Corey Kluber and Kluberization: Ditching the Four-Seam

If Corey Kluber‘s road to the big leagues was long and winding, the reason for his recent success might be short and simple. One day, some time in 2011, the pitcher finally gave up on his four-seam fastball and started throwing a two-seamer. And now you have the current Corey Kluber. A contrite pitcher talking about a simple change doesn’t make for a long interview, but the Corey Kluber Process might be applicable to some other young pitchers around the league.

Kluber does have great offspeed stuff. His change-up (22%), slider (20%), and cutter (15%) are all above-average by whiff rates. That’s no small feat. The list of other starting pitchers with three above-average whiff rates on offspeed pitches is very short: Yu Darvish, Matt Harvey, Felix Hernandez, Tim Lincecum, and Jerome Williams. That last name — the last two names these days? — should give you pause. “All of that other stuff plays off the fastball, if you’re not consistent with the fastball, none of that other stuff is going to be as good,” said Kluber before a game against the Athletics this week.

So, despite having a great mix of secondary pitches, Kluber has had to find his way to the big leagues by improving his fastball. “I was getting hit around and was having trouble working consistently down in the zone,” said Kluber of 2011, when he had an ERA over five in Triple-A. Big league pitching coach Mickey Callaway and then-Triple-A pitching coach Ruben Niebla conferenced with the pitcher and advocated the two-seamer. The change has taken to Kluber — “I hardly ever throw the four-seamer any more.”

Now he’s got a sinker that coaxes mostly grounders. Now he’s got three pitches that go for grounders. The fastball is the most-thrown pitch in baseball, and now he has one. (No, he never discussed the idea of throwing his cut fastball as his number one, he said.)

Now the Indians’ right-hander is getting used to the pitch. “It’s a pretty drastic change to throw the ball differently than you’ve thrown it your whole life,” Kluber said, adding that he’s getting more comfortable with it every day despite the change-up being his biggest “feel pitch” that requires as much practice. A little uptick in velocity on the fastball and improved walk rates seem to reflect that he’s good with the two-seamer now.

This transformation, at least in retrospect, seems so easy. Three main fastball grips are there for pitchers to use, and they’ve been fiddling with that pitch the longest in their lives. The fastball is the first thing you’re allowed to throw. It also builds up a sample fairly quickly — are there other Klubers out there? Could some bad fastballs undergo the Corey Kluber Process?

I suppose we’d be looking for a four-seamer with a bad whiff rate on a pitcher that doesn’t already throw many two-seamers. Taking only those starters that threw more than 750 four-seamers last year, and then sorting those for the worst whiff rates, you get 20 pitchers who get fewer than 4.5% swinging strikes on their four-seamer (the average four-seamer in that group got a 6.7% swinging strike rate). Here are those 20, with their number of two-seamers listed in the last column.

Pitcher Four-Seamers 4-seam swSTR Two-Seamers
Jason Vargas 857 0.026 467
Scott Diamond 1411 0.027 #N/A
Jhoulys Chacin 1016 0.030 758
Ryan Dempster 1180 0.035 219
Esmil Rogers 923 0.037 438
Jarrod Parker 757 0.037 1141
Yovani Gallardo 885 0.037 594
Mark Buehrle 1004 0.038 634
Hyun-Jin Ryu 959 0.039 683
Jeremy Hellickson 952 0.039 600
Tyson Ross 1018 0.039 164
Justin Grimm 861 0.040 113
Dylan Axelrod 772 0.042 289
Tommy Milone 1200 0.043 229
Edwin Jackson 1554 0.043 341
Ivan Nova 772 0.043 489
Paul Clemens 782 0.044 6
Joe Blanton 753 0.044 #N/A
Jeremy Guthrie 1196 0.044 #N/A
Tom Koehler 1044 0.045 221

I don’t know that Joe Blanton and Jeremy Guthrie would really be in the same class as a young Kluber. They’ve probably made their bed by now.

Even among the younger names, though, it’s hard to spot someone with the offspeed resume that Kluber had when he made the change to his fastball grip. Scott Diamond has actually been throwing more two-seamers lately by Brooks Baseball (the numbers above are from our PITCHF/x database) and they are getting 63% ground balls. Though he only has the plus curve otherwise, it could make him more valuable than he was in the past. Considering how good Tyson Ross‘ slider is, and the fact that his 200 or so two-seamers got a 73% ground-ball rate, and that his four-seam didn’t get the whiffs you’d like, maybe more sinkers would serve him well (despite the platoon splits).

Justin Grimm has a good curve, slider and a change-up he can use for grounders. His four-seam didn’t get whiffs or grounders last year, and his two-seam got 63% grounders. By Brooks Baseball, Paul Clemens didn’t throw a two-seamer despite a bad four-seamer and a good change and curve — with his poor ground-ball rate, he might be a prime candidate for Kluberization. Tom Koehler gets good whiffs on a change and slider combo, but his four-seam ended up on this list. These might be your best Klubers, looking for a way to make it in the big leagues despite a bad four-seamer.

