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What’s up with Corey Kluber?

He’s kind of bad right now. What’s the deal?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Kluber has been very bad this year. That’s just the facts. His only blessing that’s allowed him to avoid being the Indians’ worst starter so far is Carlos Carrasco’s own early season struggles. Kluber struggling is never great, but considering how much the team needed him and the rest of the rotation to be great to make up for other failings — and considering how shaky those starters have been this past rotation — it’s as if a black cloud has formed over the organization. This isn’t great. Is there a root cause we can find?

The first thing to think about is, outside of last year Kluber hasn’t really been a good April pitcher. He’s just a slow starter.

Corey Kluber in April

2013 2.25 1.00 .611 22.9 0.0
2014 4.41 1.51 .752 20.8 5.9
2015 4.24 1.26 .701 25.5 5.0
2016 4.24 1.00 .633 26.1 3.7
2017 4.19 1.25 .747 26.2 8.5
2018 2.18 0.77 .495 28.1 5.4
2019 6.16 1.84 .838 22.6 10.8
Nearly every April has been pretty shaky for Kluber.

It’s what made the first Cy Young so amazing, that he became a lethal bat killing machine once the calendar turned to May in 2014. That was supposed to be Felix Hernandez or one of the Tigers pitchers, not this rando from Nowheresville. That slow start has been something we can rely on to make up for what’s been a routinely mediocre at best April for the Indians really since Terry Francona showed up.

All the same, Kluber has been particularly bad this year. The numbers above are garish enough, though a solid outing later this week would do wonders to make them at least palatable. Sunday was a landmark game for Kluber though, in a bad way — that game against the Royals was the first time he’s walked five batters in a start, ever. He’s only walked four or more batters nine times in his 200 career starts. He’s already walked 10 this year, on pace to far outstrip his previous career high, 57 walks in 2016. Control, a vicious slurve and unflappable demeanor are who Kluber is. So to see that so starkly torn apart was shocking.

One could worry about velocity, but Kluber has never been one to light up the radar gun with any consistency. It’s been that control and that great repertoire that have always gotten him to victory. He did have it going for the first inning on Sunday, getting all three outs on strikeouts. It just all went to hell afterwards. Early season jitters could be something, but there’s the obvious presence of a new backstop for Kluber in Roberto Perez. Until this year Yan Gomes caught more than three quarters of Kluber’s starts, and that included his missing an entire year. It’s possible that could have something to do with his losing strikes.

When the Indians had both Gomes and Perez, they were blessed with two of the better pitch framers in baseball. The staff was able to steal strikes left and right, and both catchers had subtle strengths the other didn’t. This could be what’s hurting Kluber. By his repertoire, he’s more of a left-to-right pitcher than someone like Bauer, who features high fastballs and hammer-like curves(until the last year of course, but even still it’s his bread and butter), so changing catchers could hurt that.

Corey Kluber’s pitches as framed by Yan Gomes last season.
Baseball Savant

That’s every pitch out of the zone he got called a strike. It’s not all his expertise making it happen, but it certainly helps. Roberto Perez has still been good, just different.

Corey Kluber’s pitches as framed by Roberto Perez this season.
Baseball Savant

It’s not blatant, but Gomes did seem to generate a few more strikes in the left-hand batters’ box, and work the corners a bit better. That, and he had more luck with those pitches inside to righties/outside to lefties, where Kluber could work his sinker to great effect. A couple strikes here and there can make a big difference in an at-bat, an inning, and a game. Between that and just the comfort level of not just pitch selection but even pitch sequencing, it could be a comfort level thing. Though Kluber did post a 2.54 ERA from July 18th, 2016 to the end of that season, games caught by Perez because Gomes got hurt, and he had that insane playoff run. But again, that was the year he walked more than he ever has.

There’s also the fact that Perez caught more of Bauer, so he’d have had more chances to grab more high and low strikes because that’s how Bauer works, but the sheer volume of Gomes just makes me think differently.

It’s all probably nothing, or just less of a deal than it seems, a few bad starts in a period of time Kluber is usually not great. That he’s faced a 3-0 count 5.4% of the time this year is probably noise, same with the 17.2% 0-2 count rate. The slurve still does its thing, he still has that nasty arm-side run to his sinker, and that cutter still finds the heart of the plate maddeningly often. When his .390 BABIP reverts things will feel more settled. We all know we’ve seen the best of Corey Kluber, but his very good isn’t gone. Not yet.