Corey Kluber: Major League Ace

I’ll begin my second post here at FanGraphs with a lazy comparison, sure to denounce any iota of credibility I’ve yet had the chance to establish.

2013-Present GS ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
David Price 37 3.59 3.08 3.08 22.2% 3.2% 44.5% 0.95
Corey Kluber 34 3.72 3.00 2.99 23.7% 5.4% 45.7% 0.80

Now, Corey Kluber isn’t David Price. We know that. But that’s over a full season’s worth of data from which to draw a conclusion, and Kluber has pretty much matched Price across the board. Price is one of the faces of baseball, who will almost certainly be cashing in for well over $100 million when he hits free agency in 2016, while Corey Kluber is mostly known as that guy who doesn’t smile.

Last season, Kluber emerged as a legitimate MLB starter, posting the 24th-best FIP in the MLB (3.30), right ahead of Homer Bailey, and the 12th-best xFIP (3.10), sandwiched between Jose Fernandez and Stephen Strasburg. Most pitchers who, in their first full body of work, post these kind of numbers become “sensations” or “phenoms,” like Fernandez and Strasburg themselves. Instead, Kluber was often referred to as the Indians third or fourth-best pitcher. A big reason why is because Kluber is already 28 years old and was never considered a real prospect. Part of it was due to his 3.85 ERA, which was still good, but didn’t match his dominant peripherals. It could have something to do with Justin Masterson having his best year and emerging as a team leader while Ubaldo Jimenez resurrected his career and Danny Salazar struck out everybody he faced in his first 10 MLB starts. Or you could say it’s because Kluber’s on-field personality is best described as: “absent.”

This season, Masterson’s strikeouts are down, his walks up and he has an ERA north of 5.00. Jimenez is in Baltimore and Salazar is in Triple-A. Meanwhile, Kluber’s 3.43 ERA is creeping closer to matching last year’s peripherals, and his peripherals are getting even better. By WAR, Kluber has been the most valuable pitcher in baseball this season, tied with Yu Darvish and Jon Lester and immediately ahead of Felix Hernandez and Masahiro Tanaka.

Whether it be his age, his prospect status, his lack of exuberance or something else that leaves him underappreciated, it might be time to start viewing Corey Kluber not only as the ace of the Cleveland Indians staff, but a true major league ace.

So how did a 27-year-old fringe prospect transform himself into one of the MLB’s better pitchers in less than two years time? Kluber will tell you that it started with the two-seamer. Kluber never threw a two-seam fastball until Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway advised him before the 2012 season to ditch his four-seam fastball for the sinking two-seamer in an effort to work down in the strike zone more often and generate ground balls. Now, Kluber throws it half the time. On the first pitch, he throws it 60% of the time. In a hysterical in-game interview from Tuesday, Kluber credited getting ahead of hitters as the most important thing to his success, and the two-seamer is what he uses to get ahead of hitters.

“I think the biggest thing for me is always just being aggressive and trying to attack the strike zone. Trying to avoid falling behind hitters is the biggest key for me and probably most pitchers. Obviously, it’s a lot easier to hit when you’re ahead in the count and you can try to zone in on the one pitch you’re looking for.”

Here’s Kluber on the first pitch, perfectly spotting his two-seamer with great movement to get ahead in the count on Edwin Encarnacion, one of the MLB’s best power hitters:

klubsink

And if it was Kluber’s two-seam fastball that put him on the map, it’s his cut fastball that helped turn him into an ace. Despite PITCHf/x calling it a slider, likely due to the massive amount of horizontal movement it has, Kluber himself calls it a cutter and Brooks Baseball knows better and classifies it as such. But before we talk about Corey Kluber’s cutter, let’s put it into context. Below are the 10 most valuable pitches in baseball since the beginning of 2013, according to PITCHf/x run values.

Behold:

Player Pitch Type Value
Yu Darvish Slider 43.5
Clayton Kershaw Fastball 40.5
Jose Fernandez Curveball 31.8
Max Scherzer Fastball 28.0
Cole Hamels Changeup 27.3
Justin Masterson Slider 23.1
Corey Kluber Cutter 22.4
Adam Wainwright Curveball 22.0
Hyun-Jin Ryu Changeup 21.7
Lance Lynn Fastball 21.5

Included in this table are:

a.) A lot of baseball’s very best pitchers.
b.) A lot of “signature pitches” – pitches so good that guys have become known for them.
c.) Corey Kluber and his cutter.

