Is it time to start worrying about Corey Kluber?
Yes and no.
But the evidence in the “yes” column is much longer than the evidence in the “no” column.
Here’s a sample from the “no” column: through six starts Kluber is 2-2 with a 5.81 ERA. After his first six starts in 2017, the year he won his second Cy Young Award, he was 3-2 with a 5.06 ERA. After six starts in 2014, the year he won his first Cy Young Award, he was 2-3 with a 4.14 ERA.
Kluber is historically a slow starter. His career ERA in April is 3.91, which is by far the highest monthly ERA of his career. He tends to start slow, then get better as the season progresses: 3.30 in May, 2.92 in June, 2.68 in July and 2.78 In August.
His career ERA in September is 3.32, still very good but his second-highest ERA for any month in his career.
So Kluber is off to a slow start, but for him, that’s the norm.
Here’s a couple more from the “no” column: Kluber’s line drive rate of 23 percent is his lowest in eight years. He’s also thrown first-pitch strikes a career-best 65.3 percent of the time. So he’s getting ahead of hitters. But too many at-bats are still turning out bad.
Some real bad.
In 2017, when he won his second Cy Young Award, Kluber made 29 starts, faced 777 batters and only issued four four-pitch walks. This year, in only six starts, Kluber has already issued four four-pitch walks.
He’s had 3-0 counts on 6.1 percent of the plate appearances against him. That’s by far the highest of his career. In 2017 (second Cy Young), that figure was 2.7. His career mark is 3.5.
Clearly, then, Kluber is not making the ball go where he wants it to go as frequently as he has in the past.
In his six starts, Kluber basically has career worsts in each of the following categories: hits per nine innings (10.7), home runs per nine innings (1.2), walks per nine innings (4.4) and strikeouts per walk (2.33).
Kluber’s strikeout percentage is 23.8, another career low, and well below his career average of 27.1. His walk percentage — the percentage of at-bats that ended in a walk — last year was 4.0. This year it’s 10.2.
His called third strike percentage of 25.7 is well below his career mark of 29.8. So he’s not fooling batters as much as he has in the past.
He’s also not making good pitches when he needs good pitches. With runners in scoring position, opposing batters in 2014 and 2017 (Kluber’s two Cy Young years) hit .207 and .228, respectively. This year they are hitting .273.
That leads to longer innings, which leads to shorter outings. From 2014 through 2018 Kluber was incredibly consistent. Over that span he started 160 games, pitched 1,091 innings, and his yearly pitches-per-inning averages were stunning similar: never more than 14.9, never less than 14.5.
This year Kluber is averaging 17.9 pitches per inning.
So to review, Kluber’s innings are down, his pitch counts are up, he’s not throwing enough quality strikes, not getting batters to chase pitches out of the strike zone, giving up too many hits and home runs and walking way too many hitters.
In each of the last two years Kluber has led the American League in fewest walks per nine innings with marks of 1.6 and 1.4. This year he’s at 4.4.
But if you’re looking for the single biggest reason for Kluber’s slow start it’s that his historically impeccable control has suddenly become very peccable. When he’s missing the strike zone, he’s missing by so much that it’s an easy take for the hitter. We’re not seeing enough of those breaking balls he would throw that were strikes halfway to the plate, then veered out of the zone, producing weak, emergency swings by hitters.
At his best, Kluber lives on the fringes of the strike zone. His strikes are not strikes hitters care to swing at, and the pitches he throws for balls look too close for hitters NOT to swing at. At his best, Kluber produces weak contact and strong results.
Again, it’s only six starts, by a pitcher with a history of starting slow. So let’s not overreact.
But if we were to overreact, we could point out Kluber’s age (33) and his work load. With the exception of knuckleballer Tom Candiotti, Kluber is the first Indians starter in 47 years (Sam McDowell 1967-71) to pitch over 200 innings in five consecutive seasons.
Since the start of the 2014 season Kluber is second in the majors (behind Max Scherzer) with 1,122 innings pitched. In those innings Kluber has thrown a total of 16,642 pitches.
So is it time to start worrying about Corey Kluber?
I’d say definitely maybe.
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