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Kluber proving he belongs in the big leagues

Pitcher proving his worth despite the skepticism

Kluber proving he belongs in the big leagues
June 18, 2013
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“He’s garbage! Cut him! Send him back to the minors!”

That was the general consensus of many Indians fans shortly afterMiguel Cabrera crushed a 3-run home run off young Indians right-hander Corey Kluber at Comerica Park on May 10th. By the time Kluber was pulled from the game, his earned run total on the night was eight in just four and two thirds innings spiking his ERA to 5.64.

At the time, Kluber’s ability to pitch against elite hitters was in question. A month later, however, the right-hander ends up pitching eight dominant innings in back-to-back starts against the Rangers and Nationals, who are about two of the most elite ball clubs you can get offensively earning him Co-American League Player of the Week honors along with teammate Jason Kipnis.

Now, after 11 appearances with the Tribe in 2013 (10 starts), Kluber is 5-4 with a 3.58 ERA, a very respectable stat line for a guy who is basically only a sixth starter filling in for injured veteran starter right-hander Brett Myers.

Corey Scott Kluber was born on April 10th, 1986 in Birmingham, Alabama. Pitching for Coppell High School, Kluber was a two-time all-district performer. His baseball career took off at Stetson University in central Florida. In 2007, Kluber pitched his way to the ABCA All-Atlantic Region second team going 12-2 with a 2.05 ERA in 17 starts earning him Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year honors.

After his junior year at Stetson, Kluber was selected by the San Diego Padres in the fourth round of the 2007 draft. From 2008 to 2010, the right hander received Pitcher of the Week honors in the Midwest League (A), California League (A-Advanced) and Texas League (AA). Despite the accolades, Kluber has posted underwhelming numbers over the course of his minor league career going 44-50 with a 4.42 ERA, including a forgettable AAA campaign in 2011 going 7-11 with a 5.56 ERA.

As part of a trade-deadline mega deal between the Padres, Cardinals and Indians in 2010, the Tribe received Kluber as a minor league pitching prospect from San Diego as they sent veteran right-hander Jake Westbrook to St. Louis, who in turn sent outfielder Ryan Ludwick to the Padres. Kluber made his major league debut on September 1st as a reliever with the Indians pitching an inning and a third of shutout ball against Oakland allowing only two hits and striking out two.

Kluber is a pitcher that relies on commanding the strike zone to be successful. He uses mostly a fastball and slider, but also throws the occasional changeup and cutter. Location is key in Kluber’s game as well. Pounding the strike zone and working both sides of the plate is where the right-hander can find dominance. His ability to work inside to both right-handed and left-handed hitters is one of the things that have made Kluber successful, plus as a recent development, he can throw a fastball with movement as quick as 96 mph.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Nationals all-star outfielder Jayson Werth who spoke highly of Kluber after being shut out 2-0 by the right-hander.

"I tell you what, the stuff that [Kluber] had, that's probably top-five stuff that we'll see all year. He had some really good stuff, especially when he had to make pitches. He even stepped it up a little bit. We had our chances, obviously, but he outpitched us."

One particular thing that stood out about Kluber in his recent eight-inning shutout performance against Washington was his mental toughness and calm composure despite the fact that he had runners in scoring position with no outs not once, but three times during the game and preserved the shutout. Considering that Stephen Strasburgand the Washington bullpen had held the Tribe offense to one run until the eighth inning, thus giving Kluber almost no room for error, he performed just about as well as you could hope for.

"Once we got into those jams," Kluber said after his start against Washington, "I was just trying to take it pitch by pitch and not get ahead of myself and get too far into the inning, just worry about executing each pitch and pitch to the situation.”

The downside with Kluber, which will likely keep his ceiling down to being just a #3 through #5 starter in a big league rotation, is the fact that strike zone command is the only way he can be successful. If he starts in a game and doesn’t have a feel for the zone within the first couple innings, he’ll either be chased out of the game by the opposing team’s offense or be given the hook early due to a high pitch count.

Unlike his teammates such as Tribe ace Justin Masterson and fellow young right-hander Zach McAllister, Kluber up to this point in his career has not figured out how to work around not having his best stuff during a game. Teams like Detroit will almost certainly take advantage of any command issues Kluber may have during a game (like they did on May 10th), so if he ever learns to pitch even when his stuff is not that great on a given night, look out.

The good news is so far this season Kluber has had good command more often than not and despite being shelled in Detroit and having a start shortened by rain against Tampa Bay, he has averaged six innings and only 2.5 earned runs allowed per start. That's middle of the rotation performance.

Two months ago, Kluber was brought up from AAA as a long-relief option for the bullpen. He then was assigned a spot in the rotation after veteran right-hander Brett Myers went down with injury. At the time, it seemed only temporary, but when Myers’ recovery period became longer than expected and Kluber began impressing as a starter, it’s become more and more apparent that the 27-year-old won’t be losing his spot in the rotation anytime soon.

Tribe skipper Terry Francona said the same thing after both of Kluber’s starts against Texas and Washington, "Right in front of our eyes, we're seeing a kid mature into a really good pitcher."

Is Corey Kluber the second coming of Cy Young? No, of course not. He may not even be the second coming of Jake Westbrook, the guy whom the Indians traded to get Kluber. But there are three things Kluber does to contribute to the Indians’ success: throw strikes, hang tough and give the team a chance to win just about every time he takes the mound. Can you really ask for much more?

Jake Dungan is a communications student at Stark State College and an intern with the Akron RubberDucks. Follow him on Twitter @MajorLeagueJake.

User Comments

June 18, 2013 - 7:55 PM EDT
He played with Bernadina on sunday, tried to make him swing at garbage on 3 straight pitches, on the fourth painted the corner, and on 5 made him groundout. I agree, he's got great control
June 18, 2013 - 5:29 PM EDT
Seth: +1
June 18, 2013 - 4:17 PM EDT
I mean fangraphs is his following his starts because of how much break his pitches have. I don't think he's the 6th starter anymore or filling in for Myers. Kluber is here to stay. Myers was a risky pick-up with upside and didnt work, Myers is garbage and most likely done as a starter. Not to mention he's not far from TJ surgery. And who knows, Kluber may end up better than Jake Westbrook, not likely, but not impossible.
June 18, 2013 - 2:33 PM EDT
I'll admit I was one of the fans that apparently sold Kluber short. I thought he might develop into a 4/5 SP at the best. But I've always thought he'd settle in as a Longman in the pen. He's pitching the bets I've seen him. My only question is, "how much of an influence has Mickey Callaway had on him and the other SP in this staff?" I think Callway should get credit for working well this staff as a whole.
June 18, 2013 - 1:30 PM EDT
Nice piece, Jake. Kluber reminds me of a young, right-handed Cliff Lee, who could paint the black on both corners of the plate. Cliff's fastball never topped 92mph with the Tribe, so Kluber has a little more pop.
June 18, 2013 - 1:30 PM EDT
I think "relies on commanding the strike zone" sells Kluber a bit short. It's not like he's a soft-tosser, he has the best velocity on the staff after Carrasco and his 11.1% swinging strike rate is elite, same as Verlander's actually. Every pitcher needs command to succeed of course. Kluber's issues have always seemed to be that he has good command most of the time but will then miss in the zone and throw some meatballs. Almost that he throws too many strikes. Against Washington, he was hitting his target a few inches off the plate consistently. He and Carrasco are fun to watch when they are on their game.

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