Corey Kluber Controls His Own Destiny

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Aside from an ecclesiastical grin or two here and there, Corey Kluber is well-known for his emotionless approach to pitching. It even earned him the endearing nickname, “Klubot”. For most of his major league career, the numbers followed the same methodical pattern as his personality. That is, until this past calendar year. Much has been documented about concerning developments surrounding his ultimately very successful 2018 campaign. The intent of this foray, however, is not to indulge readers in concerns over his untimely velocity degradation or his reduced strikeout rates. These peripheral developments are quite concerning at face value, of course, but not the whole story. Rather, there are a few aspects of Kluber’s 2018 outputs that shed positive light on his 2019 outlook. Under there, there is a still an All-Star caliber pitcher on a cheap deal, trade rumors, and velocity drops notwithstanding.

Since 2014, not a single pitcher in the world has accounted for more wins above replacement than Corey Kluber, per Fangraphs. The biggest names across that time frame – Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, and Max Scherzer – all fall just shy of Kluber’s 31 fWAR. The track record is present and undeniable. Additionally, baseball is a high-volume sport that is prone to unpredictability. While most statistics tend to normalize over the years, there is still an array of results based on inputs from pitcher and hitter. Some years, hitters just perform better against certain pitchers.

The sabermetrics universe has many ways of accounting for such variabilities, but these metrics remain imperfect despite their usefulness. One of the most useful methods of predicting future success tends to be isolating what the pitcher does control and how that has impacted their efficiency in the past. To that point, there are a few different areas that Kluber directly controls that show a relationship with how well he will perform – velocity, pitch selection, and location.

Attempts to predict future velocity marks are a fool’s errand. It is impossible to know all of the factors that play a role in shaping the results. However, trends that establish over multiple year periods are concerning. Kluber’s velocity has fallen off a relative cliff, though it remains about league average. Honing in on the fastball speed specifically reveals a relationship that demonstrates this specific input’s impact on earned run average.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

The trend is undoubtedly alarming. It appears that something obviously impacted the method in which he limped into the 2018 postseason. This chart demonstrates that Kluber has found a way to be a productive arm despite losing a tick on the radar gun. Staving off further decline on this front will be the main Kluber storyline in 2019, as he looks to stabilize the velocity input. This holds especially true if one shares the popularized belief that Kluber was encumbered by something over the last calendar year, whether it be an injury of sorts or merely the effects of a heavy workload over several years.

Beyond simple velocity, another input from Kluber’s perspective is pitch selection. Or, in short, how much he throws his best pitch – the breaking ball. Some pitch tracking systems deem it a slider and some categorize it as a curve, but that is irrelevant. It is a supremely effective pitch that Kluber inexplicably deserted last season. The numbers yielded predictable results.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

As with his fastball velocity, Kluber’s earned run average over the past few years holds a direct, inverse relationship with how often he throws his best pitch. A novel concept, really – as the number of breaking balls increases, earned run average decreases, and vice-versa. One is left to wonder what drove him away from depending so heavily on it this past season. Additionally, it is intriguing to wonder what drove him away from mirroring his 2017 pitch mix, a season that yielded incredible results.

An aversion to using his best pitch and losing a tick on the radar gun might spell doom for any pitcher, but Corey Kluber is not just any pitcher. He was able to withstand each of these impediments, in addition to another. His command of the strike zone lapsed simultaneously.

Courtesy of Fangraphs

Now, assessing command is a tough shell to crack. It is impossible to know how often the ball is being pitched where it is intended, however, the frequency with which Kluber graces the strike zone with his offerings is being called command in this case, for lack of a better foothold. Again, we can see that Kluber’s zone percentage is directly and inversely related to his earned run average output. The more often he lives in the strike zone, the more success he experiences over the last few years.

Quite simply, Corey Kluber has a path to success, despite alarming trends within his peripheral level statistics. It starts with staving off fastball velocity degradation, a task that is not easily accomplished but not hopeless. For some pitchers, even on the wrong side of 30 like Kluber, velocity can be a cyclical beast that fluctuates with the presence or absence of other hindrances, such as injury. The path to success then navigates to the side of the pitch mix, which is the most easily correctable input. Kluber diverts back to breaking ball reliance and reaps the benefits. Finally, Kluber can ease back into the strike zone a tad more frequently, especially if the previously mentioned dominos of velocity and pitch mix is tackled effectively.

The previously mentioned path is one for the aging Kluber to find that elite level that seemed to evade his last campaign. It is entirely possible, even probable, that he settles into a less effective version of himself, or just plain good rather than elite. This can be had by unlocking one of the three inputs and avoiding injury.
Poor playoff appearances combined with unsettling peripherals have created a cavalcade of soured opinions on Kluber, among casual batting-average lovers and saber nerds alike. These groups finally agree on something – Kluber’s demise. This demise appears to be overstated by some crowds, especially considering the tireless worker is just over a year removed from a dominant Cy Young campaign. Even projection systems are fond of his ability to pitch at a near-elite clip. It seems silly to suggest anything less than a solid campaign for Corey Kluber. The bigger mystery idles within the trade discussions, as we attempt to discern which jersey he will don in April.