You spend hours of your life performing monotonous tasks to ensure survival. A few minutes here or there in a shower to avoid public embarrassment. A few hours commuting to and from work for financial security. An inordinate amount of time doing thing like household chores, which have very little payoff and are usually repeated far too often in short amounts of time, especially if you are a parent. All of these things become second nature; and thus, your time is taken for granted by virtue of performing conscious tasks in a subconscious manner.
Appreciating the greatness that has been Corey Kluber falls into this same mold. Six months each year, every fifth day has been a number 28 staple headlined by a silent and apathetic dissection of opposing offenses. Curves, movement, and command form the recipe that he sought; also sought by hoards of wannabes from high school teens and minor league twenty-somethings. The finished product is filled with whiffs and weak contact, which usually precede enough frustrated, shocked, and awestruck expressions from opposing hitters to fill a gif bank.
Recently, however, the whiffs have been fewer. The expressions have changed. We have not been able to appreciate every fifth day in the same capacity. What was once categorized by subconscious euphoria has been neutralized by unwelcome interruptions. Those interruptions are the most prominent Corey Kluber problem at hand, spearheaded by an inability to effectively manage contact.
The share of hard contact Kluber permits is a great predictor of how he will fare. The correlation is logical — harder hit balls equals higher earned run average. A cursory look at the data displays previous ERA spikes were more fluky, while the most current rendition seems more troubling. Previously unmatched effectiveness in 2017 took a sharp turn for the worse near the start of 2018.
The view from above, or one thousand foot glance, at the problem reveals a simple contact authority dilemma. But aerial views rarely encapsulate the root of the issue. Such a view might depict a building engulfed in flames, which is important to know… however, one cannot ascertain why the building is engulfed in flames. There is no actionable data from one thousand feet. Following that cue, understanding that Kluber is getting shelled is not actionable, so drilling further to a Google Maps street view is necessary.
The street view digs into velocity, a known strength turned foe for Corey Kluber. While his age ticks up, his velocity dips. A normal relationship that should be expected. The degree to which, though, is perhaps most disconcerting. While he maintained effective velocity levels, or ones he could mask by upping the ante on his curveball usage, through 2017, the state of his velocity outputs teetered a tad too far over the ledge in 2018.
The lowest of lows occurred at the culmination of 2018, a season in which he led the American League in innings pitched at 215. We can make reasonable assumptions about workload, but reactionary rehashes of tired arguments is a fickle exercise. The knowledge that he pitched too much is not actionable, as we cannot remove innings from his arm. We can only point out the direction that 2019 is taking him. That direction is murky, even for the most optimistic prognisticators.
On the first day of the season, he skirted by Minnesota Twins hitters in way that wasn’t Kluber-like. Loud outs, ample contact, and a meager strikeout total didn’t tell the whole story, though he took a perfect game past the midway point. Two runs permitted in what was objectively a solid outing. The velocity marks were not favorable but, as he did in 2018, Kluber weaved and shuddered his way through a quality start.
His second outing, against the Chicago White Sox, was an unmitigated disaster. He managed respectable peripheral marks like a 12% whiff rate and a mediocre 87.1 mile per hour average exit velocity allowed. The caveat? It was against a disastrously young Chicago White Sox offense that lacks punch. Even further, his fastball velocity hovered around 90 miles per hour all afternoon.
The hurdle point for Kluber is 93 miles per hour. When throwing his fastball and sinker at least 93 miles per hour, they effectively manage contact. Since 2015, the slugging percentage against these pitches is 0.387. However, when they fall short of that mark, a different picture is created. The slugging percentage against Kluber fastballs and sinkers that fall short of 93 miles per hour is 0.459. Essentially, hitters slug more like 2018 Edwin Encarnacion against the slower offerings and 2018 Jason Kipnis against the faster offerings. A vast difference that illustrates how important velocity is in Corey Kluber’s efforts.
Sure, one can pitch poorly. Sure, one can get roughed up by a bad team. These are not subjective proclamations but are intentionally vague. Where does it become a cause for concern? When the main driver of your contact mitigation vehicle slows to a trickle. For Corey Kluber, it is not necessary to slam the panic button at this juncture… but that button should never escape your wingspan on days he takes the mound. That is, unless that velocity trend line makes a u-turn.
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