The Gamble on Corey Kluber [2021 Season Review]

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Now that the Yankees’ 2021 season is behind us, it’s time to bring back our Season Review series. Over the next few months, we’ll drop one or two of these pieces each week. These posts will look back on the given player’s season and offer a few takeaways from their performance. This year’s series starts today with Corey Kluber.

The Yankees signed two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber to a one-year contract for the 2021 season with the hope that he’d rediscover some semblance of his former self. The righty was hurt for most of 2019 and 2020, but rehabbed with Yankees’ employee Eric Cressey, who undoubtedly gave the organization a vote of confidence in Kluber. In the end, there were some flashes of brilliance, but as a whole, the gamble did not work out as hoped.

It was easy to dream on Kluber reverting to his old self, which would have created perhaps the best one-two punch in the majors alongside Gerrit Cole. That dream started to look like a reality, particularly when he tossed a no-hitter against the Rangers. It was simply too good to be true, though. Kluber suffered a shoulder injury not long after and didn’t resurface again until the very end of the season.

No Kluber for a few months didn’t wind up being a big problem for this year’s team, at least. The pitching staff was great. Rather, the offense was the real downfall. Still, it’s hard not to wonder how things could have been different if the Yankees turned to someone other than Kluber in the offseason to bolster the rotation.

One great stretch, but inconsistent and hurt otherwise

One look at Kluber’s rate stats will tell you that he’s still perfectly capable of holding his own in a major league rotation at 35 years-old. Is he still an ace and one of the top pitchers in the American League? No, but his 3.83 ERA and 3.84 FIP this season is probably about as good as anyone could have hoped from a guy who missed most of 2019 and 2020. His performance was right around what projection systems, like PECOTA, expected of him.

While Kluber’s full season rate stats reflect a solid season, it wasn’t exactly the smoothest ride. Some splits to consider:

  • 4/3 – 4/21: 4 GS, 15 IP, 5.40 ERA, 6.50 FIP
  • 4/27 – 5/25: 6 GS, 38.1 IP, 2.11 ERA, 2.73 FIP
  • 8/30 – 9/11: 3 GS, 11.2 IP, 8.49 ERA, 5.66 FIP
  • 9/17 – 9/30: 3 GS, 15 IP, 3.00 ERA, 2.64 FIP

Before his hot stretch in spanning late April to late May, Kluber’s first four outings in pinstripes were rocky. His vintage command was absent. He walked 11 batters in those first 15 innings, which was jarring considering his 5.4 percent career walk rate entering 2021. It seemed like Kluber was constantly just missing his spots start-to-start. Take his third game of the season against Toronto on April 14th, for instance.

So many pitches a tad off the plate. Something clicked by the end of the month, thankfully. Perhaps it was merely shaking off the rust (he had just eight starts since 2019 entering the year!) or an actual tweak to his mechanics. Either way, Kluber shoved going forward, culminating in a no-hitter against the Rangers.

As joyless as much of this season was, Kluber’s no-no will be one of my fonder memories of 2021.

After Kluber’s no-hitter, I posited that increased changeup usage helped get him over the hump. As we know now, the organization as a whole emphasized the changeup this season. It clearly helped Kluber over this dominant stretch.

Unfortunately, the Klubot made just one more start after the no-hitter before his shoulder acted up. He made it back for the final month of the year, but never rekindled the magic from pre-injury. His final three starts were decent enough, and perhaps he was once again shaking off some rust and turning a corner, but the Yankees’ season ended abruptly and we never had a chance to find out.

The Yankees may have been right that Kluber is still capable of being a good pitcher, but with another injury-riddled season behind him, it doesn’t seem like it can happen over an extended period.

Pitchers break

As noted at the outset, Cressey helped Kluber rehab his 2020 shoulder injury, which is a big reason that the Yankees rolled the dice on the righty this season. Cressey is the team’s Director of Player Health and Performance, so he was able to provide the front office with special insight on Kluber’s offseason work.

As good as Kluber may have looked during his rehab, pitchers break all the time. Especially ones in their mid-30s, like Kluber. It’s just the inherent risk of pitching, and as you may know already, the biggest predictor for future injury is past injury. The 2019 fractured arm on a comeback line drive wasn’t a concern, but rather, the 2020 torn teres major muscle near his shoulder was foreboding.

In the start after the no-hitter, Kluber left early and was diagnosed with a subscapularis tear, which is part of the rotator cuff. Not good! He didn’t return until August 30th, missing roughly three entire months.

