He can’t touch triple-digits like Danny Salazar. He wasn’t the subject of an offseason contract debate. But don’t let the inflated ERA fool you—Cleveland’s Corey Kluber has quietly been one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Rick Manning wanted a walk. As Corey Kluber toed the rubber—his face as stoic as ever, the baseball held at his side—he stared toward second base. Leury Garcia was bouncing around, extending his lead towards third base in the ever-distracting will-he-or-won’t-he manner, the Chicago White sox second baseman having recently been advanced by the way of the bunt. At the plate was José Abreu, Major League Baseball’s home run and RBI leader. The big swinging, 255-pound first baseman had already bitten off a piece in the first inning, clubbing his 12th home run of this still-young season. One misstep by Kluber this time around and his Cleveland Indians would be staring at a crooken number deficit in what was just the third inning.
Kluber tossed his first pitch, missing low and outside with a ball. Abreu took the second pitch for a strike, seemingly daring the Indians right-hander to throw another one. After two more balls followed—both outside—Manning, the team’s television color commentator and former center fielder, yearned for a walk. First base was open and the lumbering, free-swinging Adam Dunn was patiently waiting in the on-deck circle. Kluber took the sign from first-time catcher George Kottaras, reared back and fired a cutter toward the outside corner that would be clocked at 91 miles per hour. Abreu took a huge cut, missing anything that even resembled the darting baseball. The inning had ended as Garcia and Abreu retreated toward the visitor’s dugout as if they had just lost a staring contest with a Beefeater. Kluber, having just struck out one of the game’s most dangerous hitters in a high-leverage situation, stomped toward the Indians dugout with a face that looked as if he were just handed a jaywalking ticket.
If the Cleveland Indians were in a must-win situation, is there any pitcher you would rather see on the mound than the bearded Corey Kluber? He takes to the mound with the look of a man who’s sitting in line at the DMV while the rest of his friends are out golfing, yet once the game starts, he’s a bearded surgeon, slicing up would-be hitters with an array of pitches that move from one side of the strike zone to the other. A season ago, he was unassuming, pitching to contact at times, but mastering control of the baseball and limiting any damage. Though successful, Kluber would not be credited with a decision with his bullpen having blown a lead or his offense having not provided the run support. Less than a year ago, as the Tribe and White Sox battled a late-July game to the bitter end, it was Kluber who threw 8 2/3 innings of quality baseball; his team needed 10 innings to win, and while he wast instrumental, there would be no “W” near his name. In his very next start, Kluber threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings against the division rival Detroit Tigers, striking out six while walking none. He exited with a 2-0 lead only to see his team lose 4-2 after closer Chris Perez allowed four earned runs without recording an out. Again, no win.
On Sunday, after Kluber fanned Abreu in the third inning to end a potential game-tilting scoring opportunity, he would take to the mound in the fourth and proceeded to strike out Dunn, Dayan Viciedo and Alexei Ramirez—the latter two being two of the game’s hottest hitters thus far—all via the swinging strike. The three sluggers managed to foul off five total pitches, but were otherwise made to look like fools.
To start the fifth, Kluber would fan outfielder Jordan Danks. Catcher Tyler Flowers went down on three pitches, the last of which was a 95 mile-per-hour heater right down the pike. Kluber had retired seven consecutive batters via the strikeout1; only one would go down looking. After the pesky Garcia would earn first base via a nine-pitch walk (and later steal second base), Kluber made quick work of outfielder Alejandro De Aza who would go down swinging on a 1-2 slider. If Kluber’s 11-strikeout performance a week earlier was art, what he did to the Chicago White Sox on this very Sunday afternoon was a masterpiece2. He struck out 13 batters in total, and walked just two. He threw 70 of 110 pitches for strikes. Against the Kansas City Royals, Kluber recorded 13 swing-and-misses. Against the White Sox on Sunday, the total was 23. Each White Sox starter swung and missed at least once.
Kluber, in turn, became the first Indians pitcher to record 11 strikeouts in consecutive home starts since Dennis Eckersley did so in August 1976. Fanning seven straight put him ahead of a few Tribe pitchers that fans may have heard of in Bob Feller and CC Sabathia. Just don’t ask him to get excited over his accomplishments.
“I think [pitching coach] Mickey [Callaway] told me that when I was done,” an unemotional Kluber said of setting the record. “It’s pretty cool to be mentioned in the same sentence as Bob Feller, but otherwise, it’s just a nice byproduct of having a good game.”
The 48 strikeouts that have derived from the right hand of Corey Kluber thus far in 2014 are enough to place him sixth in the American League—more than notorious strikeout starters like New York’s CC Sabathia, Kansas City’s James Shields and Detroit’s Justin Verlander.3 Though he has 12 walks on the season, they’ve all come in a four games; there have been three games this season where Kluber has not allowed a single base on balls. To put this in context, John Axford, the team’s closer and American League leader in saves, has walked nine batters in just 12 1/3 innings.
“I think it’s just one of those things that happen when you make good pitches,” Kluber said. “I got in a groove there in the middle of the game. Me and George were working really well together after the first two innings…It was kind of the same thing as the whole game, maybe I just happened to get them looking for something else in those at-bats.”
When he wasn’t missing bats, Kluber was forcing the opposing batters to drive the ball into the ground. In the sixth inning, he sandwiched another José Abreu swinging strikeout with two groundouts to the left side. In the seventh, Kluber forced Alexei Ramirez to ground into a double play before putting Jordan Danks down on strikes once again. In his eighth and final inning, the baseball never made it past second base as Tyler Flowers grounded back to the mound, and a De Aza grounder to second would follow a four-pitch strikeout of the otherwise pesky Leury Garcia. Kluber won that war.
Kluber’s season has been far from perfect. He only lasted 3 1/3 innings in his debut; the game previous to Sunday saw him exit in the fifth. He gave up nine hits and walked three in a loss to Toronto back in mid-April. But even with these hiccups, Kluber has a strikeout-per-nine-inning mark of 9.6. His BABiP is still well north of average, sitting at .348. And if it weren’t for some rough defense behind him, who knows where that current ERA (3.60) would be4.
Given the groove Kluber was in through the middle of Sunday afternoon’s game, who knows what the butterfly effect would have been had the 6-foot-4-inch righty decided to not go toe-to-toe with one of the American League’s most dangerous hitters. While Rick Manning’s intentions were undeniably good—though the advanced metrics would say otherwise—Kluber has undoubtedly earned the trust to battle with the biggest of bats. Had he not been at 110 pitches on the afternoon, it would have been fun to see what Cleveland’s new ace had in store for the ninth inning as the meat of Chicago’s lineup waited in the wings.
(Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)
- Second baseman Gordon Beckham went down swinging at a 94 mile-per-hour heater before Abreu in the third. [↩]
- It’s these types of instances where the “GameScore” metric gets trumped by the eye test. If you ask Bill James, the 11-strikeout complete game shutout against the Royals was more impressive. Giving up that run obviously played a big part, but if you put the two pitchers side by side for the 100-plus pitches, it’d be tough to not take the guy who took the mound on Sunday. [↩]
- The Indians as a team, as led by Kluber and Masterson, are among the top five in strikeouts as a staff. [↩]
- His FIP suggests a mark of 2.73 while his xFIP is just a hair above at 3.10. [↩]