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Trend Spotting: On Corey Kluber and a few offseason concerns

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Kluber

(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Corey Kluber is the most interesting man in the world. Perhaps that is an overstatement, but his quiet, complex demeanor is so entirely appealing.

Indeed, his Calvin Coolidge-esque silence is oddly compelling, monitoring Kluber’s changing facial expressions on the mound, or lack thereof, is reminiscent – at least for myself – of another, former Cleveland starter.

Kluber’s facial expressions offer incredible intensity, yet it is accompanied by some Zen like poise.

In order to create clarity, surrounding this comparison, I believe that it is reasonable to compare on facet of a player to another without saying they are equivalent beings in every manner.

Thus, in terms of on mound composure, and more accurately focus, Kluber is eerily similar to former ace Cliff Lee. Of course there were times early in his career where Lee would lose his temper and show frustration. But in terms of makeup on the mound they are opposite handed mirrors.

Of course, composure only extends as far as talent allows it too. In Kluber’s case, the talent always existed but prior to this season tapping into his upside had been a struggle.

Many, who followed his time in Columbus would talk about inconsistency, flashing plus stuff, but being unable to be steady over a collection of starts; which for someone with a nearly unshakable mentality seems somewhat surprising.

This year it all clicked. Kluber took a massive step forward, one that even the most ardent Kluber supporter could never have predicted. When a player takes such a dynamic step in the right direction, the immediate question becomes is the production sustainable moving forward.

As we begin to see the Indians wave a thankful goodbye to Ubaldo Jimenez, and unfortunately Scott Kazmir, the performance of Danny SalazarJustin Masterson, Kluber and Zach McAllister becomes increasingly important.

It is worth noting, when evaluating Kluber’s 2013 season, that if not for his pesky finger injury his season very likely would have been on equal footing with both Masterson and Jimenez.

In terms of surface statistics Kluber posted the following line: 11-5, 147.1 IP, 3.85 ERA, and 136 K.

While I in many ways agree with win killing vigilante Brian Kenny, because of its imperfections as a statistic, I included it because it retains value to many. I also think in Kluber’s case it speaks to his capacity to continually provide quality starts, which while dependent on offensive production adds some meaning to the idea of the win. Of course, quality starts (QS) is a far more valuable stat, but I digress.

The first question we must address is; what made Kluber so much more effective in 2013?

Often times when evaluating how a player will make the jump to the big leagues the most frequent stats discussed for both pitchers and hitters are strikeout rate as well as walk rate.

They are not binding but have a powerful predictive nature as to how players will fare at the next level. In Kluber’s case however, the large shift in these numbers were the foundation of his success.

In Kluber’s seven minor league seasons, he posted the following cumulative statistics: 9.1 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 2.54 K/BB, 1.405 WHIP.

In 2013, at the big league level: 8.31 K/9, 2.92 BB/9, 4.12 K/BB, 1.26 WHIP.

Indeed it is incredibly obvious that his improvement was solely based on his ability to control the strike zone.

Year IP F-Strike % O-Swing % O-Contact %
2012 63.0 56.9% 28.3% 53.3%
2013 147.1 60% 29.4% 55%

Of course, we are dealing with a highly limited sample but it is fairly easy to see the reason for differentiation.  The first major piece is the first pitch strike percentage, a shift from well below average to league average. While one would like to see another step forward in this progression, it is a very good first step playing a huge role in his step forward.

One can see the impacts this creates on other important facets of his game. When pitcher’s with above average stuff harness the ability to get ahead in counts they can improve at incredible rates. This is the case with Kluber.

Corey is able to play his secondary stuff more effectively because of his increased ability to get ahead in the count. Over the past month I have really emphasized this for seemingly every Indians starter, the reason being that Kluber, McAllister, Jimenez and Masterson all took a step forward in this category.

It seems as if every season a new pitching coach emphasizes getting ahead in the count and the power of pitching ahead in the count.

How Callaway did it, I do not know, but he was able to get four starters to control their fastballs and get ahead in counts. This shift was absolutely essential to the Indians improvement this season.

Returning to Kluber, we see the affect we see with every pitcher when they get ahead in counts: increased chase. Hitters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone more and more frequently; which protects his strikeout rate and increases bad contact.

In terms of Kluber specifically, he has noted that he changed the grip on his fastball, which has allowed increased command. Whether this is the sole reason for his improved walk rate we can’t establish, but it is clear it played a significant role.

The other piece that his repertoire shift affected was his ground ball tendency.  Kluber now relies on a fastball which has the movement necessary to be qualified as a sinker, specifically a major improvement in downward movement over the fastball he relied on last season.  This varied usage created a substantive decrease in fly ball rate and a slight increase in groundballs.

A final piece before closing on Kluber is the batted balls in play (BABIP) and line drive rate. While his BABIP against will likely shift in his favor next season, I doubt it will do so drastically because he has an elevated line drive rate.

In closing on Kluber, it appears that his grip change as well as assistance from Mickey Callaway has allowed him to make legitimate improvements, which would lead us to believe that his ascendancy is sustainable. Furthermore, I believe we could see another step forward, putting him in the range of a fringe two-starter or plus-plus three-starter.

A Tribe Rumor I Like:

  • Interest in Carlos Beltran 
    • Beltran is the perfect veteran addition as he can still be an impact guy offensively. 
    • The Indians would be able to protect his health with their depth. 
    • Unfortunately, NY and Boston are both interested as well.

A Tribe Rumor I Hate:

  • Interest in Brian Wilson and Fernando Rodney
    • I have no interest in paying a closer type unless on a minor league reclamation contract.
    • Closers are consistently overpriced commodities with high attrition rates.
    • If the Indians spend more than $5 million per on a closer they are allocating resources ineffectively.

Recommendation:

Site editor Jim Pete wrote an unbelievably sound piece on the position the Tribe is in during this offseason. If you have not read it yet, you are missing out.  Jim is a huge reason why this site offers such incredible coverage of the Tribe.

If you want to be truly absorbed by a story about the Tribe, here is the link.

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Author: Michael Hattery

I am a pre-law student at Clarkson University obsessed with all sports Cleveland. I am a columnist at Cleveland Sports Insiders, IBI and the managing editor of the Clarkson Integrator. As well as raconteur extraordinaire. You can follow me @MichaelHattery.

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