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.


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