assumed ace Justin Masterson, and why the Indians hadn’t signed him to an extension yet. So Kluber’s peripherals were far from people’s consideration. Who really thinks that much about the fourth starter?
But on that June day, Kluber maybe did something that would prove to change the shape of not only his own career, but the Indians future.
It’s such a simple thing, baseball. Sometimes you make one little adjustment and become something unto a god. Well, maybe not quite that extreme, but it’s hard to really oversell how good Kluber has been since 2014 for the Indians. He’s maybe their third best pitcher ever, in good company with Sam McDowell and looking up at only Bob Feller. But that one little thing, it unlocked everything else that makes Kluber great.
That was the first day Kluber started ignoring his changeup.
Prior to that afternoon in Texas, Kluber was a four-seam/cutter/change pitcher, with the slurve that would bring him so much glory coming in fourth in usage. That combo he once used can be effective, if you have a great changeup. Felix Hernandez is a good example of that, throwing his change 32.2 percent of the time in his 6.1 fWAR season in 2014. Kluber has never good a changeup. Why throw a pitch you’re no good at?
That, I think, is a big part of what made Mickey Callaway such a big influence on these young pitchers, too. He saw something in Kluber — the potential for a lethal slurve — and seems to simply have said “throw this more”. It took a couple starts for him to catch on to that perhaps, but from June 11th on, Kluber threw his slurve at least 12.9 percent of the time in all bit three starts that year. Which doesn’t seem like a huge sea change, not something that makes a pitcher go from barely anything to truly elite anyway.
Still, utterly flipping the amount you throw two pitches, that’s a pretty big deal. The book on you says “fourseam, cutter, change, and a dose of slurve”. Suddenly, instead of seeing a pitch that looks like the four-seam but breaking down and arm-side, there’s a pair of glove-side breaking pitches, one increasingly savage. That seems like something. And in those starts he backed off on the slurve, he gave up 11 runs in 16 2/3 innings. One of those teams was the miserable Astros too, so if you’re Kluber and Callaway looking back on that season, you have to start wondering about something.
Or maybe not. Maybe Kluber was already pretty good, the results just hadn’t showed up. And four runs of support is a hair below league average, you’d think a good pitcher would do well with that kind of support. To be fair, I haven’t seen that number for other pitchers like Kershaw or Scherzer or Verlander (and don’t know how to find it, sorry), so maybe it’s not that special. But it seems special.
The way Kluber emerged from seemingly nowhere, unlike those aforementioned first round picks, it stands to reason he started doing something completely different at some point to become truly great. We know he has that slurve, and he throws it an awful lot — he’s 28th of 166 qualified starters in curve usage since 2015 according to FanGraphs — so something happened at some point to convince him of that. It’s silly to say it was a single inflection point that turned him into a Cy Young winner. But sometimes, that’s all it takes. That, intense preparation and relentless physical training. That’s all it took for Kluber to become the pitcher he is today.