Consistent Kluber Keeping Cleveland in the Central Race

With all of the changes in the Cleveland Indians starting rotation over the winter, there were plenty of questions about how the starting staff would endure over the course of the 2014 season.

Losing two of the more veteran starting pitchers on the previous season’s staff in Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir was going to be difficult enough to replace. Instead of searching the free agent market and buying one of the many overpriced pieces available there, the club elected to use internal options to fill the void around returning arms Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, and Corey Kluber.

Masterson was supposed to be the ace. Except so far, that has not been the case. Masterson has struggled and given up runs in bulk. Kluber, however, has taken that crown and is taking the American League by force, even if casual fans do not yet know his name.

The Indians’ rotation has been the inconsistent mess that many feared it might be.

The team’s number one starter of the last few seasons, Masterson, was coming off of a career best year in many statistical categories but that ended with him in the bullpen after an early September injury. Entering a contract season with millions of dollars on the line, it was thought that he could be the centerpiece of the staff and be a dominant force once again.

Instead, Masterson has struggled mightily. The returning AL All-Star from last season has looked like the pitcher of old in less than half of his eleven starts this season. He has pitched into the sixth inning eight times and into the seventh on six occasions. After a pair of six-run starts at the beginning of April, he settled down and looked as though he had found his groove on the mound.

In his last three starts, however, he has become unhinged, unable to complete the sixth inning and giving up walks, hits, and runs in undesired quantities. At Toronto, at home against Oakland, and at Baltimore, he has allowed 17 runs in 15 1/3 innings, good for a 9.98 ERA. He has walked eleven batters and given up 21 hits, a 2.09 WHIP. He has struck out just seven batters in that span, an average of 4.11 strikeouts per nine innings, well below his 7.5 average entering the season.

He is currently sitting with a 2-3 record on the season with a 5.32 ERA. Last season, he was 14-10 with a 3.45 ERA, including a career-high in wins, winning percentage (.583), complete games (3), shutouts (3), strikeouts (195), WHIP (1.20), and strikeouts per nine innings (9.1). His numbers this season may or may not be courtesy of an average decrease in pitch speed of 2 to 2.6 miles per hour on his sinker, slider, and fastball.

McAllister was an unknown commodity coming into the season. He lost more than seven weeks of work last season with a finger injury, one similar to that sustained by Kluber shortly thereafter. He pitched on a bit of a pitch count in the final five weeks of the year, only once pitching more than five innings in a start. He had given the Indians on average 5.6 innings per start over each of the last two seasons.

Out of the gate, he looked good, winning three straight quality starts after a short outing to open his season against Oakland. He then allowed four earned runs or more in five of his next six starts and found himself on the disabled list with a lower back strain. In just ten starts, he has already equaled the number of starts he had all of last season that fell short of five complete innings.

He has shown an ability to dominate early, but the Indians will need him to recover a piece of what he was if they hope to get back into the AL Central race. Rookie left-hander T.J. House, who took the loss against Baltimore in his first career start on Friday night, is filling the void in the rotation for McAllister.

The biggest area of uncertainty was in the back end of the rotation – the combination of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Carrasco has been banished to mop up and long relief work in the dark recesses of the bullpen, replaced by Josh Tomlin. Salazar struggled with control, pitch count, and short appearances that were taking a toll on the bullpen before his demotion to Columbus, replaced by Trevor Bauer.

And then there is Kluber.

Unlike the aforementioned starters, Kluber has been effective nearly every time he has been on the mound.

Just twice has Kluber failed to reach the sixth inning in eleven starts this season, including Saturday’s seven shutout innings against Baltimore. He was afflicted with horrible luck in his first few outings of the year, several of which were pushed back due to rain outs. It never seemed to faze him on the mound. In fact, his consistently flat affect on the mound, in the dugout, and during interviews would lead one to belief that the man is just incapable of displaying any emotions.

Kluber may not look or act the part of an ace, but his efforts on the mound are resembling one with each additional start on the mound.

Kluber in many ways has been the savior of the Tribe’s pitching staff this season. He has been an innings eater, averaging 6.6 innings per start. While pitching deeper into games than many of his rotation teammates, he has done it with quality – in eight of his nine starts of six innings or more, he has allowed three earned runs or less.

He has done the bulk of his work with pinpoint accuracy and consistency. Four different times this season he has completed an outing on the mound without surrendering a free pass. It is no surprise that his control his a key to his game – his games with the three highest walk totals are, of no coincidence, the three games in which he allowed the most runs and earned all three of his losses this season.

He has walked just 17 of the 308 batters he has faced this season in 72 2/3 innings (2.11 walks per nine innings), up slightly from his 2.0 walks per nine innings last season but still improved over his career mark of 2.3.

“I think the biggest thing for me is always just being aggressive and trying to attack the strike zone,” said Kluber during an interview with Rick Manning and Matt Underwood during Tuesday’s broadcast on Fox Sports SportsTime Ohio. “Trying to avoid falling behind hitters is a biggest key for me, and probably most pitchers. Obviously, it’s a lot easy to hit when you’re ahead in the count. You can try to zone in on the one pitch you’re looking for.”

What may be the most surprising about Kluber is how much more the strikeout has become involved in his game. The single K in Kluber is more commonly being replaced with eight of the letters. On Saturday, Kluber became the first pitcher this season in Major League Baseball to strike out eight batters or more in five consecutive starts. He now has 48 in the month of May and 83 for the season, trailing just Tampa Bay’s David Price by one for the Major League lead in strikeouts on the season.

“For me, I’m not trying to strike people out,” said Kluber Tuesday. “I think it’s just a product of executing pitches. Obviously if you’re way ahead in the count they are in more of a defensive mode.”

His strikeout rate entering action on Saturday was 10.1 per nine innings, fifth best in the AL behind Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jon Lester and just ahead of Price.

Kluber’s strikeout totals are surprising since he is not a consistent flamethrower on the mound. His sinker will top out around 96 but averages 92.5 miles per hour. He also throws a slider, curve, changeup, and a cutter. The latter two are used much less frequently than the other pitches in his repertoire.

Kluber is at his best when getting ahead in the count. Not counting his most recent start, Kluber limited opposing hitters to a .186 batting average when getting ahead in the count with a first pitch strike. That average dropped even further, down to .138, when he got ahead with strikes for each of the first two pitches. By comparison, the opposition bats .266 against him when he falls behind with a first pitch ball and .308 when each of the first two pitches are outside of the zone.

Other statistics have helped to show Kluber’s effectiveness and value this season. Prior to adding in his effort Saturday afternoon, Fangraphs ranked Kluber (2.2) second to only Felix Hernandez of Seattle (2.5) on their Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for pitchers.

His biggest contribution is that he is giving Cleveland an opportunity to win every time out. While he is now 3-0 in the month of May, the Indians are 4-1 when he starts. That starts with his control – he has allowed just seven walks in 35 2/3 innings. It continues with keeping the ball in the yard – he has given up two home runs in each of the first two months of the season despite just three times this season allowing more balls on the ground than in the air in a game.  It ends by getting ahead of the count, painting the black, and using an arsenal of moving pitches, none that are overpowering in the speed department, to rack up an increasing number of strikeouts. That number is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.

Kluber is now 5-3 on the season with a 3.10 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. His next trip to the mound is scheduled for Friday at home against the Colorado Rockies.

Kluber may not smile much when the spotlight is on him, but the Indians’ brass has to being smiling to this day for the pitcher that has developed out of the often-overlooked Double-A pitching prospect that Cleveland acquired in a three-team trade from San Diego in 2010.

Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

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