Concern Grows for Corey Kluber Amid Injuries and Poor Starts
If the Indians want to go anywhere and do anything this October, they need Corey Kluber. Actually, allow me to correct myself. They don’t just need Corey Kluber. The Indians need the two-time Cy Young winner and arguably the best pitcher in baseball pitching like the best pitcher in baseball. Unfortunately, over the course of the past month, Corey Kluber has been Corey Kluber in name only.
The down turn began innocently enough. On June 26th in St. Louis, during a game which was delayed nearly two hours by inclement weather, Kluber lasted all of an inning and two-thirds against the Cardinals. Out of the 12 batters faced by Kluber, six scored. Both Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez took him deep. Of the 48 pitches thrown by Kluber, 31 went for strikes, roughly 65%. However, of the 31 strikes, only seven were swings and misses while another three were called by the umpire. Both were very un-Kluber-like.
Since that rain-soaked evening in St. Louis, things just haven’t been quite right with the Indians’ ace. It’s as if he’s been a completely different pitcher. Don’t believe me, just take a look at the numbers for yourself.
Sixteen starts prior to June 26:
Five starts from June 26 on:
There is a significant difference between the Corey Kluber we saw in his first 16 starts to the season versus the one we have seen over his last five starts. Now obviously, five games is a much smaller sample size, but even taking that into account, the differences are startling, to say the least.
So what’s going on with Corey Kluber?
From what we’ve been told, there have been a few different things going on with Kluber to be aware of. First, during the June 26 game in St. Louis, Andre Knott reported during the bottom half of the second inning that Kluber was struggling with his mechanics and landing spot. Unfortunately, because the Indians sent seven hitters to the plate in the first and this was a National League park, Kluber hit second in the top half of the second. This prevented him from discussing the issue in-depth with Carl Willis and left him to make adjustments on the fly. It didn’t work and the rest was history. Mechanics were also sited as an issue in at least two other starts, most recently on Monday night against the Pirates.
Second, and far more concerning, has been injury. When Kluber has struggled previously, the primary culprit has always been injury. This was true of last season’s early season struggles due to a bad back and then hinted at, if not confirmed, during last year’s playoff disaster. It appears to be the case again. Kluber was given an injection in his right knee following his start against the Yankees prior to the all-star break. Thanks to the prolonged break due to the mid-summer classic, Kluber avoided a DL stint, but one has to wonder if one isn’t coming.
The end result of this combination of poor mechanics and injury has been a much more hittable Corey Kluber. Look no further than the hitting statistics in the tables above. When Kluber was rolling, opposing batters slashed .194/.219/.325 with an OPS of .544 and a batting average on balls in play of .232. In his last five starts, the tide has turned. Opposing batters have slashed .318/.350/.564 with an OPS of .914 and batting average on balls in play of .345. All the while, the opposition has nearly matched their run scoring output of Kluber’s first 16 starts in over the course of his last five starts.
Location, Location, Location
The key to success for any pitcher is all about location. If you can’t locate your pitches, put them where you want them, and subsequently exploit the weaknesses in the swings of opposing hitters, you’re going to struggle. That appears to be the case here with Corey Kluber and is most likely the combined result of the aforementioned poor mechanics and injury. Kluber has made a living by utilizing filthy movement on the edges of the strike zone. Sure, he also has the ability to blow a 94 mph fastball by a hitter when he needs to, but Kluber’s bread and butter has been crisscrossing hitters with the movement of his breaking pitches and two-seam fastball on the edges. From what we’ve seen lately out of Kluber, that pinpoint control and movement just hasn’t been there.
This was evident on Monday night against the Pirates. In four key at-bats against Josh Harrison, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, Kluber failed to execute. Three of the four run scoring hits caught way too much of the plate. The fourth hit, the Marte single on an 89 MPH cutter, while located decently enough, lacked any real bite or movement. Marte wasn’t fooled at all. Polanco’s triple came off of a 91 mph four seam fastball, roughly three to four miles per hour slower than what we’re accustomed to seeing from Kluber.
Sure, you can attribute some of Monday night’s issues to the series of rain delays and prolonged period of rest coming out of the all-star break. It’s also not aided by the fact that the Pirates are the hottest team in baseball and hitting everyone right now. But, the fact of the matter is that at-bats similar to those we saw on Monday night have been occurring throughout this recent stretch for Kluber.
He’s just not fooling anyone right now. With the exception of his start against the A’s in which he went seven scoreless innings, Kluber has been far from dominant. Only once in his previous five starts has he exceeded 5 strikeouts. This came against the strikeout heavy Yankees, Compare that to his previous 16 starts in which he passed the five strikeouts mark 12 times and four times hit double digits.
A key indicator that Kluber is failing to fool opposing hitters and struggling with his command is his called strike percentage. Over the past five starts, Kluber has experienced a 7% drop in called strikes. Whether this is a result of a stretch of tight umpiring or a loss of command, the effect on Kluber’s results is clearly evident. He’s not getting calls, he’s not making pitches, and opposing hitters are crushing pitches in the zone.
So what do the Indians do?
If I were a betting man, I would expect the Indians to base their next move on the results of Kluber’s next start. Kluber has never been the type of pitcher to perform well on prolonged rest. Combine that with the recovery from the knee injection, the crazy weather delays from Monday, and the shoddy defense that led to an extended inning and four unearned runs, and it’s hard to take much away from Monday’s game.
How Kluber responds to his normal rest schedule under normal circumstances should give everyone a better idea of where Kluber is at. That next start will come on Sunday against the Tigers. If he performs to the normal standard we have come to expect from Corey Kluber, the Indians are likely to do nothing. But, if he struggles again against a team and hitters he is very familiar with, I could see them moving him to the disable list to rest his knee and also work out his mechanical issues. Given the state of the division, they can take their time with this. There is no need to rush.
What’s most important is that the Indians have a healthy Corey Kluber come October. We have seen in back-to-back seasons the difference a healthy Kluber can make in the playoffs versus a slightly unhealthy version. If they want to make any noise this postseason and make a run at a World Series title, they need him to be healthy.