Indians

Corey Kluber: Silent Assassin

Photo

In what was a beautiful, blue-skied mid-June evening in 2008, CC Sabathia took to the bump against the Minnesota Twins, knowing that he would have to be near perfect if he were to record a win for his Indians. Just months earlier, his team was one win away from the World Series but did very little in the offseason to push them over the top. Alas, he had received just two runs of support over his previous nine starts and his team was sitting six games under .500. Along with 27,000 others, I piled in to Progressive Field in hopes of seeing a win. At the time, my family had season tickets1—we sat six rows behind home plate and were often flanked by gentlemen with radar guns and stop watches. On this night, however, we were running a bit late and showed up roughly 30 minutes after the game had started. It was already the top of the fourth inning.

Watching what Sabathia did to the Minnesota Twins on that evening—a complete-game, five-hit, five-strikeout demolition—was the most dominating performance I have ever seen in person. It helped being directly behind the plate, of course, but watching the ball fly out of his hand only to seemingly appear in the catcher’s mitt without having traveled from Point A to Point B—it was artistry. The pop of the glove was reminiscient of hearing a plane fly over seconds after it happened visually. Sabathia, on this day, tossed just 106 pitches; seventy-seven of them were for strikes. He didn’t allow a base runner after the fourth inning. The lone Indians run, plated in the first inning thanks to Ryan Garko, would be all he would need. Sabathia won 19 games a season earlier, winning the American League Cy Young, yet it was this game where home plate umpire Joe West would say that it was the best he had ever seen him throw.

All of which makes what Corey Kluber did on Thursday afternoon against the Kansas City Royals that much more impressive.

Ask any casual baseball fan to name five or six pitchers who would be the most likely to fan 11 batters in a contest and see what names pour out. Cliff Lee has made a living of making hitters look silly in Philadelphia. Miami’s Jose Fernandez leads baseball in the strikeout department, so he’d be an easy bet. Felix Hernandez? Stephen Strasburg? Max Scherzer? Sure. High profile power arms galore. But Corey Kluber? The guy has had a cult following for quite some time when it comes to the hardcores and stat-friendly fans, but his emotionless, ninja-like ways have made him much of an afterthought amongst the casual fans.

With the rest of his starting rotation brethren (save for one Zach McAllister) reeling, the stoic, statuesque Kluber took the mound and completely dismantled the opposition, striking out 11 and allowing just four hits, walking none, in a complete game. In doing so, Kluber became the first Cleveland pitcher to throw a complete game while recording 11 strikeouts, no walks or earned runs since Len Barker’s much-ballyhooed perfect game in 1981. He threw just 101 pitches; seventy-five of them were for strikes.

QUOTELike many times a season ago, Kluber nearly fell victim to similar treatment to Sabathia. His team wouldn’t score a run until the fifth inning where they torched the Royals for five runs—four more than he would need. Kansas City managed just one hit off Kluber in the first four innings. He fanned five over the game’s final four frames. Wherein most pitchers fan double-digit hitters through power, Kluber diced up the Royals with incredible precision—he threw just four fastballs, relying predominantly on sinkers, sliders and cutters. He induced a dozen outs via ground ball. He had a season high mark of 71 percent of his first pitches being thrown for strikes. Thirteen percent of his pitches were swinging strikes. The Tribe never even warmed up a reliever, the bullpen phone remaining completely unused.

“That was really fun to watch,” Indians manager Terry Francona said of his starting pitcher. “He had everything working. His fastball was going both ways, change-up, location. He worked ahead and he threw a ton of strikes. That was really impressive.”

Since the season opener, Kluber and McAllister have combined to go 4-1 with a 2.20 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP. The three other arms—ace Justin Masterson, hopeful future ace Danny Salazar, and should-have-been-ace Carlos Carrasco—are 0-5 with a 6.45 ERA and a WHIP of 1.70. Kluber, who came into this season as a No. 2 or No. 3 starter has pitched like a No. 1, producing a 2.79 ERA with 29 strikeouts and just three walks in 29 innings over his last four starts. We knew that his first few starts were littered with poor luck and poor defense, and while very few may have seen the pendulum swining back with such ferocity, to see what Kluber is capable of is an uplifting reminder that when (if?) the rest of the rotation regains their edge, just what this Indians team can be capable of.

In typical Kluber fashion, the bearded breaking ball tosser played off the importance of the win. “I really wasn’t trying to make a bigger deal out of it than going out there and getting three more outs,” he said. “Maybe that’s why it worked out.”

Wherein Sabathia had the big name, missile-like fastball and massive persona, and was eventually dealt to Milwaukee for Matt LaPorta and a player who would later become Michael Brantley, the unassuming Kluber was obtained in a trade where the Tribe gave up the final two months of Jake Westbrook in the midst of another disappotining season in 2010. The Tribe could have used a bat, but Ryan Ludwick was sent to San Diego as a part of the three-team deal. The fire sale was in full effect—Kerry Wood was also sent packing, morale around the city was plummeting. At the time, Kluber was just a 24-year-old kid meddling through Double-A ball, boasting a 6-6 record with an ERA of 3.45. He had, however, amassed 136 strikeouts, leading the Texas League in whiffs. When describing Kluber to the local media following the deal, Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said “He has an average to above-average fastball and a plus breaking ball—he has the ability to miss bats.”

Boy, does he ever.

(Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)

  1. They’ve since joined thousands of others in not renewing, opting to use the money to buy a boat. []

  • nj0

    In defense of Carlos Carrasco-

    FIP (or fielding independent pitching) measures what a player’s ERA should have looked like over a given time
    period, assuming that performance on balls in play and timing were
    league average (definition courteous of Fangraphs).