The Yankees were well-aware of this possibility when signing Kluber, as much as they trust Cressey. And to be clear, this in no way is Cressey’s fault. I don’t doubt that Kluber looked fine in his rehab and showcases. Again, older pitchers don’t hold up well, especially ones with prior shoulder trouble. The front office knew this was a risk all along, regardless of how much Cressey may have advocated for Kluber.

Hindsight is 20/20

Even though Kluber missed roughly half the season, the good news is that the rest of the team’s rotation was stellar. The Yankees had one of the best pitching staffs in the major leagues even while Kluber (and others!) missed significant time. That said, the $11 million gamble on Kluber left a big opportunity cost. Hindsight is 20/20, as always, but I can’t help but think that those dollars could have gone to a more reliable starter.

Remember, the Yankees were emphatic about avoiding the luxury tax this year. Giving Kluber $11 million didn’t break the bank for the Yankees, but it certainly was a lot to give when adhering to the luxury tax threshold. Yes, it certainly looked like it was paying off in May, but in the end, not so much. Here are some of the other starters who signed in a fairly similar salary range last offseason:

PlayerContractIPERAFIP
Drew Smyly1 yr, $11M126.24.485.11
Charlie Morton1 yr, $15M185.23.343.17
Mike Minor2 yr, $18M158.25.054.29
James Paxton1 yr, $8.5M1.16.752.42
Robbie Ray1 yr, $8M193.12.843.69
Anthony DeSclafani1 yr, $6M167.23.173.62
Jake Odorizzi3 yr, $23.5M104.24.214.48
José Quintana1 yr, $8M63.06.434.66
Brett Anderson1 yr, $2.5M96.04.224.39
Taijuan Walker3 yr, $23M159.04.474.57
Garrett Richards1 yr, $10M136.24.874.72
Alex Wood1 yr, $4.25M138.23.833.48
Chris Flexen2 yr, $4.75M179.23.613.89
Rich Hill1 yr, $2.5M158.23.864.34
Corey Kluber1 yr, $11M80.03.833.84

A lot of these guys outperformed and outlasted Kluber! Granted, no one could have seen some of these performances coming. Flexen, DeScalafani, and Ray are the big surprises here. But in retrospect, Morton sure would have been a better use of money, even if $4 million more than Kluber. I don’t think preferring Morton is a big second guess, either.

Again, losing Kluber for a big chunk of the year didn’t really hurt the team all that much. The rotation depth did a great job. Nonetheless, I bet the front office used that $11 million toward a different player. I know, it’s easy to say that now. But at the same time, I don’t think Kluber instilled a lot of confidence at the time he signed either.

What’s next?

Kluber will be a free agent after the World Series and I don’t think he’ll be back in New York. At least, he shouldn’t be if he’s being counted on to hold down a spot in the rotation. Kluber’s now had three straight seasons with health issues, even if 2019’s injury was bad luck, and he’s going to be 36 in April. The best is not yet to come for him. I expect him to try to rebuild his value on a one-year deal elsewhere.

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4 Comments

  1. Jim Beam

    Morton would have been nice, sure, but it’s been pretty well known that he doesn’t want to leave the general area around his home in Tampa. Every year since he left Houston has been a question whether he’d pitch at all or simply retire if he didn’t find a club that fit his preferences, and the Yankees wouldn’t fit.

  2. WaitingOnTheKids

    Another gamble on a starting rotation “bargain” that blew up in Cashman’s face. I can see Kluber signing another one-year deal next year with a team like the Cardinals and winning 15 games.

  3. Bubba Crosby's Left Cleat

    Good post, Derek. Hard to disagree, it feels like a move a more middling team should make – possibly with eyes toward a deadline flip to a team like NYY.

    Can’t also forget that players who made less were available via trade. The Sox got way more IP and WAR out of Pivetta. That one is a big 20/20 hindsight thing I realize, but still, these guys are out there every year.

    Always boils down to the Yankees failing to identify & acquire good young pitching when it becomes available.

  4. Anthony Rizzeddardo

    I thought it was a good gamble, Derek. Better than some of the other gambles they’ve taken on Paxton and Happ. I thought Gary held him back from his full potential and finally he just said I don’t want to pitch to Gary anymore and Higgy helped him throw a no hitter and pitch better than anyone thought he could. I’d go after a Robbie Ray in the offseason because he’s a legitimate ace who can allow Cole to slide into the #2 spot and possibly even #3 if Sevy can rebound. That would take the pressure of Cole who doesn’t seem up to the big pressure games under the bright lights of New York. Kluber I thought shoulda thrown the WC game and I said that at the time. Who knows, if he had we might still be playing. He was certainly throwing the ball well. If Sevy can return, we add Ray to Cole, Tallion and Monty we’ll have one helluva rotation next year. Nasty Nestor in the pen and Gil waiting in the wings.

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