Kluber’s cutter has a swinging strike rate of 21.2%. That is absolutely elite. To put it into more context, Yu Darvish’s slider, the most valuable pitch in baseball since the start of 2013, has a whiff rate of 18.5%. Now, an elite whiff rate is not all that makes an elite pitch. It certainly helps, but what makes Kluber’s cutter so good isn’t just its swinging strike rate, but his ability to command it. As evidenced by his fantastic 5.4% walk rate, a top-20 mark in the majors since 2013, Kluber has impeccable control.

Consider this zone breakdown of Kluber’s cutters in 2014:

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 12.40.00 PM

Kluber has an approach, and he sticks with it. He’ll pound that bottom-right quadrant for swinging strikes over and over, starting on the plate and moving it low and away.

Observe:

klubcut

91 mph + that amount of movement breaking down and away from a righty + being spotted that well = darn near impossible to hit. Pitches like those make up a big chunk of that bottom-right quadrant in the image above and his ability to consistently spot it in that location is the main reason why Kluber’s cutter is one of baseball’s very best pitches.

To lefties, he works the other side of the plate, starting outside the strike zone and cutting it in to catch the outside corner. Look at where the catcher is set up in all of these GIFs. Kluber rarely misses his spots.

klubfreeze

But Kluber doesn’t have just one “out pitch” with one of the best whiff rates in baseball, he has two. PITCHf/x calls it a curveball, Brooks Baseball calls it a slider. It’s probably best to call it a slurve. Whatever you’d like it to be called, it also has an elite whiff rate of 21.3% and Kluber isn’t afraid to throw it to a lefty or a righty.

Here’s Kluber’s slurve making the best hitter in baseball look silly:

klubslurve1

And against a lefty:

klubslurve2

He also has an above-average changeup, which he throws almost exclusively to lefties for both swings and misses and to generate ground balls, and he still occasionally pulls out the four-seam fastball, which he can crank up to 95 mph.

To put it simply, Corey Kluber has a full arsenal of well above average pitches and one of baseball’s best in his cutter. He revolutionized his career by learning a two-seam fastball that generates ground balls at an above league average rate and gets him ahead in the count. Getting ahead in the count allows him to throw an elite cutter and a great slurve to rack up strikeouts. A solid changeup which he throws to lefties allows him to minimize his platoon splits, so you can’t just stack a lineup full of lefties to beat him. He has elite strikeout and walk rates, is above league average at generating ground balls and limiting home runs, and, especially this year, has been pitching deep into games. There’s not much to dislike about what Kluber does on the mound.

Despite doing it without the fanfare of some of the game’s more exciting young pitchers, Kluber has turned himself into a legitimate front-end starter and has clearly emerged as the ace of the Indians rotation. And though he might not show it, Corey Kluber is certainly something worth smiling about.




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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


52 Responses to “Corey Kluber: Major League Ace”

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  1. Matty Brown says:

    Nice Gif’s stud

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  2. th3byrdm4n says:

    Love this. It’s chalk full of juicy gifs and includes one of the best in-game interviews in a while.

    Is there a protection program for Fangraphs authors who write of Kluber and fail to mention THE SOCIETY?

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  3. Hrmm says:

    I feel there’s something tragic about these guys. Kluber, due to breaking into the league at a somewhat advanced age, has only a remote shot to get paid during his career. He doesn’t get a shot in free agency until his age 34 season! There’s something intrinsically unfair about that.

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    • Roger says:

      I could feel bad if the league minimum weren’t a half million a year. He’ll gross in 2 years what it would take my wife and I together 10 years to gross.

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      • Josh Shepardson says:

        Have you and your wife worked tirelessly on honing your craft on what would be your career job since you were around 4-6 years old? Comparing any non-entertainment job professional sports is silly, and it’s something that needs to go the way of the Dodo. Maybe the word “tragic” was extreme in the initial post, but the suggestion that MLB’s payment system seems unfair is reasonable.

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        • Dub Tee says:

          It’s not reasonable. When a player is good for a decent amount of time and has time on his side, he gets paid more because it’s more likely he will continue to be better. He’ll make enough money to never have to worry about money again.

          Seems reasonable enough to me.

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    • Marco says:

      I suspect the Indians would jump at the chance to cut this guy a $25M check for his arb years and FA1.

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  4. OhBeepy says:

    Holy shit someone wrote an entire article on FanGraphs about Corey Kluber without mentioning Carson Cistulli.

    And they called him the Messiah.

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  5. Lucky Strikes says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Loved this article. Will be interesting to see if Kluber now gets that long-term contract that was rumored and ear-marked for Masterson this off season.

