As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” rolls on as we start to count down the top 10 stories of the year.
You have to wonder what Corey Kluber was thinking right before his first start with the Cleveland Indians. The date was August 2, 2012, and the Indians were facing the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. The game was meaningless. Both teams were on the wrong side of .500 and were heading into that part of the season in which bad teams started checking out the future.
Kluber toed the rubber for the first time. Looking back, you have to wonder what was going through his head in that final instant before he officially became a Major League baseball player. Did he take in the pure vastness of his first Major League stadium, the way all of us think we would? Did he remember the hours in his El Paso, Texas backyard, pretending to pitch in the World Series, likely for his families’ favorite team, the Cleveland Indians? Did he think about his Dallas travel team a couple years later where he played for “The Tribe,” and really began to take the next step? Did he think about his dad, who grew up in Mayfield, rooting for the Indians when they were actual World Series contenders at the time? Did all of those Texas sandlots, and quaint college, and minor league ballparks pop into his head as each domino fell through his journey towards Progressive Field? Did he remember that singular bullpen session that changed his life forever?
What thoughts could possibly fill the brain of any rookie Major League baseball player in those last moments before their dreams come true. Could he have possibly thought, even if for a fleeting second, “Cy Young?”
It’s hard to imagine that the rookie version of Kluber would have ever entertained any other thought than that first pitch, followed by the second, and the third, and so on. He’d have stared at Lou Marson’s glove, taking into account all of the notes he’d have taken over the years on the Royals leadoff hitter that day, Alex Gordon. Then, he’d have attacked Gordon with the precision of an ace, dancing around corners, manipulating the angles, moving his chess pieces 10 steps before the entire Royals lineup.
But the first cup of coffee for any baseball player can be daunting, even for Kluber. Nerves can turn chess pieces into checkers, and instead of working towards checkmate, he was likely trying not to get double-jumped on his way to getting kinged.
His very first big league pitch turned out to be the first big league home run he gave up.
But the rookie didn’t cave. Kluber retired the next eight batters he faced, and he outlasted his counterpart, Kansas City starter Bruce Chen. He battled through the Royals line-up that had made such a mockery of him during that first inning lapse. When he left the game for Tony Sipp in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Indians and the Royals were tied, 6-6. Even with that first inning blip, Kluber did then what Kluber does now…he gave his team a chance to win.
Little did the Indians’ right hander know, that five years and 163 starts later, he would become the first pitcher in Cleveland Indians’ history to win his second Cy Young Award.
In 2010, Corey Kluber arrived in Cleveland as a part of a three-team trade with the San Diego Padres and St. Louis Cardinals. If you paid attention to the minor leagues, you knew that Kluber did have promise, even if he wasn’t a top prospect for the San Diego Padres at the time. Sure, he was a fourth round pick in 2007. Sure, he struck out a lot of hitters. Sure, he had an interesting arsenal. But this wasn’t a deal involving fan fare for the Indians. In Kluber, the Indians were hoping they could at least develop him into a back-of-the-rotation starter who could swallow up some innings. His arm had some upside, but there likely wasn’t a person on the planet thinking, “boy, the Indians sure robbed the Cardinals and the Padres here.”
The particulars of the trade at the 2010 trade deadline were as follows: San Diego traded Kluber to the Indians and minor league starter/reliever Nick Greenwood to the Cardinals. St. Louis sent Ryan Ludwick to San Diego, while Cleveland sent long-time starter Jake Westbrook to St. Louis. Cleveland was quite clearly dumping Westbrook’s salary, while receiving an unknown, upside-ish arm, that would take some work to make major-league ready. This certainly wasn’t a PR move made by the Indians’ front office. They were just trying to get something, anything, in return for Westbrook, who had missed most of the previous two years, and had rebounded nicely in the first half of 2010.
It’s funny what hindsight can do to a trade, because while Ludwick and Westbrook were the names all those years ago, Cleveland was the wipe-out winner of that deal all these years later. Obviously, the two Cy Young Awards trump everything else, and on top of that, Kluber is the only remaining player from that deal who is still playing.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because Kluber didn’t make a major splash within the organization during his first full season in 2011. While he pitched pretty well for Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus after the 2010 trade deadline, 2011 was another story. I saw him pitch twice that season: Once in Durham, and once in Buffalo. What do I remember? He threw hard, and he threw all over the place. Erratic didn’t come close to covering it. There was nothing that really stood out beyond that. He went 7-11 that season with a 5.56 ERA, and to make matters worse, the Clippers left him off their playoff roster on the way to winning the Governor’s Cup. In front of him in that “vaunted” Columbus rotation were Zach McAllister, Mitch Talbot, Joe Martinez and Paulo Espino.
That’s right, Kluber didn’t even make the roster in the bullpen.
Something had to give.
Through nine starts in 2012, Kluber made it through six innings only three times, and he walked at least four batters in three of those starts as well. He struck out 58 batters during that nine-game stretch, but also walked 25, with 19 of the walks coming in the final six starts during that same stretch. There were flashes of Cy Kluber in there for sure, but the control just wasn’t there yet. Kluber just wasn’t consistent.