Try the two-seamer. It just might save your career.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

17 Responses to “Corey Kluber and Kluberization: Ditching the Four-Seam”

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  1. rob says:

    didn’t help him much on wednesday.

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  2. tz says:

    This is great stuff. Now I’ll be thinking of guys who could benefit from trading in their four-seamer for a two-seamer as well.

    Eno, you have convinced me of the uniqueness of Corey Kluber

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  3. ac1212 says:

    His sinker was awful last year. According to Brooksbaseball, he threw it 49% of the time last year. It got 48% ground balls (his cutter got 46% ground balls), was hit to a .342 BA and a .543 slugging (cutter .205/.288), and his sinker gave up 11 of his 15 home runs.
    Since his sinker doesn’t have a great ground ball rate, gets pounded, and doesn’t get whiffs, he should not be using it as his primary pitch.

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  4. Eno Sarris says:

    It has an average ground ball rate and balls in play for loch types is problematic. I know the four seamer looks ok now but it didn’t work as his primary. Was serious about asking him if he’d ever use the cutter as primary though. I’d say by whiffs and grounders his sinker is average and it’s entirely possible his four seamer was terrible.

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    • ac1212 says:

      I’d want more out of his two seamer than league average ground ball rate in order to be okay with the beating that it takes otherwise.

      For his career, Brooksbaseball has him at 1652 two seamers, and 139 four seamers, so it’s safe to say that his wFB is a good gauge of his two seamer success. Since 2012, his wFB/C is -1.79 which is the worst for any pitcher with at least 200 innings pitched. I’d like to see him try to use his cutter as his primary.

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      • Feeding the Abscess says:

        Is there a way to check his linear pitch weights by batter handedness? Two-seamers and sliders have the largest platoon splits of any pitches, so if his two-seamer is getting hammered by lefties and is shutting down or is otherwise passable against righties, it could be as (relatively) simple as throwing cutters in lieu of two-seamers to left-handed batters.

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        • ac1212 says:

          The best I can find are things like GB%, batting average, slugging, etc. for handedness.

          Vs. RHH

          Two seamer: 713 pitches thrown, 56% GB, .356 AVG, .522 SLG, .378 BABIP, 3.5% whiffs.

          Cutter: 431 pitches thrown, 42% GB, .262 AVG, .408 SLG, .293 BABIP, 16.7% whiffs.

          Vs. LHH

          Two seamer: 939 pitches thrown, 38% GB, .367 AVG, .628 SLG, .382 BABIP, 4.6% whiffs.

          Cutter: 379 pitches thrown, 54% GB, .168 AVG, .179 SLG, .232 BABIP, 12.9% whiffs.

          You’re right about the splits. The two seamer is much worse against LHH than RHH, and the cutter looks pretty nice in what I assume is a small sample for LHH. I prefer the cutter to RHH as well, but the two seamer definitely performs better, especially the GB%.

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  5. Max says:

    I’ve always been a fan of the Two-seamer. If your fastball doesn’t have movement and you’re getting punished for it why not?

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  6. Brad Johnson says:

    I was never able to get much movement on my two seamer. I did eventually discover a nasty cutter by rotating my 4 seam grip 30 degrees (I already had a little natural run to start with).

    I also had success with a dry spitter grip, but it was terribly hard to control. If I threw it at the bottom of the zone, it barely moved and hitters could pound it. If I tried to throw just below the strike zone, it dove like a splitter and bounced near the back of the plate (not great if you have a crappy catcher). Hardly anyone swung. If I cheated and used a sweat spitter, it would bounce at 58 feet, move a random direction sideways, and induce swings. But I hit too many batters with it.

    I say this to give insight into the pitch development process. It’s not as easy as saying “I should throw a 2 seamer.” You have to find a grip that works with your mechanics. Ostensibly, some pitchers won’t have any grip that works with their mechanics.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      Yes I didn’t mean to imply I know better than their hitting coaches, that was me just trying to find the next Kluber. But some of these guys, at least, throw a decent two-seamer already and just need to flip the numbers in my opinion.

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  7. I’ve long felt that Phil Hughes could benefit from throwing a two-seamer. According to Pitch F/X he threw a decent one in 2010, and happened to have (arguably) the best season of his career.

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  8. Dolemite says:

    I think Kyle Lohse went through this when he got to the Cards and Dave Duncan made him ditch his Fourseamer for a sinker. Looking at it now, the numbers back that up. He got to the Cards in 2008 and posted a 3.78 ERA throwing 60% FF and no sinkers. Every years after he dropped his FF % and increased his SI%. His last year with the Cards he was 10% FF 43%SI and posted a sub 3 ERA.

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  9. tom says:

    damn. I just need to know if Kluber is a keeper or pick up vargas or hammel. great stuff though. Appreciate the insight.

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