The April portion of the 2015 season is now part of the historical record. While there have been a lot of surprises and disappointments around the league, one of the biggest mysteries may be the zero in the win column of reigning American League Cy Young Award winning pitcher, Corey Kluber.
Pitchers in professional baseball are used to being victimized by the opposing team on occasion. A much smaller percentage of these pitchers are used to being victimized by their own team. That situation has applied very noticeably to Kluber so far this season.
Kluber has had the unenviable task of trying to pitch with little to no run support throughout his first five April starts and even into his first start of the month of May. In April alone, the Indians supplied him with seven runs while he was the pitcher of record in the center of the diamond. Even after he exited the game, Cleveland managed only three more runs.
Five April starts. Five separate occasions that Kluber has at least started the seventh inning on the mound. Seven total offensive runs with him on the mound. Ten total Indians runs in those five games.
How has that happened?
He lasted seven and one-third innings in the season opener in Houston against the Astros on April 6th. It took the Astros two outs into the sixth inning to get their first hit, but after Jose Altuve singled to center and stole second, he scored on a two-out RBI-single by George Springer for the first run of the game. Another runner he allowed to reach in the eighth scored after Scott Atchison came on in relief.
Cleveland failed to score against Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and fell, 2-0. Kluber went seven and a third, allowing two runs on three hits with a pair of walks and seven strikeouts.
The Detroit Tigers jumped out to a 2-0 lead in his second start on April 11th on a leadoff homer from Anthony Gose and a run-scoring double play groundout by Victor Martinez after consecutive singles from Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera.
The Indians got him three runs in the bottom of the six courtesy of a sacrifice fly by Ryan Raburn and a two-out, two-run double by Jerry Sands. Kluber faced one more batter and left with a lead, only to have his bullpen mates issue a single and a walk, then retired the second out on a lineout before surrendering three consecutive RBI-singles to make it a 5-3 game. The Indians would tie it up in the eighth as Sands delivered another two-run double, but Cody Allen’s meltdown ended almost all hope.
Cleveland lost 9-6. Kluber tallied his first double-digit strikeout game of the season and allowed two runs on seven hits and a walk in six and one-third innings.
Kluber made his second road start of the season on April 17th against Minnesota. The Indians got him a pair of runs, scoring on a wild pitch in the fifth and a Brandon Moss homer in the sixth. Kluber, however, gave it right back, giving up a single, throwing a wild pitch, and allowing another single to score the Twins’ first run. After a pair of fielder’s choices put runners on second and third, a wild pitch on a strikeout swinging by Eduardo Escobar scored the tying run.
Kluber threw eight complete innings, allowing two runs on three hits with a walk and eight strikeouts. He would get the no-decision, and his team the loss, as Bryan Shaw allowed the walk-off homer to Trevor Plouffe in the eleventh.
The Tribe’s right-hander took the mound again on April 22nd against the White Sox to conclude the Chicago portion of their nine-game road trip. A first inning homer by Jose Abreu would be all the Sox would need, as the Indians would not find home plate in nine innings. Abreu knocked in another run in the third and Alexei Ramirez scored on a wild pitch in the sixth. Kluber looked rough at the start of the seventh, as a hit parade and a wild pitch pushed the deficit to 6-0.
The White Sox were the victors of the day and took the series. Kluber fell to 0-2 and the Indians to 0-4 in his first four starts of the year. He allowed a season-high 13 hits and six runs, walked one, and struck out a then season-low six batters.
The reigning AL champion Royals came to town and took on Kluber on April 27th and once again, Kluber was on the losing end of the ball game. Kansas City got a run in the second on an error and an RBI-single from Eric Hosmer in the third, but Mike Aviles tied the game up with a two-run homer to the Home Run Porch in the fifth. A walk, a single, and a double with one out in the sixth gave the lead right back to the Royals. Kluber remained on for the seventh but the Royals pounded out three singles off of him while he retired just one man. Nick Hagadone, who came on with two on, struck out Hosmer but an error and a single cleared the bases of the inherited runners and gave KC a 6-2 lead.
That final would stick, giving Kluber his third loss and a winless April for the Indians with their ace on the mound. With two runs of support in this game, the season tally reached seven with Kluber on the mound and ten overall in games that Kluber appeared in.
From a historical perspective, the Indians’ extreme and utter lack of run support with their number one starter on the mound is almost unheard of for a pitcher beginning the defense of his Cy Young Award.
The Indians have averaged just two runs per start for Kluber. They scored 16 runs (3.2 per game) in Cliff Lee’s first five games after winning the Cy, more than a full run than Kluber is getting this season. The Indians scored 35 runs for CC Sabathia (5.83 per game) in his first six starts of March and April, but the team went 2-4 and he went 1-4 with a 7.88 ERA.
Kluber is not the first to receive little support in his first month of the season, but he is in exclusive company for those that took home hardware at the end of the previous season. Some other reigning honorees had some poor run support, but only one other AL pitcher in 60 years of Cy Young Awards had an average runs scored total in his defense season as low as Kluber.
Gaylord Perry was, just like Kluber, given just two runs of support per game in 1973 after becoming the first Indians pitcher to be honored. Three different times to start the year Cleveland failed to score a run in his starts. They scored a dozen combined in the other three, all victories for the 34-year-old right-hander. All six were complete game efforts.
No other AL pitcher has had fewer runs scored for them in the first month of their season. Baltimore’s Jim Palmer (in five April starts in 1977) and Toronto’s Roger Clemens (in five similar starts in 1998) were supported with just 2.4 runs per game started. The Yankees averaged 2.50 runs per start for Bullet Bob Turley in 1959.
The National League has had three players have equal to or less support than Kluber has averaged over his first month of work.
