“I see [Kluber] pitch on TV all the time, because he’s kind of must-see TV,” Brent Suter said. “So I went up there, saw the ball up a little bit, kind of put the bat on the ball, and after that, it was just Cloud Nine, like ‘Angels in the Outfield.’ It was fun. Man, it was a good time.”
File that in the “things you never want to hear an opposing pitcher say after a game” drawer. Suter, an Ohio product, and Milwaukee Brewers pitcher, smacked his first round-tripper since his days at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati off of Corey Kluber recently. That’s two-time Cy Young winner, ace of his staff Corey Kluber, giving up a 433-foot bomb to a pitcher with 36 major league plate appearances under his belt.
Home run totals are skyrocketing and baseball is prone to hosting the unexpected, so the Suter leaving the park off Kluber is more news filler than substance. It does, however, unearth an issue that has taken shape with Kluber’s early 2018 campaign. He has allowed 1.37 homers per nine innings, adding up to a total of 11 over 72 1/3 innings, which is half his career high in only a third of the innings. A sample size disclaimer withstanding, it is certainly a trend worth monitoring over the next few months, as it may be a bit alarming to look at the home runs allowed leaderboard and see Kluber’s name in the top five.
Getting into the bulk of the issue at hand leads to rate discussion. Out of all fly balls permitted, 18.6% of those put in play against Kluber have left the yard. That figure is 50 percent higher than league average, which is important to note given the rate at which it tends to normalize. Most pitchers regress to around league average as the sample size enlarges. Though we expect it to normalize to a degree, other factors have led to the Indians’ ace finding himself on the wrong end of dingers.
First, contact mitigation has been a less successful venture for Kluber. An average exit velocity against of 87.1 miles per hour marks his highest allowance of the Statcast Era. Slightly harder contact will always lead to more inherently damaging results, as indicated by the home run climb. The increase in hard contact is a small enough issue to be dismissed as possible variance but enough to offer some insight into unexpected results.
Beyond the sheer strength of contact, it is mildly surprising to note that Kluber has induced a career-high ground ball percentage. Reconciling this with a soaring home run rate may seem like a difficult task but a portion of the explanation, perhaps of an alarming variety, is readily available. Kluber’s bread and butter is his ability to miss bats, leading to elite strikeout rates. He has dipped to about league average in the strikeout ranks, buoyed by 50 percent reduction in generating swings and misses. This is far more concerning in nature than any home runs allowed totals, given that strikeout rates tend to normalize far more quickly than most other statistics, even across a relatively minute sample size.
More balls in play have led to more home runs, aided by an unsustainable conversion rate of fly balls into long balls. The home runs are not a problem in isolation but the effects of a diminished strikeout rate are clear. The primary concern is that more balls in play leads to increased likelihood of runs. On a peripheral level, though, an assumption could be made that hitters are maybe seeing the ball a bit better against an aging Kluber. Going full alarmist is completely unnecessary, but whiff totals will provide a compelling storyline moving forward and will determine whether the Kluber we see is Cy Young caliber or just plain above average. The discrepancy there is small and should the former be the case, having an elite starter will go a long way in determining the Indians chances this year and in subsequent years. Prolonged longevity from Kluber would be a solid contention piece to pair with having Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor also under team control through at least 2021.