Orbiting Cleveland: Corey Kluber’s rise to ace status

Orbiting

Corey Kluber’s face said it all.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland IndiansAs Terry Francona approached the mound late in Saturday’s first game of the Cleveland Indians’ doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, Kluber did not resemble a man who had just held the American League’s top-hitting team to seven hits and two runs in 8.2 innings of work.

Rather, Kluber’s facial expression and body language suggested something else — anger.

He was angry at himself over the fact that he just allowed Nick Castellanos to hit a double to deep center, which meant he would not get a chance to earn the complete-game victory.

Never mind the fact that he had just dominated a team that entered the game with a batting average of .278, the American League’s top mark.

Never mind the fact that he was barely ever in trouble in the contest and Francona only summoned the bullpen once — in the game’s waning moments.

Never mind that the strong start ensured that the Indians would take the first two games in a season-defining series against the Detroit Tigers.

Kluber wanted the opportunity to finish what he started and anything less would be considered a failure. These are the type of performances we’ve come to expect from Kluber, and it’s clear that no one has higher expectations for Corey Kluber than Kluber himself.

What the Birmingham, Alabama native has done this season is nothing short of amazing. Yes, Kluber was very good in 2013, but he’s been better than good in 2014 — he’s been an ace.

As we sit here on Monday, July 21, 2014, the Indians’ record is 50-48. The team is fresh off of taking three-out-of-four games from the Tigers and right in the middle of the playoff hunt.

It seems hard to believe considering how the Tribe has been such a middling club this season, but it’s true — the Indians once again have a legitimate shot at playing into October.

The biggest reason for that?

Corey Kluber.

Through 21 starts this season, Kluber is 10-6 with an ERA of 2.95, a FIP of 2.69 and an xFIP of 2.82. He’s striking out 9.75 batters per nine innings, which is the fifth-best mark in all of baseball.

Baseball Reference has Kluber’s WAR at 3.3 while FanGraphs has it at a blistering 3.8. According to the two sites, only Michael Brantley has been more valuable to the Tribe as he has a WAR of 4.3 at Baseball Reference while FanGraphs has him at 4.0.

What’s startling with Kluber is how unexpected his rise has been. Most Indians fans probably don’t even remember how the team received Kluber as it was nearly four years ago on July 31, 2010 that Kluber was acquired in a three-team trade that saw the Indians send Jake Westbrook to St. Louis while the Cardinals sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego, and the Padres sent Nick Greenwood to St. Louis.

The Tribe has made plenty of trades since then, but it could be argued that no trade has been more efficient than the acquisition of Kluber.

For reference, take a look below. Every significant Indians trade since the Kluber move is listed, including the WAR that the player(s) received has posted for the Indians since the trade. WAR numbers come courtesy of FanGraphs:

  • July 31, 2010: Traded RHP Jake Westbrook and cash to St. Louis for San Diego RHP Corey Kluber. St. Louis sent OF Ryan Ludwick to San Diego for LHP Nick Greenwood. Kluber has since equaled 7.2 wins for the Indians.
  • August 20, 2010: Acquired RHP Zach McAllister from the N.Y. Yankees as the player to be named to complete the Austin Kearns trade. McAllister has since equaled 4.1 wins for the Indians.
  • July 28, 2011: Traded OF Abner Abreu and RHP Carlton Smith to the Chicago Cubs for Kosuke Fukudome. Fukudome equaled -0.2 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • July 30, 2011: Traded INF Orlando Cabrera to the San Francisco Giants for OF Thomas Neal. Neal equaled -0.4 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • July 31, 2011: Traded RHP Alex White, RHP Joe Gardner, LHP Drew Pomeranz and 1B Matt McBride to the Colorado Rockies for RHP Ubaldo Jimenez. Jimenez equaled 3.3 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • August 26, 2011: Traded cash considerations to the Minnesota Twins for DH Jim Thome. Thome equaled 0.6 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • October 31, 2011: Traded LHP Chris Jones to Atlanta for RHP Derek Lowe and cash. Lowe equaled 0.1 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • June 12, 2012: Acquired RHP Esmil Rogers from Colorado for cash considerations. Rogers equaled 1.0 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • July 24, 2012: Traded RHP Jose De La Torre to Boston for INF/OF Brent Lillibridge. Lillibridge equaled -0.2 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • November 11, 2012: Traded RP Esmil Rogers to Toronto for INF Mike Aviles and C Yan Gomes. Gomes and Aviles have since equated to 6.7 wins for the Indians.
  • December 11, 2012: Traded OF Shin-Soo Choo, INF-OF Jason Donald and cash to Cincinnati for OF Drew Stubbs and SS Didi Gregorius. Traded LHP Tony Sipp, 1B Lars Anderson and SS Didi Gregorius to Arizona for RHP Trevor Bauer, RHP Matt Albers and RHP Bryan Shaw. The combination of Bauer, Albers, Stubbs and Shaw has since equated to 3.4 wins for the Indians.
  • July 30, 2013: Traded SS Juan Herrera to St. Louis for LHP Marc Rzepczynski. Rzepczynski has since equaled 0.8 wins for the Indians.
  • August 30, 2013: Acquired OF Jason Kubel and cash from Arizona for a player to be named later or cash. Kubel equaled -0.1 wins in his tenure with the Indians.
  • December 18, 2013: Traded OF Drew Stubbs to Colorado for LHP Josh Outman. Outman equaled -0.3 wins in his tenure with the Indians.