    Basically, it measures a pitchers contribution to preventing runs while ignoring the influence of fielding.

    League average FIP is 3.88.
    Carlos has posted a 3.61 so far.
    (Harang has a 2.19 by the way).

    So while Carlos has had a horrible ERA, he has struck out a lot, induced a lot of ground balls, had a low line drive rate, had a good home run to fly ball rate… basically, our terrible defense hasn’t helped him (22 errors in 22 games) and he has been just generally unlucky.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That was the Special KKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK I’d like to see more a complete game win in under three hours too!

  • nj0

    SO demanding….

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Keep diggin’ man advanced stats = excuses for me when it comes to CC.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    When I heard an Indians pitcher had tossed a CG I almost fainted which would have been bad since I was driving the cheerleading bus!!!

  • nj0

    No, not excuses. Just facts. There have been a lot of positive indicators in his performance over that small sample size. If anything, I think it’s less of a defense of CC and more an indictment on our terrible fielding. Even when an error doesn’t cost us a run, it can end up costing a pitcher a dozen+ more pitches.

    There’s a lot to dislike about CC’s performance. His control has been terrible. Striking out 9 per 9 isn’t that viable when you’re also walking 5. That’s a recipe for a four inning start. I just think he still has a lot of upside if he can figure out. Issue may be that we don’t have time to let him do so.

  • nj0

    I’m just glad you found something to complain about. It’s a testament to the strength of your Cleveland fandom.

  • mgbode

    from the end of last season and into this year, Kluber has become my favorite pitcher to watch. Salazar is more dynamic, Masterson is more technical, and Ubaldo was crazier, but Kluber just pitches. He doesn’t seem to overpower, his break is crazy good, but it doesn’t always look that way on TV (bad angles). and he just has this 9-to-5 attitude about how he carries himself. he just goes to the mound, gets his 3 outs and then goes back to the dugout.

    His quote you gave really sums up the entire Kluber pitching experience:

    “I really wasn’t trying to make a bigger deal out of it than going out there and getting three more outs,” he said

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Take it easy take it easy I’ve just seen enough of CC as a SP regardless of any advanced stat you wanna unEarth.

    The defense has been bad I think Swisher butchered another ball yesterday no? Kluber somehow survived.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Remind me where was my complaint?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He does seem to be the most level headed on and off the field.

  • The_Real_Shamrock
  • Harv 21

    Love the game-long demeanor of a guy who’s been sitting with his wife’s elderly relatives in a stuffy room all afternoon when it’s beautiful outside. Best tribe flatline affect since Paul Assenmacher. Hey, whatever works.

    Yesterday I defended the tribe’s bad defense so far as a probable temporary glitch but Swisher’s ongoing inattention to detail are starting to get on my bad nerves. Dude, stop talking and think about your position, the whole nine innings. Really hope his big contract hasn’t induced him to relax.

  • nj0

    Under three hours! Time limits, Shammy? Really?

  • nj0

    Yeah, cost us a run. Luckily it didn’t run up Kluber’s pitch count too much. When he’s on, he’s a machine.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    That was more of an acknowledgement of Kluber’s awesomeness because no Indians pitcher tosses a CG these days let alone in under three hours.

    So take off your cranky pants mister it’s Friday tonight we audition cheerleaders at Christie’s baby!!!!

  • nj0

    You’d hope that a guy who talks so much and flaunts his home state credentials all the time would do his best to back it up.

  • nj0

    Hopefully his approach will rub off on some of these other guys.

    Settle down and throw strikes! I think all our starters have good enough stuff that they can be above average pitchers if they don’t sabotage themselves.

  • Steve

    .391 BABIP against.

    The performances of Carrasco and Salazar have me nervous, but like I said a couple days, I want to see them not get BABIP-ed so badly. A few more balls find gloves instead of holes, and they’re pitching into the 6th inning.

  • nj0

    From what I’ve read about Salazar, he’s been throwing his fastball way too much. I don’t care how hard you throw, that isn’t going to work in the bigs, especially when you’re going through the lineup a few times. It seems like a fairly easy fix to me, but what do I know.

  • Steve

    Throwing it around 70% of the time, which is a lot, but still just about the same as last year according to pitch f/x. That slider has not worked at all for him, making him a two pitch pitcher, which does a lot of explaining of his ability to get through a lineup only once.

  • markn95

    O-H!

    […]

    E-3!

  • markn95

    Not sure what the advanced stats say viz-a-viz the rest of the AL, but it seems like Kluber’s K:BB ratio has to be near the top. A lot of pitchers talk about attacking hitters but shy away once some pitches in the zone start getting ripped. But Kluber throws strikes, get strikeouts, and does not get hit hard. Love it.
    A couple more starts like this, and it may become time to talk long-term contract. Buy up those arbitration years!

  • mgbode

    Cingrani begs to differ. Though I agree it is rare that you can get away with it unless you have pinpoint precision with where you place it.

  • Harv 21

    funny

  • Pat Leonard

    I’m sure this will only jinx him, but he’s reminding me of a right-handed Cliff Lee. He is really hitting his spots and mixing his pitches well.

  • Hopwin

    Kluber is silent but deadly. Nice.

  • Pat Leonard

    Yes… did you read that Fangraphs article about him? It really seems like he’s struggling with all three of his main pitches. I think that can’t continue, but I can’t say if he rights the ship before Trevor Bauer replaces him. Bauer has looked fantastic so far… hoping he finally put it all together.

  • Kildawg

    Is it too soon to say that Corey Kuber is the Chuck Norris of MLB pitchers?