Corey Kluber: The same, but different

Last night was an absolute joy. No hitters may be commonplace in 2021, but there’s no discounting Corey Kluber’s brilliance in yesterday’s no-no against Texas. He faced one batter over the minimum and was incredibly efficient, needing just 101 pitches to complete the feat. The 35 year-old righty might not be the same pitcher he was in his heyday in Cleveland, but if last night (and other recent starts) is any indication, there’s clearly plenty left in the tank.

Kluber now has a 2.86 ERA in 9 starts and 50.1 innings pitched. And while that’s a better mark than his career ERA, the righty is pitching a bit differently than he did during his prime. Sure, the same basic toolkit is there: namely the Kluberball along with a sinker and cutter. However, he doesn’t throw quite as hard as he once did (not that he was a flamethrower). What’s more: he’s now featuring a changeup. Hmm, where have we heard that before?

Now, Kluber’s breaking ball is still his nastiest pitch and was his moneymaker last night. He picked up a ridiculous 7 whiffs on 12 swings against it and threw it 31 percent of the time yesterday, more often than any other pitch. That said, his changeup was an important offering in its own right, too. It wasn’t a big swing-and-miss pitch (2 whiffs on 10 swings), but it gave the Rangers fits no less. Texas put Kluber’s changeup in play 5 times and didn’t record an exit velocity greater than 82.6 MPH against it. That’s terrific.

The Klubot utilized his changeup a decent amount when he first broke into the league (2011-2013). Not when he became a bona fide ace, though. From 2014 through 2016, he went to it less than five percent of the time. He bumped it above six percent in 2017 and 2018, and finally 8.5 percent in his last season with Cleveland. This year, he’s going to the pitch 13.1 percent of the time. But that mark really doesn’t paint the full picture. Just look at the game-by-game usage:

If you follow the green line, you’ll notice a dramatic increase at the end of April that has carried through this month. It’s now a pitch he’s comfortable using roughly 20 percent of the time. Pretty interesting how the frequency of his changeup correlates to his success this season, by the way:

StatFirst 4 StartsLast 5 StartsCareer (pre-2021)
IP15.035.11342.2
ERA5.401.783.16
FIP6.472.312.99
K%19.227.127.1
BB%15.16.85.4
GB%43.548.844.7
HR/91.800.250.88

That’s a stark difference! Kluber’s improvement isn’t completely due to his changeup, but it certainly has helped. I think bigger issues were command and control in his first few starts. It felt like he was consistently missing just off the plate, and he himself said as much, noting that he felt close even while struggling. Now, his vintage command appears to have returned and he’s added in a pretty darn good changeup to boot. It’s no wonder he’s smiling more often.

Per Statcast’s run value metric, his changeup’s -4 mark (negative is good) is tied for third-best in the majors. Gerrit Cole (because of course) is tied for first place with John Means. Not bad. Not bat at all.

While Kluber’s curveball remains his filthiest pitch with absurd movement (50 percent more horizontal break than average), it’s obvious that his changeup has emerged as a legitimate weapon. It’s not just a pitch for show. In fact, his change has better exit velocity against (80.5 MPH), whiff rate (48.3 percent), xBA (.151), xSLG (.191), and xwOBA (.166) than all of his other pitches. Yes, even his breaking ball. This is nasty:

Adding that to an already good arsenal isn’t fair. Kluber previously threw his cutter-sinker-curveball combination at pretty similar usage rates, but now, he’s added yet another devastating pitch within the same range of frequency. It’s just another layer for opposing hitters to deal with.

Last night was a culmination of Kluber putting things back together after a couple of injury plagued seasons. It took a few starts to get in a rhythm, but he’s rediscovered his command and now has a filthy changeup too. He’s been a pleasure to watch toe the slab for about a month now and has made the Yankees’ $11 million bet on him look pretty damn good. Perhaps part of the organization’s confidence in him, aside from having Eric Cressey in his offseason rehab, was the idea of throwing more changeups. If that’s the case: so far, so good.

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4 Comments

  1. Great game by a true professional last night-by the 3rd inning you could see he had ‘no hit’ command and stuff, it was just a matter of whether something might fall in somewhere.

    One of the best parts of watching the game was seeing how Kluber and HIggy were so in sync regarding pitch selection and location. I didn’t see a single shake the whole night.

    Higgy is so much better than Sanchez behind the plate there isn’t really a means of comparison, it just shows you how the Yankees need to upgrade that position with a solid defensive guy who can hit a little better than Higgy (who is the ideal back up).

    • MikeD

      As someone who was a Higgy fan while he was still in the minors (although strictly as a BUC), I’m happy to see his success. That said, I’d rather Gary find his swing again and become the primary. It’s easy to look great behind the plate catching Cole and Kluber!

      As for a replacement for the primary, if you look around, catchers kind of suck everywhere. I really am hoping for the automated strike zone as that will open up the catcher position to some more offensive-oriented player.

      • Alemadgt

        Cole and Kluber didnt pitch well with Sanchez. The automated strike zone will kill the sport.

        • MikeD

          It’s not that I don’t believe Higgy is a better defensive catcher, he is, but he’s simply going to also look better as he’s been gifted the two best starters. Cole is the best pitcher in the AL and Kluber is a two time Cy Young Award winner. Those are nice gifts for a catcher. Sanchez caught Cole when he first arrived on the Yankees and was rounding into form. He’s first four starts he had a 2.75 ERA with Gary behind the plate. He had a clunker, Higgy then took over. Ditto with Kluber, who pitches were sailing all over the place his first four starts. That wasn’t a Gary issue. The real test would be to let Gary catch Cole when we know Cole is at the top of his game. Same with Kluber. Have dual catchers is fine. Gifting the two best starters to one catcher isn’t a good strategy long term when that catcher should be no more than a BUC, as he’s proving. Sanchez and German are doing great. Sanchez and Taillon are not. Let Higgy catch Taillon for the next few starts and let Sanchez catch Cole. Then we’ll see.

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