The roundabout point being made here is that the Indians have made plenty of trades since the 2010 deadline, but with the exception of the acquisitions of Aviles and Gomes, none of the trades have come close to matching the production that Kluber has provided. Even the much-heralded Shin-Soo Choo trade pales in comparison.

Obviously, luck is a big factor here. While Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti would never admit it, there is no way that he expected Kluber to blossom into a dominant, front-of-the-rotation starter.

He likely saw Kluber’s stuff and thought there was potential, but the Stetson University product had such an up-and-down minor league career to that point that it’s hard to believe Antonetti really could have foreseen this. Heck, at the time that the Indians acquired him, Kluber had a 4.60 ERA at Double-A San Antonio. He had never been much of a minor league performer as his best season came right after he was drafted when he was an advanced 21-year-old at the Low-A level.

What’s also shocking is that Kluber did not immediately blossom once he was in the Indians’ system. In fact, he was borderline awful in 2011 as he went 7-11 in 27 starts for the Columbus Clippers while posting a 5.56 ERA and walking 4.2 batters per nine innings.

So, what exactly changed? And why does Kluber now have a chance to become the most established front-of-the-rotation starter that the Indians have had since the departures of Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia?

There are really two answers to that question.

For one, Kluber has stopped walking batters. This was an issue that plagued him in the minors and in the early part of his Major League career. In his first stint with the Indians in 2011, he walked 6.3 batters per nine innings, yet in his breakout season in 2013, that number was down to 2.0. It’s stayed consistent this season at 2.1.

That’s simply remarkable, especially when you consider that Kluber has a BB/9 rate of 3.6 in seven minor league seasons.

A reason for his improved control and the other reason for his success has been the emergence of his slider. Kluber’s fastball/sinker combo remains an impressive offering as he’s averaged 93 miles per hour on it this year, and it’s topped out at 96.5 miles per hour.

However, his slider is just filthy. For the year, Kluber is averaging nearly 89 miles per hour on it, and it’s topped out at 94. How in the heck is a batter supposed to defend himself against that type of pitch? He can’t.

The graph below helps illustrate this:

Brooksbaseball-Chart

In April, hitters hit .179 against Kluber’s slider. In May, hitters were at .070, and they hit just .030 in June. In July, that average is at 0.044.

This pitch is scary — scary good.

As long as Kluber is able to control it, hitters are totally overmatched. His slider alone has cemented him as an emerging ace.

But the beauty of it is that Kluber is clearly not yet satisfied. His facial expression at the end of Saturday’s contest is proof of that.

He wants to win every time he takes the mound. Even more impressive is the fact that he wants to dominate. As EHC’s Jim Pete has said on multiple occasions, it seems as if there’s a little Cliff Lee in Kluber, and that’s true in more ways than one.

Like Lee, Kluber is a silent-but-deadly competitor. His quiet, intimidating presence on the mound makes him a joy to watch.

But also like Lee, Kluber is a late bloomer, and his late success can be attributed to the emergence of a specific pitch. For Lee, it was the cutter, which became a devastating weapon that allowed him to carve up batters. For Kluber, it’s been the slider, which has turned into an unhittable offering.

With the Indians now past the halfway mark of the season, Kluber will likely make between 13 to 14 more starts.

With the way he’s been pitching, the Indians will be favored to win in almost all of those games.

But for Corey Kluber, winning isn’t enough. As Saturday proves, he wants to dominate. And there’s a good chance that he’ll do just that.

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One thought on “Orbiting Cleveland: Corey Kluber’s rise to ace status

  1. Agree that it is must-watch stuff when he’s on the mound. There’s a lot to like about the combination of demeanor and domination that he shows on the mound consistently. Cliff Lee was the same thing I was thinking the last time I watched him.

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