R-E-L-A-X: Corey Kluber is Just Fine

Corey Kluber has struggled early this season. Don’t panic. Kluber will return to his form and you shouldn’t be trading or dropping him in fantasy leagues.

R-E-L-A-X.

Thanks, Aaron Rodgers. We all needed to draw on that sound bite every now and again to pull us back from the ledge. Now it’s more important than ever as Corey Kluber is absolutely killing my team ERA. What’s worse is looking at each start and knowing that it really isn’t Kluber’s fault. No, seriously, man. It’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…

So why has Kluber been Ben Affleck when we know he is Matt Damon? It’s the southie boys trying to hold him down, that’s why.


KLUBER CONTROLS WHAT KLUBER CONTROLS

Well, he can’t control all of the numbers. Obviously his ERA and WHIP are getting absolutely tanked but let’s look at our good friend, FIP. FIP was made so that it measures exactly what the pitcher can control — Strikeouts, Walks, and Hit-By-Pitches. His FIP is a solid 3.42.

This is due to his K/9 and BB/9 being right in line with his career average, maybe a tick down, but nothing to worry about. His 9 K/9 and his 2.37 BB/9 still gives him incredible peripherals. You know what else I’m digging? Is 15.3% Swinging Strike rate is higher than any season in his career after posting 12.9% last season.

Even more so, he has stable, if not improved, stats when it comes to batters being successful at the plate. His O-Swing% is only down 1.9% but they are making contact almost 14% less of the time outside the zone and making almost 2% less contact on swings inside the zone. Overall, his Contact% is down from 74.5% to 67.6%.

The pitches that batters are connecting also show that Kluber has an improvement over last season. Kluber is giving up less line drives and inducing more ground balls on average. And while his Hard Hit% percentage is up slightly, his Soft Hit% is still at 17.2% which is better than last season.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, checking the leaderboards will give you an indication of how successful Kluber should have been so far this season. His SwSTr% is ranked 6th in the league. His Contact% is ranked 8th in the league. All the batted ball data is in line with career numbers.


KLUBER HAS BEEN UNLUCKY

So if we look at what Corey Kluber can control, we can see that he is the same ole Klubot that struck out over 500 batters the past two seasons combined. But if he is going to post top 20 starting pitcher numbers, he has to start getting defensive help and a bit of fortune in the other direction.

The three metrics that we typically use to measure luck are HR/FB rates (depending on the type of pitcher), BABIP, and LOB%. These measure the home runs per fly ball hit, the batting average on balls in play, and the percentage of batters left on base, respectively. For the uninitiated, league averages for these numbers are typically 10% HR/FB, around a .300 BABIP, and 72% LOB percentage.

So where does Kluber fall? Well, the very bottom of course! He has the 11th worst BABIP in the league. He has the 17th worst LOB% in the league and his home run to fly ball rate is stable at 10%. But look at the metrics that measure WHIP: Walks and Hits and since we’ve already established that his walk rate is fine, his WHIP is inflated because of that huge BABIP. And when ERA is predicated on keeping men from scoring, a LOB% at 59.5% isn’t helping things.


GAME ANALYSIS OF THE CONSPIRACY AGAINST KLUBER

This video of manager Terry Francona breaking down Kluber’s last start is pretty informative. We see in the video that Rajai Davis lost two balls in the sun which resulted in runs that should have never been scored. Additionally, later in the video we see a bunt go for a hit when Kluber sails his throw to first.

But you know what? That just wasn’t enough for me. I almost called Ja Rule to make sense of all this. But instead, I watched all three of Kluber’s starts this season. Where the damage went down, I looked at the results of every batter Kluber faced on how the umpires, the weather, and even his own team, is conspiring against him.

April 17th vs. New York Mets

1st inning, Corey Kluber walks lead-off man Curtis Granderson. He gets a ground ball the other way off Asdrubal Cabrera which should have resulted in a double play ball if wasn’t so shaded close to the base and up on the grass.

After that, Michael Conforto rockets a ball that hits off the top of the wall, scoring Granderson (Side Note: I love Conforto this season. He will play is way out of any platoon — which a platoon against LHP isn’t even a big deal in the NL East — and that is the fourth ball he has hit off the top of the wall this season. The mashed taters will come.)

Then, Yoenis Cespedes comes to the plate and Kluber paints the low, inside corner for a strike that the umpire clearly missed. Kluber doesn’t let him affect him and gets Cespedes to pop up behind the plate in a play that results in…Yan Gomes completely botching it and letting it fall.

