Corey Kluber Gets Back on Track with an 18-K Start for the Ages

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 14, 2015

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Heading into Corey Kluber's eighth start of 2015, the question on all our minds was what was wrong with the Cleveland Indians ace. It's not like Cy Young winners go 0-5 with 5.04 ERAs on purpose, you know.

Oh, we of little faith.

Matched up against the St. Louis Cardinals at Progressive Field on Wednesday evening, the one they call "Klubot" activated his 2014 mode and got to work methodically dismantling the opposition. Kluber took a no-hitter into the seventh and led the Indians to a 2-0 victory with eight shutout innings that featured one hit, no walks and...drum roll...18 strikeouts.

With 113 pitches through eight, Kluber might have been able to tie or surpass the all-time nine-inning record of 20 strikeouts if acting manager Brad Mills—Terry Francona was ejected in the fourth inning—had allowed him to pitch the ninth. That indeed would have been a dandy bit of history.

But while Kluber didn't make that kind of history, he most certainly made history.

As CJ Nitkowski of Fox Sports noted, Kluber joined Randy Johnson as the only two pitchers in MLB history to strike out as many as 18 batters in fewer than nine innings:

And as ESPN's Jayson Stark notes, the only other pitcher to strike out as many as 18 with no more than one hit and no walks was Kerry Wood in his otherworldly 20-strikeout performance in 1998:

This is darn good company to keep, as that Wood performance might be the single greatest pitching performance in history. Wood racked up a Game Score—an old Bill James stat that quantifies the quality of a start—of 105, the highest ever recorded in a nine-inning game.

Kluber's Game Score only made it as high as 98. But while that doesn't contend with Wood for the best ever, Matthew Pouliot of Hardball Talk notes it might be the best eight-inning performance in history:

He's right, you know. The top of the list now looks like this:

Corey Kluber and the All-Time 8 IP Game Score Club
PlayerDateTmOppIPHBBKGSc
Corey Kluber5/13/2015CLESTL8101898
Johan Santana8/19/2007MINTEX8201795
Jon Lester5/3/2014BOSOAK8121593
Nolan Ryan4/12/1989TEXMIL8121593
Source: Baseball-Reference.com

So if you had the opportunity to sit back and watch Kluber silence the Cardinals on Wednesday night, give yourself a pat on the back and get to work thinking about how you're one day going to tell the tale to your grandkids. You were a witness to history.

But while making history is undeniably cool, there's another side to this story: Kluber really, really needed a start like this.

May 13, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) throws a pitch during the first inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Kluber struggling to get hitters out was not a common sight in 2014, as he posted a 2.44 ERA and struck out 269 batters with only 51 walks in 235.2 innings. He grew especially lethal as the year went along, finishing with a 1.73 ERA and 127-19 K/BB ratio after the All-Star break.

That, folks, is how you win a Cy Young Award. And really, the only downside to a season like that is the only way to go after the fact is down.

In his first seven starts of 2015, this is a point Kluber seemed determined to prove. Hitters went from hitting him at a .233 clip to hitting him at a .290 clip, and both his strikeout and walk rates took a turn for the worse. Less than coincidentally, the Indians lost all seven of these starts.

These being modern times and all, there was no shortage of people trying to diagnose what was ailing Kluber.

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports (h/t CBSSports.com's Marty Gitlin) highlighted how Kluber seemed to be missing injured catcher Yan Gomes. Matthew Kory of Vice Sports noted Kluber's location struggles against left-handed batters. Chris Towers of CBSSports.com, meanwhile, put some blame on the Indians defense. And so on.

For his part, Kluber offered up an age-old excuse for poor pitching: bad execution.

He told MLB.com's Jordan Bastian after his sixth start:

I think the biggest thing is probably just needing to sequence a little better. I'm not doing that good of a job of keeping guys honest. For the most part, guys are kind of hanging out over the plate and, when they're doing that, you kind of eliminate one half of the plate. So, when you do make a mistake, it's kind of magnified.

All solid explanations, to be sure. But if there was an underlying positive, it was a simple one:

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Kluber may have been off, but he wasn't broken.

FanGraphs can vouch that there was nothing wrong with Kluber's velocity, as his average fastball of 93.2 miles per hour was only 0.2 ticks slower than it was in 2014. He was also getting more swinging strikes, as his whiff rate increased from 11.9 to 12.7. His ground-ball rate was also fine, going from 48.0 to 48.4.

Because these are pretty good indicators of how effective a given pitcher really is, you could look at Kluber and conclude he was just a little off. And when a pitcher is only a little off, it doesn't take much for things to click.

That brings us back to what happened Wednesday night.

One thing Kluber did was put a little more trust in his hard stuff. Whereas he had come into the game throwing his fastball under 50 percent of the time, the raw PITCHf/x data at Brooks Baseball says 60 of his 113 pitches (53 percent) were fastballs.

You can also see here that most of these heaters were of the high variety:

Credit: BrooksBaseball.net.

This would appear to be a case of Kluber acting on his determination to keep hitters honest, as you can go to Baseball Savant and see he had previously been working on the outer thirds of the zone with his heat. He certainly kept doing so, but the extra-high fastballs allowed him to spice things up a bit.

Also, you can see Kluber generally didn't leave too much in the middle of the zone. Between that and the slight difference in pitch selection, it's no wonder he was pleased.

"My location might have been a little bit better," he told MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince, "but I thought [catcher Roberto Perez] did a great job of keeping them off balance. We've spent a lot of time talking about stuff and trying to understand each other. I think some of that hard work paid off a little bit."

Elsewhere, Kluber also seemed to find his cutter (pictured above in red dots for "sliders") for the first time. It had a little extra vertical movement—its V-Mov went from 3.1 to 3.6and he didn't leave many in the middle of the zone. In the end, 10 of his 24 whiffs came on his cutter.

Kluber might have also had the best breaking ball he's had all season. The PITCHf/x figures say it only drew three whiffs, but it jellied more legs than that. Of his 18 strikeouts, I counted six on breaking balls.

In all, Kluber picked a hell of a way to break out of a slump. He probably only needed the slightest of tweaks to begin with, but instead he ended up having everything working for him.

This certainly is a notion that should frighten the rest of the league. It's already seen what Kluber can do when he gets into a groove. It surely doesn't want to see it again.

The league may not have much choice, though. The Klubot was already showing signs of life before. Now it's fully armed and operational.

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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