In a game against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Kluber got rocked. He gave up seven runs in 1 2/3 innings, and Kluber knew that he had to make a change.
Kluber was looking for anything that could make a difference in his early season struggles…the type of struggles that could get any arm bounced from an organization if they thought improvement wasn’t on the radar. During a rain-induced bullpen session during that same series, Kluber and then-Columbus pitching coach Ruben Niebla got to work. Kluber was throwing four-seamer after four-seamer too far up in the zone, but began peppering two-seamers consistently down in the zone, with good sweeping movement in both directions. Niebla suggested he continue to not only throw his sinker, but to try and throw it exclusively during his next start.
Raise your hand if you’ve noticed Corey Kluber’s two-seam, sinkery, curvey thing since them?1
What happened? In his next 12 starts, Kluber never pitched in fewer than six innings. In seven of those 12 starts, he went seven innings or more. In those 12 starts, he struck out 70, and walked only 24 batters. He went 8-3 during that 12-game stretch, and after that one amazing bullpen session. He’d only make three more appearances in Columbus. Ever. The Indians sent him to Cleveland in July to finish the season with the big league club.
In one day, he went from a pitcher that utilized a power, hanging four-seamer and was likely on his way out of the organization, to using that two-seam, sinker-curve and becoming a big league pitcher in less than 2 1/2 months. That pitch, along with his sinker, cutter, change, and yes, the occasional four-seam, has made Corey Kluber, almost overnight, the best pitcher in the American League.
The best part of Kluber is that there was a point when the Indians’ organization felt that he was just going to be a guy with really good secondary stuff, that might make him a back-of-the-rotation guy. Niebla saw something different, and Kluber bought in, and committed. We know now what happens when Kluber commits to something, and so does the American League.
In 2014, Corey Kluber won his first Cy Young.
It really is as simple as that singular line. The depth of that line? Kluber went 18-9 in his 34 starts over 235 2/3 innings. It was the first time in his career that he’d pitched over 150 2/3 innings in both the majors, and the minors. In other words, it was truly his first full-time year in the big leagues. He had a 2.44 ERA, a 10.27 K/9, and walked 1.95 batters per nine as well. His FIP/xFIP was a career best 2.35/2.57, and his 7.4 fWAR was almost three times better than his previous season’s career best.
It was a season for the ages, marked by one of those “break out” games that baseball authors will write about in years to come. On July 30, 2014, Corey Kluber threw the second complete game of his career, and his first complete game shutout. While that alone isn’t enough to gather accolades for Kluber, who has since thrown 13 more complete games, and five more complete game shutouts. Instead, it was who he beat (Felix Hernandez), and how he beat him. Hernandez was the favorite for the Cy Young award, heading into the game, and while Kluber was in the running as well, nobody outside of Cleveland had ever heard of him. Hernandez was a phenom. Kluber? He wasn’t even any good in the big leagues until 2013.
Kluber went the distance in a two-hour and ten minute masterpiece, giving up three singles, while striking out eight. He threw 85 pitches in the Indians 2-0 victory, out-dueling the hands-down favorite before the game, to win the Cy Young.
Hernandez didn’t. Corey Kluber did.
What’s difficult about having a nearly perfect season, as Corey Kluber did, is matching it. In 2015, Kluber “struggled” to a 9-16 record. His strikeout rate “dropped” to 9.93, but his walks dropped as well, to 1.82. His ERA rose a full run, to 3.49, but his FIP/xFIP (2.97/3.05), while rising, was still top five in the league. He would finish ninth in the Cy voting that year with a 5.6 fWAR, and it was clear that his brilliance was being noticed, even if it wasn’t quite as brilliant during his 2014 season.
In 2016, Kluber finished third in the Cy voting, and matched his 2014 season’s win record, going 18-9. But in every way, that 2016 season wasn’t even as good as his 2015 season. Sure, he won more, but he pitched fewer innings, saw his K-rate drop again, to 9.5 per nine, saw his walk rate rise almost a half a walk per nine, and while his ERA dropped to 3.14, his FIP/xFIP rose to 3.26/3.50. Still great numbers, but as his 5 fWAR indicated, the season was up to par as his previous two.
But it all made sense. In Kluber’s age 30-year, his numbers were dropping slightly, but he was maintaining a level of brilliance that still made him one of the games best. This was the land in which Kluber would likely live in as he continued pitching. Matching brilliance is hard, but Kluber was doing it, even as his career headed towards that land of lost velocity. Certainly, 2014 wouldn’t be matched.
And if you’re sitting there saying, “I knew he would do it in 2017,” you’d be lying.
Kluber’s 2017 started off a bit rocky. He gave up five runs in his first start, while walking three, and gave up six runs two starts later. Three starts after that, Kluber gave up five runs in three innings, raising his ERA to 5.06, and whispers began circulating that perhaps Kluber, struggling with back issues for most of April and May, had lost just enough velocity to make him drop another notch, from elite, to just really good.
