The Indians came into the season with a great deal of promise. The front office addressed the offensive struggles with several offensive minded signings in the offseason. The starting rotation however remained a question mark. The Indians have now lost eight of their last ten games after climbing to the top in the AL Central and currently sport the third worst ERA of any team in the American League. The Tribe needs a pitcher to step up and take the rains and it looks like some of the young guns on the Indians staff may be doing just that. Corey Kluber has been one of the few bright spots on the Indians pitching staff, coming on strong after a less than stellar season in 2012. Every start he seems to get better and better and that is just what the doctor ordered for the Indians and their fans.
Tuesday night Kluber threw a gem going eight innings while allowing only one run on six hits. The outing was quite possibly his best of the season, and the seventh time in nine starts that he has given up three runs or less. He looks like a better pitcher; he looks like a more confident pitcher. He is now a guy that gives his team a chance to win when he takes the mound, or at least that’s the way it seems. Whatever it may be, something is very different about 2013 Kluber compared to 2012 Kluber.
The sample size between the two seasons is similar enough to make some interesting comparisons. In 2012 Kluber threw 63 innings across 12 games giving up 76 hits, 18 walks, and 54 strikeouts to go with a 5.14 ERA. In 2013 he has pitched 11 games for a total of 57.1 innings, 58 hits, 12 walks, 57 strikeouts, and a 4.08 ERA. He is striking out more batters and walking fewer, but the thing that really jumps out are the hits allowed and the ERA. That is nearly 20 less hits and over a run per game less, he is clearly pitching better, but the question is why.
There are several reasons for Kluber’s recent success. One of those reasons could be that he was suffering some growing pains from his first season as a Major League starter and now he has settled down into his role. That 5.14 ERA last season looks nasty, and he gave up a ton of hits, but was it really as bad as we all remember? In four of Kluber’s 12 starts last year he gave up four or more runs and seven or more hits without ever pitching past the fifth inning. That is a clobbering. His worst start came against the Red Sox on August 12; he gave up six runs and was run out of the game in the fourth inning. He was also run out of a game in the fourth against the Twins on September 9 after giving up five runs on eight hits. On the other side of that coin, he gave up two runs or less in five starts of his 12 starts. His best outings came against the Yankees on August 21 when he gave up only one run in five innings, and on September 25 when he gave up two runs on four hits in seven innings. He pitched games where opposing teams crushed every strike he threw, and he pitched games where he was able to limit the opposing offense and keep the Tribe in the game. The inconsistency from game to game in 2012 could have just been youth and inexperience.
Another reason for his change could be luck. The Indians have a very different defense than they had in 2012. The additions of Mark Reynolds to third, Nick Swisher to first, Michael Bourn to center and Drew Stubbs to right have change the face of the Tribe defense. There is a stat called Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) that I have talked about before. It takes into consideration only those factors that are completely under the pitchers control (not withstanding umpires and stadium designers) like strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Balls in play can be greatly influence by a pitchers defense. Ground balls given up by a pitcher can be hits or outs depending on how hard the ball is hit, its location, and the range and arm of the fielders. An infield of four Omar Vizquels would give up many fewer hits than an infield of four David Ortiz’s. FIP takes the defense out of the equation so there is no fielding influence good or bad. An FIP looks like an ERA and is on the same scale as ERA, furthermore, when an FIP is much lower than a pitchers actual ERA it suggests that he suffered from a poor defense behind him or bad luck in hit placement. In 2012 Kluber had a 5.14 ERA, but a much better looking 4.29 FIP. This suggests that luck or poor defensive range had a great influence over his starts. This may be a bit factor in the difference between his hits allowed in the two years. His defense, mostly in the outfield where players can run down balls and take hits away, is better this season than it was the last.
One final factor could be influencing his success this season. He may just be a better pitcher, throwing better pitches. Looking closely at his pitch velocity, nothing seems to have changed. His fastball averaged 92.6mph in both seasons; his cutter was 82.2mph in 2012 and 82.1 in 2013. His sinker averaged 92mph in 2012 and 92.4 in 2013. Velocity has played no factor in his change. Pitch selection has not been as consistent. Early on in 2012 he was throwing his four-seam fastball 38% of the time, as the season wore on that dropped to only 2% and in his last three starts he gave up five hits or less. His switch to being a predominantly sinker and cutter pitcher have played a big role in his success. He is now throwing his sinker 40-50% of the time and his cutter 23-27% of the time. He has also added a curveball to his repertoire. He never threw a curve before this season and in his two June stats he has thrown the pitch 8% of the time. It also has the second best swing and miss percentage of his pitches at 12.5%.
Corey Kluber is definitely a better pitcher in 2013; he looks like it and the number reflect it. He is throwing better pitches, has a better defense behind him, and he no longer has rookie cob webs to shake off. The Indians need a pitcher or two to step up and drive this team towards success and Kluber has been one of the most solid starters of the season thus far. Expected or not, he is doing it on the field and that is exactly what the Indians and their fans need.
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