2014 Key Players: Corey Kluber
The final player in my 2014 Key Players list is Corey Kluber.
Kluber becomes the second starting pitcher on the list, after Danny Salazar. Other articles focused on Yan Gomes, Michael Bourn, and John Axford. As discussed in the Salazar article, the Indians starting pitching staff will be trying to fill two significant holes left by the defections of Scott Kazmir and Ubaldo Jimenez. While Salazar fills one of those spots, and some combination of Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin will try to fill the other, it’s Kluber who will slot behind Justin Masterson and be tasked with helping him carry the rotation.
It’s an amazing rise Kluber has undergone to get to this point.
Take a step back and think back to this date one year ago. Did you really foresee Corey Kluber being one of the five most crucial elements to a prospective playoff team? This is a pitcher who was never considered much of a prospect. He was an interesting arm because he routinely recorded high strikeout rates, but those numbers were recorded at an advanced age and not much else stood out.
At age 22, Kluber struggled to the tune of a 6.01 ERA in High-A. At 23, he had a 4.54 ERA in 109 innings at High-A, but struck out over a batter per nine innings and eventually was given a promotion. He finished that season with 45 innings in AA with a disastrous 35:34 KK/BB ratio. At age 24, Kluber struck out 136 batters in 122 innings in AA before being traded to Cleveland in the midst of the best season of his minor league career.
With Cleveland in 2011, Kluber similarly struggled in his first go-around in a new league. Then 25, he pitched 150 innings for Columbus and managed only a 5.56 ERA. How many pitchers can you remember putting up those numbers in AAA at age 25 and becoming solid major league starters just two years later? That’s the rise that Kluber has had. A year later he recorded a 3.56 ERA in 125 innings in AAA, raising his strikeout rate and reducing his walk rate in the process. He earned a 12-start cameo in Cleveland which on the surface may have not looked great (5.15 ERA) but his peripheral numbers were strong, 54:16 K/BB rate and a 3.99 xFIP.
Still, the encouraging year didn’t quite put Kluber in position to gain a spot in an Indians rotation that was in flux. Kluber was billed as being in competition for the fourth or fifth starter spot, but only pitched seven forgettable innings in spring training. Zach McAllister won the fourth starter spot, Kazmir won the fifth starter job, and Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco were considered depth. In the minors, David Huff was one of the last cuts from camp and still working as a starter, and Daisuke Matsuzaka was retained after not making the team. Kluber found himself in a clouded rotation depth picture.
However, due to injuries from Kazmir and Brett Myers, and Carrasco’s headhunting, Kluber earned a chance early in the season and never looked back. Called up initially to serve in the bullpen, he quickly worked his way into the rotation and finished as one of the best pitchers on the staff. Kluber finished the season with 147.1 innings pitched, a 3.85 ERA (3.10 xFIP), and an exceptional 4.12 SO/BB rate.
When a player comes relatively out of nowhere to post those types of numbers, our first question is whether or not it’s a fluke.
If you take a deeper look into Kluber’s progress over the last few years, his numbers don’t look like a fluke. When he was drafted, Kluber’s fastball sat around 90 MPH. Last year, it wasn’t rare to see him working in the mid-90’s. Another reason for his step forward is improved command. In seven minor league seasons Kluber has never posted a walk rate as low as what he did in Cleveland last year. That would be another troubling sign of a fluke, but his walk rate has gradually gone down over the last several years. His BB/9 ratio in Columbus in 2011 was 4.2. That number went to 3.5 the next year in AAA and 2.52 in his 12 starts in Cleveland. Last year his ratio was 2.0.
The added velocity and sharper command have made him a new pitcher, a legitimate major league starter.
There were also some changes to his repertoire that have helped. Kluber began throwing his two-seam fastball midway through the 2012 season. That’s helped him generate more groundballs and limit his HR rate, which is one thing that he still struggles with. Prior to that, in 2011, he began throwing his cutter - which statistically could be considered his best pitch. Last year, his two-seam fastball and cutter accounted for roughly 75% of his total pitches. That’s quite the makeover in a short period of time, but one that has turned him into a much more effective pitcher.
Kluber’s other pitches consider of a slider (sometimes referred to as a curveball) and a changeup, both of which he’s been throwing his entire career. What really makes Kluber special is that both of his off-speed offerings generate high swinging strike percentages. That lends credence to the belief that Kluber can sustain his strikeout rate moving forward.
If Kluber can sustain his strikeout and walk rates, he’ll continue to have success at the major league level.
That’s just one part of the puzzle. The Indians need Kluber to become an innings eater this season. Despite having just 214.2 innings under his belt at the major league level, the Indians are hopeful he can give them around 200 this season. Unlike someone like Salazar, Kluber will not be handled with ‘kid gloves’ and won’t be under any restrictions. He’s going to be expected to perform like a number two starter in performance, durability, and workload.
I’m optimistic that he will.
Kluber has everything it takes to be successful. He has exceptional movement on his off-speed pitches, allowing him to record solid strikeout numbers. He can retire lefties and righties equally well, he has some of the best control of the pitchers in the rotation, and his primary pitch allows him to induce plenty of groundballs. He’s composed on the mound, he’s been durable throughout his minor league career, and I truly feel he has the upside to become even better as he continues to hone his two-seam fastball.
On the Indians staff, Kluber is the number two starter mostly by default. However, it’s hard to imagine the state of the rotation without him. He’s an invaluable piece of the puzzle this year. When the smoke clears, regardless of how this season turns out for the team, I expect that Kluber will not only have cemented himself as a top pitcher on the Indians, but in major league baseball as a whole.
And, again, Masterson has never put up back-to-back strong seasons in his career, so he is hardly a "slam dunk," all the more reason why I think the Indians are not jumping at the chance to throw that much of their payroll into one player, even if it would be for only two years.
The Indians may want to see how 2014 plays out before they consider whether throwing a high amount of money at Masterson would be the right move, even if it would potentially lessen their chances of retaining him because he would be closer to free agency. Plus, they may be taking him at his word that he would be willing to reopen discussions on a possible extension before he reaches free agency in the offseason.
One reason the Tribe may be hesitate to agree to Masterson's demands....they very well could have two pitchers better than him already on the staff. Would not shock me at all if both Salazar and Kluber outpitch Masterson this year. While having a guy like Masterson around in addition to them is not at all a bad thing....Tribe may not want to allocate such a large portion of the payroll to a guy that may only be the #3 starter on the team. Kluber had a lower FIP, xFIP, much loser walk rate and better K/BB ratio than Masterson last year...
Kluber has only thrown 212 innings in the bigs the last two years, but has nearly 350 total innings the last two years, including 188 in 2012. As with any pitcher, health is obviously key but 200 innings shouldn't be an issue for him IMO.