Kluber landed on the DL after that early May start to rest his ailing back, but it was hard to gauge how good Kluber would be in his return. His age 31 season certainly isn’t twilight, but recovering from back problems in the middle of the season isn’t the easy…unless you’re Corey Kluber.
Kluber returned to the Indians on June 1, and didn’t have a game in which he gave up more than four runs the rest of the season, and he did that once. In his 23 remaining starts, Kluber gave up three runs or more four times. He pitched less than six innings three times. He walked more than two hitters once. He struck out less than eight four times.
What did he do?
He went 15-2 during that stretch of baseball, striking out 10 or more batters 14 times. By the end of June, his ERA had dropped over two runs, to 3.02. By the end of July, it was down to 2.90. By the end of August, it was down to 2.63, and by the end of September, it was 2.25. To say that Kluber kept getting better, though, would be the understatement of the century, because he was just that good from the second he stepped onto the mound on that June first day.
His numbers were back to normal, and with a healthy back, Kluber’s velocity returned.
Across the board, minus his October outings, Kluber’s velocity jumped in the realm of one MPH per pitch. His movement was more under control, and his ability to locate was back.
In other words, the American League was in trouble.
In the end, Kluber managed to match, or best, all of his numbers from his 2014 Cy Young run. He won 18 games again, while only losing four games. His K/9 rose to a career best 11.71, and his BB/9 dropped to a career best 1.59. He set a career best 2.25 ERA, and while his FIP rose slightly from his 2014 Cy Young win (2.35 to 2.50), his xFIP dropped just slightly (2.57 to 2.52), showcasing that in all probability, Kluber was at the very least, the same guy that had won the Cy Young three season previous. He ended the year with a 7.3 fWAR, and was the ace of the best pitching staff in all of baseball.
During the season, Boston’s Chris Sale was the favorite to win the Cy Young award, and for much of the early part of the season, Sale was playing the part. While Kluber and Sale never had that marquee match-up, as Kluber and Hernandez had three years earlier, Sale found himself in much the same position as the season came to a close. Kluber closed out the season, and Sale, by leading the Indians to a 22-game winning streak, and their first 100-game season since 1995. From August 28th through September 24th, Kluber won six games in a row, while never pitching in less than seven innings. From August 1st through his last start, Kluber walked nine batters…in 12 games. He struck out 104.
He led the league in wins (18), ERA (2.25), complete games (5), complete game shutouts (3), and xFIP. While Sale did best him in K/9, FIP and fWAR, from June 1st through the end of the season, when it really mattered, Kluber dominated the stats almost every month. He was the A.L. pitcher of the Month in June, August and September, and rolled out a 1.62 ERA, with 224 K’s during his final 23 starts. Imagine if he’d have been healthy the entire year.
Kluber won his second Cy Young the same way he pitched the final four months of the season, in dominating fashion. He received 28 first place votes, to Chris Sale’s two, and ended up with 204 points, to Sale’s 126. It wasn’t even close.
In 2014, when Kluber won the Cy Young, everyone was searching for a narrative. Kluber had come out of nowhere, even to those who really paid attention. Many pointed to the fact that Justin Masterson had been dealt the day of Kluber’s start against Hernandez that year as a “passing of the torch.” Many had compared Kluber to Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia, the last two Indians’ Cy Young winners. Writers were just trying to latch onto something.
But in 2017, it’s a bit different. Cliff Lee never had an fWAR above 7.0. CC Sabathia had one season with an fWAR above 7, his 7.3 fWAR in his final half season with the Indians, and then the Brewers. While it can’t be argued that both Lee and Sabathia have longevity over Kluber, it equally can’t be argued that Kluber’s best two seasons, his two Cy Young award seasons, were better than either Lee’s or Sabathia’s. That’s right WFNY readers, in Corey Kluber, you’ve not even arguably seen the best pitching performance in most of your lifetimes.
Now think about that journey to get there. In 2010, he was basically a sorta upside arm in a deal to move Westbrook, and hopefully get a back-of-the-rotation guy. In 2011, Kluber couldn’t make his Triple A playoff rotation, behind ZMac, Talbot, Espino and Martinez. In 2012, Kluber was likely either getting ready to move to the bullpen, or perhaps worst, before a rain-induced bullpen session with Ruben Niebla changed everything. One bullpen session, and years of hard work has placed Kluber’s name with the greatest Indians’ pitchers of all-time. You won’t be able to mention Bob Feller, Addie Joss, Bob Lemon, Stan Covaleski, Mel Harder, Sabathia and Lee, without adding the name of Corey Kluber into the conversation.
One day. One change. And for the first time in Cleveland Indians’ history, a second Cy Young award. Welcome to history Corey Kluber.
- Sorry, I refuse to call it a sinker, or a slider, so for today, you’re stuck with “sinkery…curvey thing [↩]