Pittsburgh scored just ten runs for Doug Drabek in his first five April games in 1991. Clemens, with Houston following his win in 2004, had just five runs scored in his first five games of the year, matching San Francisco’s Mike McCormick, who suffered the same fate nearly 40 years earlier when the Giants scored four in his first four games of the season.
It is also uncommon for a pitcher of Cy Young worth to not secure his first win of the season before the month of April has concluded.
It took Lee three starts to earn his first win in 2009 following his award-winning season. Sabathia won in his fifth start in 2008. Perry got his first win under his belt in his first start to the season in 1973.
Kluber’s loss to the Blue Jays on Saturday ensured that he would be winless through his first six starts. The last time a reigning Cy Young winning pitcher needed more than six starts to earn his first win of the season was Zack Greinke, who needed eight in 2009. This is excluding closers who have won the award (with hat tips but apologies to Eric Gagne, Dennis Eckersley, Mark Davis, Steve Bedrosian, Willie Hernandez, Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter, Sparky Lyle, and Mike Marshall).
Bartolo Colon required seven starts to win his first game in 2006 after winning the award with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005. He made three starts before being shut down for two months and would pitch in just seven more games after coming back off of the disabled list before being shelved again. In addition to Greinke, Frank Viola needed eight starts to earn his first win of the year in 1988. Boston’s Jim Lonborg made nine appearances before getting a win in 1968, but six of his first eight appearances after debuting on May 28th came in relief. It took him just three games started to earn a W.
While just a handful of Cy pitchers made it out of the first month of the season without earning a win, that did not necessarily stop their respective teams from earning victories after they had left the mound for the day.
The Indians, however, are winless in Kluber’s first six starts. The Royals won in Greinke’s fourth start despite his no-decision. Colon’s Angels took the lead after he left in the sixth inning of his first start. Viola’s Twins lost each of his first seven starts of the year before winning in his eighth on May 9th, 1989.
Kluber and the Indians have already provided one of the longest season-opening losing skids by a defending Cy Young winner and he is in danger of challenging the Twins and Viola’s streak for the longest one in the 60 years Major League Baseball has rewarded its top pitcher(s) with its present award.
When a team’s ace is on the mound, it normally has to feel pretty strongly about its chances of winning that day. For some reason with the Indians, it has been cause to leave the good wood in the locker room.
The long winless streak for the Indians with Kluber on the mound certainly runs the risk of creating some distress and confidence damage for Cleveland’s starter, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere in 2014 to claim the top pitching honor in the AL.
Kluber might not hold any grudges against his teammates for the lack of big numbers in the run column on the scoreboard, but he sure could if he were that type of man. With two more runs Saturday, those same players have scored nine runs with him on the mound and 14 runs total in his starts. For comparison’s sake, Danny Salazar had nine runs of support in his second start of the season, against the Tigers, while his teammates put up 13 for the game.
Is the lack of support affecting Kluber on the mound?
Statistically, it looks like it. “Klubot” has looked destructible, posting an 0-4 record with a 4.85 ERA in 39 innings over six starts. He has allowed 21 earned runs on 44 hits, struck out 39 batters, and walked nine. He entered action on Saturday having thrown four wild pitches, the same amount that he threw in 383 previous innings of the 2013 and 2014 seasons combined.
“I thought early he was fighting his fastball command, especially to his arm side,” said manager Terry Francona after Kluber’s start on Saturday afternoon, “so he started out throwing a lot of cutters. Once they kind of got a beat on that he never was able to really command his fastball like he can or will.”
The loss of catcher Yan Gomes may also be playing a larger role than is being given credit. Gomes caught 32 of Kluber’s starts last season. With him behind the plate, the opposition hit .232 and Kluber had a 2.38 ERA and averaged 5.47 strikeouts per walk in 219 1/3 innings. With a substantially smaller sample size, Kluber allowed a .333 average, had a 5.40 ERA, and struck out 2.50 batters per walk in two games and eight and one-third innings with Roberto Perez as his backstop.
In two starts this season, the Kluber-Gomes tandem had limited hitters to a .208 average with a 5.67 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.63 ERA. The Kluber-Perez duo – .317 average, a 4.75 SO/W rate, and a 5.31 ERA prior to Saturday’s game.
At this point, he must feel as though he has to be nearly perfect on the mound or risk inevitable defeat. The guy already has a target on his back because he is the reigning pitching champ and there are those who did not think he was worthy of the award. Now, on top of that pressure and the pressure from the team’s abysmal start, he may have the extra pressure of near-perfection strapped to his back.
“I think when you do that, you start adding extra pressure,” said Kluber following his loss to the Blue Jays when asked about the lack of run support. “It’s already hard enough. When you start trying to control things that are out of your control, it’s just going to make it more difficult.”
“It seems like they have scored early in those games he’s pitched, and we haven’t been putting up a bunch of runs,” said Francona. “I think he’s trying to be fine and not allow any runs and sometimes that makes it a little harder.”
On the plus side, if you can call it that, is that Kluber is not unfamiliar to a lack of run support when on the mound. Last season, the Indians scored three runs or less in 15 of his 34 starts and they averaged 4.23 runs of support per start. Cleveland has managed the same offensive ineptness, with three runs or less of support in four of his six starts.
It is a long season, a tired adage used at length by Indians fans trying to maintain some hope after earning the AL’s worst record to start the season. While Kluber has not helped his caused with 14 earned runs in his last three starts, he had shown himself to be a good enough pitcher capable of bouncing back last season.
If history is any indication, Kluber is due. But he cannot do it on his own. He needs the support of his offensive teammates. They can show up any time now.
Photo: AP Photo/Phil Long