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  6. MLB Rainmaker says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Nice little article there young buck!

    Important to note that before that swinging strike by Miggy, Kluber had gone high and in to Cabrera, hence the reason that swing looked so terrible…and the long stare down after it. That exchange is a perfect example of what Kluber needs to do to cement himself at that Ace level….he needs to go after those elite hitters more aggressively. The next two at bats vs. Miggy in that game, Cabrera got hits each time, including the RBI that ended up being the difference in the game, and at no point in either at bat did Kluber go inside again on Miggy again — he stayed away hoping just like the article says he does.

    IMO, the legit Ace guys have a swagger about them where they aren’t afraid to come inside or the challenge the elite hitters in the league; Think the attitude Jose Fernandez has on the mound. Going low and away consistently certainly prevents solid contact, but to claim to be an ace you need to go after Cabrera all three at bats…cause a guy like that is going to take you the opposite way and cost you the game.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      First off, thank you.

      Now, this is an interesting comment to me, so I’ll use it as an opportunity to get a comment out of the way that I likely was going to have to make anyway:

      We’re now six comments in and I’m shocked that no one has lambasted me yet, citing Kluber’s tendency to underperform his peripherals. It’s true, Kluber has allowed hard contact in his career thus far, which is what has kept his ERA from reaching truly elite levels. I can’t say for sure what the cause for this is, though I can tell you it’s his sinker that gets hit the hardest, but lately I’ve been thinking it’s a result of quite the opposite what you mention in this comment.

      Data is going out the window right now and I’m going by what I see (And I’ve watched almost every one of Kluber’s starts), but I think Kluber may actually be too stubborn in his approach. I don’t think he adapts enough to the hitters he’s facing, which is why sometimes he leaves the sinker up to a guy he shouldn’t leave it up to and it gets roped for a double.

      TJ Zuppe, who covers the Indians for 92.3 the Fan in Cleveland, tweeted at me a couple weeks ago that he thinks part of “Kluber’s charm” is that he isn’t afraid to challenge anyone, and that some of that comes with hard contact. While it’s nice that Kluber has the perceived confidence to challenge any hitter, I disagree with that being his “charm” and would instead call it a “flaw,” given the results. But I think fundamentally he may be correct.

      The one thing keeping Kluber from truly being one of the game’s absolute best pitchers is allowing hard contact. His sinker, a pitch which he hasn’t even thrown for two full seasons yet, is the catalyst behind his penchant for allowing hard-hit balls. As he grows more comfortable with that pitch, I’ll bet on the rest of his elite arsenal along the way against his inflated BABIP and ERA totals.

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      • Dick Schofield says:

        Daivid Laurila’s interview with Pedro Martinez is pertinent to this point. The best pitcher I ever saw talks about constantly adjusting…to the weather, the hitter, how you feel and so on. If you’re right and Kluber is stubborn, that could be a weakness.

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    • BDF says:

      Love that staredown. #PissedMiggy

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    • Owen says:

      Um, unless I’m mistaken, the Cabrera strikeout is from Kluber’s last start and in that game while, yes, Cabrera did get a couple hits off Kluber later in the game, he had 0 RBIs, 0 runs scored, Kluber left the game in the 8th in line to be the winning pitcher, and the Indians won the game. I don’t necessarily disagree with your point about him not adjusting throughout the game, especially to elite hitters, but the details you cited don’t seem to match up.

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    • Jack Lee says:

      Well, that RBI wasn’t the difference in the game, because the Tribe won that game.

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  7. Kevin Towers says:

    Should I trade Cliff Lee for Corey Kluber in a keeper league (where neither will likely NEED to be kept by me)?

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    • Bobby says:

      One’s healhty right now and one’s not, that would answer the question for me.

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      • Kevin Towers says:

        Josh Collementer is also healthy, idiot.

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        • chuckb says:

          I was going to make a snide comment but then I realized how much stress you’re now under at work. You’re on borrowed time and you know it.

          Try some yoga or something. Get some exercise. It’ll help with the stress so you’ll quit lashing out at people unnecessarily.

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  8. southie says:

    Simpleton observation here but when I think of an ‘ace’ it is definitely not a pitcher who gives up more hits than innings pitched no matter the circumstance or time frame.

    WHIP (I know, I know) is down and dirty but for his career (280 IPs) Kluber’s is 1.33. Not bad but he is more like a Matt Garza than say Adam Wainwright.

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  9. Matty Brown says:

    That is a fucking hilarious in-game interview.

