Quite frankly (as many of us have already noticed), Corey Kluber has stepped it up a notch this season. While many of us may have thought of last year as a breakout season for Kluber, he seems to be further breaking out as an “elite” pitcher this season. While being an “elite pitcher” is relatively subjective, I never really thought of Kluber as someone that could satisfy this label prior to this season. I used to think that Kluber’s potential would peak as a solid and consistent middle of the rotation type of pitcher. I had never believed nor considered the notion that Kluber could be a potential ace or viable front of the rotation type pitcher for a team with aspirations of making it deep into the playoffs. However, this opinion has entirely changed after watching Kluber thus far this season.
Here are some key statistical categories that Kluber has improved upon from last year to this year:
- His K/9 has gone from 8.31 to 10.28
- His K/BB has gone from 4.12 to 4.88
- His K% has gone from 22.4% to 27.0%
- His LD% has gone from 25.9% to 21.2%
- His HR/9 has gone from 0.92 to 0.50
- His HR/FB has gone from 12.4% to 6.0%
- His IFFB% has gone from 10.7% to 17.9%
Kluber also holds a sparkling 2.22 FIP on the season, and has the second highest pitcher WAR (2.6) in the Majors according to FanGraphs.
I want to take a look at an adjustment Kluber has made with his pitches that has taken his game to the next level this season. During Kluber’s first full year in the big leagues last year, the following chart shows the percentage breakdown of his pitch types according to PITCHf/x. I classify his breaking ball as “slider/curveball” since different sources disagree on what to classify his breaking ball as.
|Pitch Type||Number of Pitches||Percentage|
Now take a look at Kluber’s pitch breakdown for this season (this is prior to his start against Baltimore).
|Pitch Type||Number of Pitches||Percentage|
As you can see, Kluber has almost entirely ditched his four-seam fastball, and is now exclusively using his two-seamer/sinker as his primary pitch. He is also relying on the combination of his cutter and breaking ball around 3.5% more this season than compared to last season, as he has decreased the use of his changeup as well. This is a huge deal, and I’ll get to why in a second. However, I want to start out by saying that I actually found it really surprising how hittable his fastball and sinker have been throughout his career. The opposition is batting .364 off his sinker and .350 off of his fastball throughout his career. Last year the opposition batted .354 off his sinker and .325 off his fastball. This year, despite all of Kluber’s success, the opposition is still hitting .386 off his sinker (though this number is likely inflated due to a .350 BABIP which might have to do with the Tribe’s bad defense thus far), and his -9.9 sinker pitch value according to PITCHf/x is the worst sinker pitch value in the entire MLB. I found this absolutely shocking considering Kluber’s success this season.
However, the great equalizer has been the increased use of his secondary pitches. Kluber’s cutter and breaking ball have been so untouchable this season (and throughout his career) that it’s scary. Against Kluber’s cutter, the opposition is batting .189 in 2014. Against his breaking ball, the opposition is batting .125. Kluber has a career opponent’s batting average of .199 for his cutter and .173 for his breaking ball. Kluber’s pitch type value according to PITCHf/x is 7.6, good for the second highest cutter pitch value in the MLB. If that’s not impressive enough, his pitch type value for his breaking ball (again PITCHf/x lists it as a curveball) is 3.8, good for the 5th highest curveball pitch value in the MLB.
Even though, the cutter/breaking ball combination only comprises of slightly under 41% of Kluber’s pitches this season, almost 75% of Kluber’s strikeouts have come either on the cutter or breaking ball. Last year these two pitches only accounted for about 67.5% of his strikeouts. Thus, not only is he using his secondary pitches more frequently, but he is also using them more effectively in terms of his strategy of attacking batters.
Kluber is in a really unique position right now with his pitch types. His primary pitch is one of the most hittable pitches in all of baseball, but his secondary pitches are among the most effective pitches in all of baseball. Most pitchers would kill to have the effectiveness of just one of these secondary pitches, and Kluber has two of these elite weapons to work with. I think that Kluber and Tribe’s analytics department have taken action on Kluber’s game strategy based on the drastic differences in effectiveness between his primary pitch and secondary pitches. Take a look at his game log in terms of pitch frequencies.
Note that his sinker usage had been trending downward with a substantial increase in the usage of his cutter and breaking ball combination prior to his start against Baltimore. Obviously, a pitcher always wants to keep the opposition guessing, and an increased frequency of a certain pitch runs the risk of having the opposition more likely to sit on that pitch. This is probably the reason that Kluber increased his sinker usage again versus Baltimore, as teams were likely catching on to his “increased secondary pitches” strategy in their scouting reports. However, it’s great to see that Kluber and the Tribe have been continually implementing a game plan for him based on his strengths, and that they’re also changing up the game plan when needed to keep the opposition honest.
It looks like we have a legitimate ace developing in front of our eyes, and he’s been our savior in an otherwise inconsistent starting rotation. Additionally, he’s not even eligible for free agency until 2019, and he does not get rattled by large amounts of sunflower seeds, water, or powder being thrown at him during live TV interviews. Looks like and all-around great situation to be a part of for the Tribe.