I’m not a big fan of overreacting to early season results—small samples sizes can make you believe crazy things—but after two starts there are some disturbing developments in Corey Kluber‘s performance.
Now I’m not here to sound the panic alarms just yet, but if you’re a little worried about Kluber, you’re not crazy.
In each of his first two starts Kluber has been getting hit far more often than we’re used to seeing. His contract rate allowed of 83.1 percent is the 10th highest in baseball (out of 80 qualifying starters). To put that into perspective, last season Josh Tomlin, predictably, had the fourth worst contact rate in MLB at 82.9 percent.
Kluber’s contact rate in 2016 sat more than 10 percentage points lower than his 2017 rate at 82.4 percent—10th best in all of baseball.
The chart below shows Kluber’s contact rates allowed in each of his starts since April 2016, including the postseason:
Tomlin, for example, tends to do a very good job allowing weak contact—with an occasional bomb mixed in. Bartolo Colon, who allowed the highest contact rate in MLB last year, is another example of a pitcher who allows contact and avoids the hard hits.
That hasn’t been the case with Kluber, however. In each of his starts this season he’s allowed an average exit velocity over 90 mph. Here’s a look at how that stacks up with the rest of his recent starts:
As you can see, Kluber does get hit hard sometimes. But this is the first time we’ve seen him get hit hard and often. During the entire 2016 season he didn’t have a single start with a contact rate over 80 percent and an average exit velocity over 90 mph—rates which he’s eclipsed in both his 2017 outings.
These numbers are concerning, even after just two starts, because these types of statistics have very little luck involved. While BABIP can do crazy things to a pitcher’s ERA early in the season, allowing contact and allowing hard-hit balls are always controllable, even in small sample sizes. It’s possible for these numbers to shift slightly based on the opponent—each hitter also has a lot of control over his contact rate—but most lineups are constructed similarly and over the course of an entire game these numbers will generally reflect the pitcher’s performance with only a slight influence from the differences in that particular lineup.
So what’s wrong with Kluber?
Obviously injuries can affect a pitcher’s performance, and there has been talk of blisters and back issues bothering him so far this season. That’s the easiest answer, but also the scariest. Blisters and back injuries can both linger for weeks and months and often reoccur. If this is the case, there’s a good chance the early portion of Kluber’s season will continue to produce shaky results, and may even result in a DL stint.
The other possibility is that Kluber has lost a little something, perhaps due to his heavy workload last year.
This sounds like a scary possibility, but I actually think this scenario is preferable to the injuries. Kluber is an incredibly intelligent pitcher, and pitching coach Mickey Callaway is arguably the best in the business. If Kluber needs to make some adjustments to his approach, I have extreme confidence in his ability to work with Callaway to make it happen.
Kluber appears to be the type of pitcher who can reinvent himself and win with whatever stuff he has left. So if he isn’t quite as powerful as before, I think we’ll simply see a new, but equally dominant, version of Kluber emerge.
Either way, I don’t think there is reason to panic. But these stats are definitely worth monitoring over Kluber’s next few starts.