How The Tribe’s Best Starter Can Get Even Better

There can be no argument that the Indians have one of the best rotations in all of baseball. In the American League, everyone would agree that the combination of Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin is better than any other team’s rotation. It’s the main reason the Tribe possesses a 6.5 game lead in the Central heading into the All-Star Break with a 52-36 record.

Baseball fans still need something to argue over however and that comes in determining who has been the Indians’ best starter. It’s a tough choice. There’s Salazar, the presumptive All-Star starter until he got pulled from the game, who made his case with lots of strikeouts (118), a great ERA (2.75), and a diminutive batting average against (.204). There’s also Bauer, finally living up to his potential, who has cut down on the walks (3.12 per nine innings) and flashed brilliant stuff. Cookie Carrasco has made a brilliant comeback from injury by leading the staff in ERA (2.47). And you can’t forget Tomlin, who has been the favorite among old-school fans with his nine wins.

But only one of the pitchers on the staff has any hardware to prove their greatness and that’s the Cy Young Award winner Kluber. It is him who has been the Tribe’s best pitcher this year. You might be thinking he has been outplayed by his rotation mates based upon a quick look at his record (9-8) and ERA (3.61). You could argue that he barely even made the All-Star team, only called upon as an injury replacement for Marco Estrada. Certainly, Salazar has been better – just look at how poorly opponents are hitting off of him. However, if you dig deeper than just simple earned runs and wins, you will see just how underappreciated Kluber has been this year.

To start, he leads AL pitchers in FanGraphs version of wins above replacement, an all-encompassing stat which only uses the aspects of the game a pitcher can control (walks, strikeouts, home runs, etc.) and doesn’t include ones he can’t (defense, opponents). Kluber has been worth 3.3 wins according to the metric, almost a whole win more than Salazar. He also leads the league in FIP (2.95) and is second in WHIP (1.02), which both measure how well pitchers keep batters off base. And Kluber has been very successful.

Now you are left wondering why, if Kluber is succeeding in the main aspect of a pitcher’s job, his other numbers don’t reflect that. It can’t be because of the Tribe’s defense, right? They definitely improved that this season, right? Rajai Davis would beg to differ, losing two balls in the sun in one of Kluber’s starts in April which resulted in three earned runs. However, that’s just a few runs and not reflective of the overall reason, which is struggles with men on base.

Despite Kluber’s best efforts, opposing batters still manage to get on base against him, and he’s uncharacteristically struggled when they have. With men on base, opponents have a .264/.315/.470 slash against him. Compare that to the .178/.230/.270 slash opponents hit when no one is on. His strikeout rate and home run rate also fall when runners are on base. The results are a lower strand rate, or the percent of batters he left on base. Kluber’s currently sits at 64.3%, third lowest among AL starters. More often against Kluber than against other pitchers in the league, when runners get on, they score. This is quite unusual for him as his career strand rate sits at 71.9%.

How can this be? The Klubot is a machine and doesn’t change his skills or his facial expression when runners are on base. It has a lot to do with plain old dumb luck. When facing Kluber with men on base, opponents have a .300 BABIP, compared to a .268 BABIP when facing him in general. And it’s not like they’re hitting the ball any harder. It’s just a matter of poor luck. Bloops and well placed hits are falling a lot more against him when men are on base than when the bases are empty and it’s affecting his ERA significantly. That’s because, in addition to those runs scoring, Kluber doesn’t get out of innings as quickly as he should if he had normal luck. Potentially, more runs score in that inning. It also drives up his pitch count so he lasts fewer innings, increasing his ERA even more. In the second half, luck should even itself out and Kluber’s runs allowed will finally reflect his skill.

Another way the Stetson University alum could limit his runs allowed in the second half is by improving his pitch selection. Arguably, his best pitch is his cutter and he’s not using it often enough. According to data from FanGraphs, this year his cutter has been worth three runs per 100 pitches more than the average one, the highest mark in the AL. The same data says that in the last three years his cutter has been the third best in all of baseball. And yet, he’s only throwing it 23% of the time, much less than the last two years. For some reason, he’s started increasing his four-seam fastball usage (from 52% to 56%) and decreasing his cutter usage. Even before this season, when his four-seam usage percentage was barely over 50, Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs suggested Kluber use more of cutter and less of the fastball.

In the same piece Sullivan also suggested Kluber could use more of his wicked curveball, which has been worth four runs per 100 pitches more than the average one. That is the best mark in the majors if you ignore Chris Sale, who has only used his curve once. Yet, Kluber only uses his 15.5% of the time. Adam Wainwright, who has a curveball comparable to Kluber’s and a great cutter as well, uses the hook 28% of the time. Perhaps mixing in a few more curves will increase Kluber’s strikeout percentage and decrease those runs allowed. He has been terrific so far this year, the best pitcher in the AL, so it’s not like he needs to change anything. But, if he did, he might be even better.

Kluber probably won’t change his pitch selection (it’s not like he’s done so in the past), but his ERA will still improve. Luck should be on his side in the second half, and hitters need to be on high alert. The best pitcher in the league is going to be a lot better.

Photo: AP Photo/John Bazemore

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