Corey Kluber has had plenty of dazzling nights throughout the course of his career. Several complete game shutouts. A night in which he mystified the St. Louis Cardinals to the tune of eighteen strikeouts. Not many of his 2018 campaigns have played into this theme, however. The statistics are still there, as his ERA is still hovering well below 3.00, but the peripherals just haven’t been very Kluber-like. Fewer strikeouts. Fewer whiffs. Lower velocity.
These are not necessarily characteristics that should induce a panicked craze among Indians fans, but they have all played their part in the limiting Kluber’s ability to be, well, Kluber. Last night against the nearly unstoppable Boston Red Sox, Corey Kluber showed glimpses of his old self.
The swinging strike rate has always been a Kluber staple. It hovered north of twelve percent consistently before climbing to sixteen percent in 2017. This year, and most notably of late, the rolling average has been lagging around a league average clip.
Of his 108 offerings against a team that led the MLB in wRC+ heading into last night’s contest, Kluber induced sixteen swinging strikes, good for a fifteen percent whiff rate. A one-night sample does not mean much taken at face value in isolation. However, drilling deeper allows for a little glimmer of hope.
The Red Sox trail only the Houston Astros and Cleveland Indians in terms of contact rate. This means that they have the third lowest whiff rate among MLB squads. Frequent contact means good offense, and the fact that Kluber limited the frequency of their contact so well is quite encouraging.
We can even move a level deeper in the digging process – the Red Sox employ two of the top 30 hitters in the big leagues as far as making contact is concerned in Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi. Betts’ whiff rate sits at 4.9 percent and Benintendi’s trails closely at 7.5 percent. Collectively, they swing and miss around three times every fifty pitches. The pair saw 31 pitches from Kluber and whiffed eight times. He forced two of the most contact-centric hitters in the game and guided them to quadruple their whiff rate, albeit a small sample size.
Aside from the ball that JD Martinez shot by a frozen Yonder Alonso in the first inning, Kluber managed contact well, too. Though he permitted nine hits in only six-plus innings, a handful of them were of the ‘slap-it-opposite-field’ variety, which is exactly what you want to make a high-powered offense do as an opposing pitcher.
There are still concerns moving forward with Kluber, but they are in a different realm than most other concerns. Perhaps there is merit to the idea that he is attempting to limit his exposure prior to the postseason, which is all but guaranteed for the Indians regardless of Kluber being Cy Young caliber or just plain good. Perhaps there is merit to the idea that his back is still not right from the mysterious impairment last October, leading to decreased velocity marks and lagging strikeout rates.
Watching Kluber twist and turn through a daunting offense leaves a little hope that he may just be finding himself late. Instead of looking at the three runs permitted, look to the pitch by pitch attack that kept his club in a game against a team on pace to win more games than the 2001 Seattle Mariners. Should Kluber find a way to dial up the swinging strikes down the stretch, the strikeouts will follow. Piling up strikeouts by virtue of whiffs could lead to another magical stretch run for the two-time Cy Young winner, perhaps with a little more fortunate timing leading into October.