CLEVELAND — The Indians’ front-office brain trust would like to take credit for recognizing the elite-level potential of ace Corey Kluber, but they can’t.
Truth is no one saw it coming.
Kluber, who was acquired in a package deal from the Padres in 2010 that sent right-hander Jake Westbook to the Cardinals, was the epitome of a late-bloomer.
Despite four minor-league seasons, Kluber, 30, wasn’t considered a top prospect upon his arrival in Cleveland and certainly didn’t open any eyes during his first extended stint in the majors in 2012, when he went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts.
But something clicked for Kluber the following season that spring boarded him to a Cy Young award in 2014 and a spot among the best starting pitchers in the game.
This year might have been some of his best work.
After missing a month with a lower-back injury, Kluber returned to offer up another dominant season that has him in line to win the award as the American League’s top pitcher once again.
With fewer opportunities than the Cy Young competition, the right-hander is still among the league leaders in nearly every statistical category.
“He took it to another level, man,” catcher Yan Gomes said of Kluber, who went 18-4 with a major league-leading 2.25 ERA and 265 strikeouts over 203 2/3 innings. “People want to (talk about) that month he missed. But, if you didn’t know he missed a month, you wouldn’t have thought he missed a month. He’s done a tremendous job. He’s carried our pitching staff to where we need to go. I know later on he’ll sit back and talk about this season, but we’re still not done yet.”
“He’s been outstanding,” longtime teammate Jason Kipnis said. “I think he’s by far and away the Cy Young this year. He’s really just been -- for an impressive staff that we’ve had as a whole -- the fact that he can really shine above everyone else still is a tip of the cap to him and how good he’s been.”
The Indians are used to seeing brilliant things from Kluber, who has been the ace of the staff since 2014 and has filled the role at the highest level on a consistent basis.
They expect to win each time he takes the mound, and most often do.
“He’s been quite a leader,” manager Terry Francona said. “He sets the tone for our pitching staff. It’s hard to imagine somebody better. When the best pitcher, not only on just your team, but probably the league ... the way he goes about his business, that to me is what a leader is. He may not be the loudest guy, but boy does he lead by example.”
Kluber is as unassuming as can be, but he’s known as a practical joker in the clubhouse and understands how much the Indians rely on him -- for more than just top-shelf pitching.
“As always the goal is to be consistent, to go out there and hopefully perform to where the team can rely on you each time you go out there,” he said. “It’s not always going to be the case, but when you hit a rough spot, you can work out of it as quick as possible.”
Kluber may have flown under the radar during the early stages of his career, but now that he’s arrived, he’s thrust himself into the conversation of baseball’s best pitcher.
The Indians, who have Kluber under contract through 2019 with options in 2020-21, are fortunate to have discovered him.
“I think he’s getting a reputation of being a hard-nosed guy that’s just going to go at you,” Gomes said. “To even look at him, a more impressive thing is how many walks he had. For 200-plus strikeouts and it was maybe 40 walks this year with 200 innings? You know he’s going right at guys. That’s awesome.
“He’s one of those rare guys that has four plus pitches. His curveball or his cutter or his fastball, it’s plus, plus. I think all four, even his change-up, all four pitches can be used at any time. He does have a devastating curveball and cutter combo. Any given day, it’s a different thing. He just goes out there and makes adjustments and competes every day.”
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