News that Indians ace Corey Kluber is getting something injected into his knee was received with understandable trepidation this weekend. With the All-Star break and the host of great pitching the Indians have otherwise he reportedly won’t miss any time, but any injury problems striking anywhere in the rotation in particular is always a bit nerve wracking. It’s the backbone of the team.
As dangerous as building around starting pitching is, the Indians did it. So when their best one has any pangs, you have to get a little worried. But it gives us a chance to look at his year so far.
This is not Kluber’s best season. He’s got two Cy Young campaigns under his belt, so he has a high bar to cross. Whatever the opposite of damning with faint praise is, calling this not his best season is that. Even with that, he’s having a fine season. He’s tied for seventh in the AL in ERA at 2.57, 11th in FIP, 7th in fWAR, 6th in K-BB% despite a dropoff in strikeouts, and his 45 percent groundball rate is his highest since 2014. He’s not the best in the league, but he’s generally top ten. He’s not the “best pitcher in baseball” as FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards called him in early April, but he’s up there.
The knee thing is a bit troubling, as is the drop in strikeout rate even if at 25.8 percent it’s 0.6 below his 2016 rate. That was his “worst” year among this four year stretch of incredible dominance, but still saw him as the eighth best pitcher in baseball by FanGraphs WAR. But the way he’s cut his walk rate down so precipitously is a piece of the refinement. But he’s also a pitcher who has a process. Here’s what I mean.
This graph shows Kluber’s pitch use by month in his 2017 season:
As the year wore on he began attacked hitters markedly differently, leaning more and more on the slider to do damage and seeing a drop I walk rate rate from first to second half (6.6 percent to 2.9) a big drop in ERA (2.80 to 1.79) and a small bounce in strikeout rate (33.8 to 34.4). So he had a better second half of the season, after a small stretch of mediocrity early in the year and a stint on the disabled list.
Let’s, then, look at how he’s mixed pitches this season:
That looks rather familiar. The way he folds the breaking pitch in more and more throughout the year, it’s a curious development that seems so rare in baseball. After all, if you do have this devastating pitch, why not throw it a lot? That was the rationale as we all understood it when it became his primary pitch last year. But Kluber thinks about the whole season, not just the game. The big difference here is in 2018 he’s throwing more changeups, the 6.74 percent mark for the season being his highest usage rate since 2013. And he’s using it more each month. Perhaps this is the driver behind his spiked ground ball rate this year. Either way, expect a big dose of the slurve in the coming months.
The drop in strikeouts is of course a bit concerning. But we have to understand we’re probably on the back nine for Kluber’s career. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to be suddenly terrible. But he did have an otherworldly season last year. We can’t quite expect that every season. Right? Justin Verlander is ruining it for pitchers trying to age gracefully. Still, Kluber is suppressing hits, his .248 BABIP a career low and the .211 batting average is surpassed only by last year. To this point though, hitters are logging a career high 37 percent Hard Hit rate. If not for the higher grounder rate that could be a real issue. If he starts throwing more hard to hit pitches — the breaker specifically — I do expect that number to drop. Last season he saw a three-point drop in that metric between halves, so maybe it’s something.
Knee issues are a buzzkill. Seeing your ace at anything less than perfect is, too. And those dashes of grey in his big ol’ beard are a reminder of the only constant in baseball. The break should be good for him though, and it would be fair to see another chase for a Cy Young. He’s placed himself somewhere in the race already. He just needs to stick to the plan. And, like a year ago, maybe a little bit of luck. But we could all use that.