This is it. The Cleveland Indians season has been reduced to nine innings of baseball. Records, statistics, and winning streaks are all of days past. That word we kept repeating, variance, is at an all-time high. Playoff baseball has made it clear it has no regard for the better team in its October five to seven game cage matches. The 2017 Cleveland Indians story relies upon being the better team in a one-game sample, or in other words, fortune.
There is no shortage of irony attached to this Corey Kluber versus the New York Yankees showdown, either. The team from the Bronx has opted to throw 37-year-old C.C. Sabathia, at the ten-year anniversary mark of his meltdown in the 2007 ALCS against Terry Francona’s Boston Red Sox. Kluber and Sabathia are undoubtedly the two best Tribe pitchers of the 21st century, and one of the two’s performance will play a major role in whether or not the best Tribe team of this century lives to fight another day.
Elimination games are scary. Elimination games are less scary when you have Corey Kluber on your side. Since 2014, there has not been a better pitcher in the American League, and this is not debatable. He has a better ERA, FIP, xFIP, and has accumulated more fWAR than any other starting pitcher throughout this time period. If you *have* to play an elimination game of any sort, there is not a better option to kick off the madness.
The Yankees teed off on Kluber in Game 2, to the tune of six earned runs in less than three innings pitched. A no-doubter off the bat of Gary Sanchez in the first inning started the pummeling, which was eventually capped off by Aaron Hicks backing into a three-run homer on a ball with 29% hit probability in the third. An uncharacteristic dud from Kluber sparked conversation about his four-seam fastball velocity, down by about a mile per hour. On the surface, decreased velocity on this pitch can be alarming, even at such a small increment.
Everything in the playoffs is scrutinized to the nth degree, especially when it concerns an important pitch in the repertoire of a team’s ace. A look at Kluber’s average four-seam velocity in this singular start shows a figure of 92.5 miles per hour. For reference, the average fastball thrown by him in the 2016 playoffs was 93.5 miles per hour. This drop is even more egregious when factoring in that a change in data sources has caused PITCHf/x, the source of velocity readings, to read about a half mile per hour faster this season. Consequently, we are looking at a net drop-off of approximately 1.5 miles per hour from Kluber’s 2016 playoff average to Friday night’s start.
If the primary concern is injury, the velocity dip alone would be alarming. However, the other pitches in Kluber’s repertoire saw no such dropoff. His sinker, breaking ball, and cutter velocity were all in the neighborhood one would expect them to be, even when accounting for the half mile per hour spike in velocity readings in 2017. It seems off-base to think that an injury would hamper one pitch’s velocity, while not impacting others.
Venturing guesses on causes of marginal velocity drops is a fool’s errand. The most likely answer to Kluber’s issue is along the lines of comfort level with the pitch, with a bit of statistical noise. I’d be more open to discussion on this issue if the sample size were larger and spread across multiple game dates.
I know it may appear far-fetched but it is entirely possible that Kluber was just plain ineffective. Clunkers are few and far between with the Indians ace. He is a robotic pillar of efficiency, whose only fault may be running into a home run or two from time to time, like on Friday night. Despite that Game 2 fiasco, it stands to reason that Kluber may actually match up well with the youthful Yankees. Though they are an imposing offensive team but their fatal flaw is in the contact and plate coverage area, with their team ranking 22nd in MLB in contact percentage and 19th in MLB in swinging strike percentage. Among 2017 qualified starters, Kluber ranked second in avoiding contact and first in inducing whiffs. His strengths should prey on their weaknesses in most meetings.
Wandering into the realms of subjectivity is always a messy activity but there is a quality that Kluber possesses that is not quantifiable. His stoic nature lends itself to an unflappable demeanor on the mound. No moment is too big, no shakiness can unravel him. While not identifiable numerically, this demeanor can only help him in an elimination game. Tribe fans, let Corey Kluber calm your nerves about the impending elimination game, as a repeat of Friday night is improbable.