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Corey Kluber seeks success in moderation

A year after turning into a one-pitch pitcher, the Indians ace is all over the place.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Chicago White Sox Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

We’re likely to get one more start from Corey Kluber this year, on the second to last day of the year against the Royals. It would keep him on his regular schedule, and allow for full rest in an expected Game 1 start against the Astros. The Indians need him at full strength and not rusty, so this works perfectly. Kluber isn’t having his best year, merely fourth in the AL in starter ERA and fifth in WAR. He won’t win the Cy Young like he did a year ago, but maybe - absurdly, possibly stupidly - that’s a good thing.

Not because of the expectation that would be on his shoulders as the best pitcher in the league as he led the Indians into the postseason, and how that would weigh on him. Not because being the Cy Young winner would put some kind of target on his back. But simply because of the path Kluber took to the trophy last year. Remember this?

In the second half he just binged harder and harder on his breaking ball, to the point where it was comfortably his most-used pitch. It also happened to be one of the best pitches in all of baseball on the aggregate. It allowed him to obliterate hitters and post a 1.79 ERA in the second half. Basically he was half of Jacob deGrom’s 2018. Jacob deGrom should win the Cy Young.

Anyway, Kluber cruised through the league, embarrassing great and terrible hitters all season. Then he got to October, the realm of the elite. And got knocked around in the ALDS. Most of that was probably due to that secret injury, but he did give up a homer and a couple singles in game one off the curve and another homer in game five. As I depressedly looked back at his pitch logs, he was also leaving the ball up a lot, which probably had more to do with it.

This year isn’t that year though. Kluber has been more middle of the road when it comes to his pitch mix:

After how amazing he was with the breaking pitch last year, and with how at 53.5 percent four-seam usage is at its lowest mark since we were able to measure pitch type while sliders and curves are used more than ever, you’d think he would stick with it. Instead he’s gone back the other way, into a world of moderation. Somehow, this makes me feel better.

It shouldn’t, not really. You’d think a pitcher should throw more of his best pitch. And he’s been less effective this year than last, even if he’s maintained his elite status. But the hitters he’ll be facing in the postseason are the very best for the most part. When it comes to the elite hitters, it doesn’t matter what you’re throwing over and over - eventually they’re going to catch up to it and blast even the best pitch the second or third time through an order. Not that Kluber was throwing ONLY slurves, but by the end of the year he was throwing them like Clayton Kershaw threw fastballs, or near enough.

So maybe I’m overthinking it, but maybe whatever was nagging him, combined with an overreliance on one pitch made Kluber more easy to scheme against for the Yankees. By throwing less of one pitch and giving less of a hint of what you can expect, could he actually be more effective against really good hitters? It’s something to think about. We hear so much about pitch mix and keeping hitters off-balance, as good as Kluber is it could be a better path for him as age creeps up on him and his velocity continues to drop.

Of course, the way his cutter and breaking pitch are so heavily used, it could very well be he’s just perfected that Roy Halladay-esque ability of throwing any number of pitches within a five mph range that move a little or a lot in most any direction, and simply keeps itself off the stinging part of the bat. It would explain the drop in strike out this year of 26.4 percent - oddly identical to his 2016 - but is a theory ruined by his career high 36.5 percent Hard Hit Rate.

Maybe it’s all another long-term plan, like last year when he hoodwinked the league by suddenly throwing primarily breaking pitches. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to rely on one pitch in case he’s not feeling it as well as he’d like next week and wants to allow himself an out. It’s logical at least. Maybe he’s just a year older and is doing all he can to get the most out of himself by being a secret junk baller. Or maybe he’s gained a superhuman level of control on the breaker, and it’s the same pitch as his cutter. He just is able to control how much it breaks to that much of a degree because he’s so good. But the numbers say he’s mixing pitches, and it’s working pretty well. He’s given his playoff opponents a picture of who he is this year. Whether he subverts it and goes curve-happy like he did in 2016 and succeeds, or this is a whole new year and new Kluber, we have to wait a week. Pitchers always have to keep ahead of the hitter, and Kluber is the perfect representation of that.