Corey Kluber Is Great, Still Human

The Cleveland Indians’ season concluded on Wednesday night. The team that had thrilled fans with their September winning streak and entered the postseason as the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the World Series was eliminated by a very good New York Yankees team. You can argue how fair it it that the Indians, by virtue of being the best team in the American League this year, had to face the Wild Card-winning Yankees, perhaps the second-best team in the the American League. In any event, that’s the way the playoffs are set up: the Yankees won and the blame game can begin.

People will look to the young star hitters Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, who combined to reach base at a .227 clip, strike out 13 times, and record just a single extra-base hit over the five games. Others will (foolishly) question the Indians’ mental fortitude after dropping six consecutive potential series-clinching games in the past two years. And yes, many will place blame at the feet of Indians ace Corey Kluber, who was as rough in this year’s playoffs as he was brilliant in last year’s.

Kluber’s two games against the Yankees look highly uninspiring: 6.1 IP, 10 H, 9 ER, 4 HR combined in Games 2 and Game 5. For a pitcher who has won a Cy Young and has a strong argument for this year’s award, these performances are downright disappointing. However, if one considers only those events over which Kluber exerted the most control, there are still some positives from Kluber in his two starts. He did manage to strike out 10 of the 33 batters he faced while walking only three. Generally speaking, those sort of numbers correlate strongly with run prevention.

Aside from the home runs, Kluber actually pitched pretty well. Of course, that’s like saying that, aside from the wins, the Cleveland Browns are a pretty good football team. Kluber, ultimately, allowed those homers. It happened. Now that it has happened, though, and it’s probably worthwhile to look at all four of them to understand why. In doing so, we see that even the best pitchers can make the sort of mistakes (subpar execution and missed location) we expect to see out of Mike Pelfrey, Jeremy Hellickson, and other mere mortals, as well as being equally subject to the whims of Fortuna.

Batter: Gary Sanchez
Pitch Type: Cutter
Pitch Speed: 91.4 mph
Horizontal Movement: 0.14 inches of arm-side run (-0.14 inches)
Vertical Movement: 6.68 inches

The pitch that started it all for Kluber ended up belt-high and right where Gary Sanchez could extend his arms. While acknowledging that not all catcher targets represent the actual intended location of the pitch, we find that catcher Yan Gomes set up low and away for Sanchez, one of the few areas somewhat safe from the slugger’s power. Kluber, however, missed in the one area that could cause major problems.

Kluber’s cutter has been very effective on the year, but this particular version of the pitch is a highly abnormal one. At 91.4 mph, it’s the fourth-fastest cutter Kluber threw all season according to Gameday. Only 16% of his cutters had more arm-side run and only 7% had more vertical movement than this pitch. In many ways, it looks like this pitch was more like a slow fastball without Kluber’s usual arm-side run or a fast cutter without the cut. Three inches less cut and three inches extra “rise” (the difference between this pitch and Kluber’s average cutter movement) is about the difference between Gomes’ target and the resulting location — and also possibly the difference between a double-play ground out and a 400-foot home run.

Batter: Aaron Hicks
Pitch Type: Curveball
Pitch Speed: 86.6 mph
Horizontal Movement: 4.84 inches
Vertical Movement: 4.50 inches

Thigh-high curveballs over the heart of the plate rarely result in anything good for pitchers. This was certainly the case for Kluber in his encounter with Aaron Hicks. Again, Gomes sets a target (low and away) and, again, Kluber misses the target. For baseball’s best curveball, this again represents a subpar execution of the pitch, with less horizontal movement than average (12.5th percentile) and only average vertical movement. Again, three inches of movement inside to Hicks probably would have helped Kluber immensely, as it would have buried the pitch on the inside corner.

Batter: Didi Gregorius
Pitch Type: Fourseam Fastball
Pitch Speed: 94.1 mph
Horizontal Movement: -1.89 inches
Vertical Movement: 8.86 inches

Here’s another case of missed location — although, in this case, it doesn’t seem attributable to a subpar pitch (aside from location). Roberto Perez ostensibly wants it up and away from Gregorius, which makes sense given the Yankee shortstop’s inability to handle that pitch this season. Instead, the pitch goes to one of the few locations where Gregorius has had a modicum of success against the pitch: thigh-high on the inner half of the plate. Aside from location, the pitch isn’t particularly bad: 94.1 mph represents one of Kluber’s faster pitches on the year. Meanwhile, -1.89 inches of horizontal movement represents a little less arm-side run than usual, and 8.86 inches of vertical movement is right on Kluber’s average. If it’s located near Perez’s intended target, Gregorius is likely walking back to the bench.

Batter: Didi Gregorius
Pitch Type: Curveball
Pitch Speed: 86.4 mph
Horizontal Movement: 5.80 inches
Vertical Movement: 6.15 inches

On this final home run, Kluber was a bit more unlucky than on the others. The previous three pitches saw Kluber either throw subpar pitches (to Sanchez and Hicks) or miss his location (to Gregorius earlier in the game). Here, he pretty much hits what appears to be the intended target. The curveball is hard and exhibits average horizontal movement. He might have preferred it have a little more downward movement, but it’s still located in the bottom of the zone and close to the called location. Unfortunately for Kluber, he threw the pitch to Didi Gregorius.

Gregorius has performed pretty well against low pitches this year and has shown much of his pop in that area. He’s a good low-ball hitter and, unfortunately for Kluber, that’s where the pitch ended up. The Yankees’ lead was extended, and despite an attempt by the Indians to get close, they wouldn’t be able to overcome those early three runs.

*****

In October baseball, narratives can be easily and quickly established, regardless of how true they are: Clayton Kershaw is a bad playoff pitcher, Derek Jeter is clutch (as opposed to just being very good), and Stephen Strasburg is soft (a notion which should die after Wednesday’s performance).

Hopefully this doesn’t happen to Kluber. He turned in an incredibly impressive series of performances in the 2016 playoffs. Even the best pitches will make mistakes, sometimes over a short span. Kluber generally makes them much less often. Over the seven days, he threw three pitches that could be described as (to quote my Dad) `”brilliantly conceived, poorly executed” — along with one good pitch that was thrown to the wrong batter. Credit to the Yankee hitters, they punished those mistakes as you would expect mistakes to be punished in October. But Kluber is still one of the best pitchers in baseball, and the playoffs are now poorer without him participating.

We hoped you liked reading Corey Kluber Is Great, Still Human by Stephen Loftus!

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Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.

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stever20
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stever20

don’t know how you can say that you don’t know how fair it is that the Indians had to play the Yankees. Indians had the best record in the league and the Yankees had the 4th best record. Why wouldn’t they play? Just because run differential says something doesn’t mean you ignore the records.