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  10. The Humber Games says:

    Considering changing team name to Baby Seal Klubers…

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  11. ettin says:

    I call an emergency meeting! Emergency meeting everyone!

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  12. ShaunMcNamee says:

    As someone who reads Fangraphs regularly – and thus knows more about Kluber than the average fan – the most surprising thing to me in the story is that Lance Lynn’s fastball is the 10th most valuable pitch since the start of last year.

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    • Mike says:

      I’m surprised James Shields change up isn’t on the list.

      Great post though. Kluber has really transformed himself into a legit pitcher. Breaking stuff moves sooo much. Just filthy.

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      Say what you will about Lance Lynn, but he could easily be swapped into this article in place of Kluber as an underappreciated but excellent pitcher. His stats with those of the Klube-ster and Price:

      2013-Present GS ERA FIP xFIP K% BB% GB% HR/9
      David Price 37 3.59 3.08 3.08 22.2% 3.2% 44.5% 0.95
      Corey Kluber 34 3.72 3.00 2.99 23.7% 5.4% 45.7% 0.80
      Lance Lynn 43 3.89 3.24 3.62 23.0% 8.6% 43.4% 0.62

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      • BMarkham says:

        The big difference between Lynn and the other two is the fact that Lynn has some nasty platoon splits, which is responsible for the higher walk rates. Lynn throws a slider and a curve but doesn’t throw a change much at all.

        Lynn has been incredibly dominating against RHH, if he can figure out LHH he would be an ace.

        against RH for career: 9.94 K/9, 1.68 BB/9, 2.35 FIP, 2.66 xFIP
        against LH for career: 7.93 K/9, 5.41 BB/9, 4.62 FIP, 4.74 xFIP

        His numbers against LHH this year are a smidge better, but he still has a lot of improvements to make in that area. Luckily, he’s so good against RHH that he’s still a solid 3 WAR pitcher.

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  13. jesse says:

    “august fagerstrom” … That just sounds like a name Carson Cistulli made up to gush about oliver!

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  14. Reggie Cleveland says:

    I’ve never looked forward to a prospect call-up of a player I don’t own more than I do for Francisco Lindor.

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  15. Danny Salazar says:

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  16. Flake Jeerlipple says:

    August Fagerstrom is Carson Cistulli’s pseudonym. He knows he can’t be taken seriously, no matter the quality of his content.

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  17. fluffybunny says:

    “his lack of exuberance” = Kluberance

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  18. Scot Fagerstrom says:

    I am no longer the most knowledgeable baseball fan in my family … The torch has been passed and new heights have been reached. The sky is the limit. You go, August, and don’t look back youngster!!

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  19. rogue_actuary says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Bartolo Colon has more career WAR than Felix Hernandez. While, unrelated to the story or any of the posts, I think it’s very interesting.

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    • th3byrdm4n says:

      … It’s because he’s got an extra decade under his belt…

      He’s never had a season with a WAR > 4… King Felix has a career WAR avg. of 4.5…

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  20. SomethingRotten says:

    Augustus. August is a girl’s name.

    Yes, that is my contribution to the comments. I’m not a member of the Corey Kluber Society because it originated in France.

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  21. jswede says:

    Reminds me of another guy of very few words, who also did not often smile, with same reddish tint to his always perfectly trimmed beard, and who similarly took names while kicking major league ass:

    http://theinspirationroom.com/daily/commercials/2013/12/chuck_norris_epic_split_1.jpg

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  22. Metsox says:

    Really great piece, thanks….

    I second the idea of promoting Lindor…

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  23. BloodStripes says:

    Great stuff August. Kluber has been awesome to watch. Another dominant outing in Baltimore today. My fantasy teams rise with his every start.

    I heard Eno call one of Klubers pitches a “slutter” on the sleeper and the bust podcast the other day. A mix of slider and cutter. After hearing it I rolled on the floor in hysterics uncontrollably for a good 10 minutes because I always thought a “slutter” was something you tried to take home with you at the end of a big night at the pub. But apparently not…….its a filthiest of the filth Corey Kluber swing and miss pitch. The man is a stud. He can throw and pull slutters anywhere, anytime.

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  24. Colin says:

    Where the f did he come from? 28 years old, basically wasn’t on anybody’s radar until last year. Amazing.

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  25. Benjamin says:

    Kluber’s tenacity to attack the low-outside reminds me of a quote I remember reading in George F. Will’s MEN AT WORK that went something like this:

    “How do you pitch to Barry Bonds? Low and away. How do you pitch to Mark McGwire? Low and away. How do you pitch to God? Low and away.”

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