“I don’t know if he had trouble in the sun or not…” the announcer quips. That’ll be relevant later in the game. Now, Cespedes ends up chasing a breaking ball away for the strikeout but it illustrates how Kluber is having to pitch around his teams misplays up to this point in the season. 

So Kluber should have been out of the inning with the double play ball and strikeout to Cespedes. But after a line drive base hit to right field scoring Conforto and Cabrera, he ends up with three runs charged to his name.

2nd inning, Kluber gets the first two batters with a pop fly and a nice backwards K. Then it all unravels. This is where Davis loses a flyball in the sun — resulting in a triple for Granderson. Now at this point, there should already been three outs so there is really no need to go any further.  Cabrera pulls a bunt, Kluber throws the ball wide, and now we have four runs on the board. But why just one lost ball in the sun? I think Davis felt the same way because he decided to give Kluber the BOGO discount, babbbyyyy.

Again, the announcer says, “Now I know you can’t penalize a fielder for the sun because it isn’t his fault, but how the heck to penalize a pitcher for something beyond his control?” Yeah, I think all Kluber owners are wondering the same thing. Can we have errors charged to weather? Someone text Rob Manfred.

April 12th vs. Tampa Bay Rays

We pick up this game during the 7th. Up to this point, Klubot has been absolutely DEALING. Just over 70 pitches, and it looks like Kluber is going the distance. After he strikes out the Logan Morrison and gets Evan Longoria to ground out, he paints the upper, outside corner beautifully to get Dickerson but new umpire hire, Stevie Wonder, drew plate duty that day. But if that’s not enough, Jose Ramirez misplays a routine flyball in the outfield and Dickerson then scores after a Desmond Jennings single.

But this pales in comparison to what happened in the 8th inning. After Souza hits a weak fly ball to right field and a walk to Kevin Kiermaier, he strikes out Conger and Kiermaier is safe at 2nd after a steal by Kiermaier which could really have gone either way. And after having Logan Forsythe down 0-2, Kluber threw three straight balls before leaving a meatball high in the zone that he crushes.

Even if we give Kiermaier the stolen base, Kluber still should have only given up two runs over his 7 and 2/3 innings and that’s a great start.

April 5th vs. Boston Red Sox

Corey Kluber admitted to the cold weather affecting his game in this one. And when you’re facing one of the better projected offenses in the lead, you have to be comfortable. So in this game, the two run tater he gave up to Mookie Betts was all on him.

But after that, the trouble he ran into in the 6th inning was squarely on his teams’ shoulders. For some reason, Francisco Lindor was positioned almost at third base, which allowed a weak ground ball by Hanley Ramirez to squeak through the infield. Would be out number one. Then, we have Travis Shaw lace a single into right in which Hanley advances to third on a rare hustle play by the shortstop converted left fielder converted 1st baseman.

The next batter, Brock Holt gets saved by the umpire on a strike three before he gets a cheapie hit to left field — the quintessential Texas Leaguer. So after Swihart grounds out to Mike Napoli, we should have three outs in this inning.


KLUBOT NEEDS MORE OIL IN HIS JOINTS

Honestly, the worry for Kluber happens every single year. Kluber is a notoriously slow starter — or maybe his team is a slow-start team — and nothing has changed this year.

In his 2014 Cy Young season, Corey Kluber had a 4.14 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP through his six April starts. And would you believe that pretty much all the metrics like K-rate, BB-rate, and batted ball data show that Kluber has pitched even better this season. In his 2015 campaign, Kluber once again got off to slow start. Even with posting better metrics than he has this season — 9.53 K/9 with a 1.85 BB/9 — it still resulted in a 4.24 ERA over five April starts. High BABIP, low LOB%, the works.

Last season, the Indians ranked third in the league in Defensive rating and 6th in DRS while placing 8th in UZR/150. In fact, most of the reason why they weren’t higher — that is, the guys who didn’t play great defense — are either gone or are now second on the depth chart in favor of a player with a better defensive game. With guys like Jason Kipnis and Lindor up the middle posting fantastic defensive metrics, Napoli manning first and ranking second among first basemen with at least 500 innings, Juan Uribe playing solid defense throughout his career, Gomes playing a full season who has always posted positive defensive metrics, and an athletic outfield coming back from injuries, there is no reason to worry that this will continue all year either.

Corey Kluber always gets stronger as the season goes on so much of the worry about one the top pitchers in baseball is pretty unwarranted. Have patience, things will even out.