Edwin Encarnacion broke out in a huge way on Wednesday as his three home runs pushed him from tied for 25th place to one off the MLB lead over the span of four at bats after WFNY had explored last week whether his Statcast peripherals indicated he was beginning to show some signs of aging.1 Every starter for the Cleveland Indians reached base at least once in the 12-4 trouncing of the Texas Rangers as the Tribe continued to prove early season baseball matters by pushing their record to an AL Central division leading 16-13.2
With the story on Wednesday being the offense, attention here turns to the starter given the amazing run support; the defending AL Cy Young Award winner. Corey Kluber gave up three runs for his third straight start as a regression from his early season ridiculous levels of dominance continues (five runs given up in his first 29.2 innings pitched). For any normal starting pitcher– even most good starting pitchers– having three straight quality starts with a 20:3 strikeout to walk ratio would mark among their best strings of the season. Kluber is not a normal starting pitcher as he is one of the best starters in franchise history, so pardon the greediness of determining whether or not this current regression should have been expected.3
Going into Wednesday’s start, Kluber had a career-best ERA of 2.18 and WHIP of 0.77, while going 4-1 in six starts and having a sparkling 47:9 strikeout to walk ration in 45.1 innings pitched. His actual wOBA against has been an untouchable .215. For reference, Kluber’s .240 wOBA against in 2017 was the best among MLB starters and Andrew Miller’s .207 wOBA against was third best in all of MLB. Thus far in 2018, Kluber is pitching at an Andrew Miller level of efficiency, but as a starter. Another year, another inevitable Cy Young Award, right?
A deeper look shows Kluber has been pitching a bit above his weight class as far as results against peripherals demonstrate. The expected wOBA against Kluber is a respectable .288, which would be just a shade above his career averages but far higher than his 2017 Cy Young season of .254.4 Digging deeper, the hard-hit rate of 33.3% in 2018 is the highest of the Statcast era for Kluber. As is the 88.5 miles per hour exit velocity, 12.4 launch angle, and the 9.0% barrel rate is almost twice his career average.5
Kluber has changed his pitch selection in the early going of 2018. His four-seam fastball and curve ball usage have gone down, and he has replaced most of those with more two-seam fastballs (sinkers). The interesting part is that Kluber’s sinker has been historically his worst pitch. The expected and actual wOBA being higher than his other offerings in each of the past four seasons despite it being his most used pitch. Thus far, history is repeating itself as the 92.6 mile per hour exit velocity, .387 xwOBA, and only 5.8% whiff rate demonstrate
Meanwhile, his curve has been among the best in all of MLB over the same timespan. There was much speculation after the 2016 postseason of heavy-curve usage that he would continue on that path. Indeed, his curve ball usage rose by nine percent in 2017, and it appeared the pitch might even become his most used this season. Perhaps the cold weather and conditions have led Kluber to stray. His whiff rate is down to only 38%, which is good but not his usual dominant levels of hovering around 50% from past seasons. Despite the reduction in swing and miss, the actual wOBA against his curve has been a paltry .147 though the comparison to expected is the largest gap of any pitch.6
As the weather warms and humidity increases, Kluber’s curve ball expected outcomes could regress to his career norms. In this case, regression is good for him as the actual results generated thus far cannot be changed, so increasing his future expectations on the pitch only provides benefits.
Another arbiter of a remaining positive gap between expected and actual outcomes on his sinker is that the Indians ground ball defense has been among the best in MLB. Despite high contact, the launch angle on this pitch is a meager minus one degree, which makes Yandy Diaz appear to be a fly ball hitter. Having more balls hit into the strength of the defense could help this gap continue (to some degree).
Highest Ground Ball & Bunt Out Rate By Defenses – Entering Day
1. Indians 80%
2. Astros 77%
3. Giants 77%
4. Dodgers 76%
5. Brewers 76%
6. Athletics 76%
7. Mariners 75%
8. Braves 75%
9. Nationals 75%
10. Mets 75%
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) April 27, 2018
Indians P Corey Kluber should be happy with his infield defense.
Indians have turned 44 of 48 grounders/bunts hit vs Kluber into outs.
92% out rate is highest in MLB pic.twitter.com/veFDcWTdpO
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) May 2, 2018
Taking the defensive argument a step further is analyzing the infield shift tendencies. Against right-handed hitters, the Tribe infield has only shifted once in 83 plate appearances. However, in 54 plate appearances against left-handed hitters, 24 times an infield shift has occurred. The 44% rate is a 29% increase from previous seasons against southpaw batters. The result has also been spectacular as lefties have only hit .129/.197/.186 (7 OPS+) against Kluber in 2018.
Most Net Hits Saved From Shifting
— Sports Info Solutions (@SportsInfo_SIS) May 2, 2018
Kluber has pitched better than his peripheral stats suggest he should have. It could be that he was compensating in his pitch usage to account for early season weather patterns or attempting to take advantage of an excellent infield defense he had behind him. There should be some expected regression in his overall statistics despite there remaining some reasons he can continue to leave a positive gap between his expected and actual results. Regardless, Kluber is still the two-time AL Cy Young Award winning pitcher he has been and the true expectation of any Indians fan should be he will remain the leader of the rotation.