“… is not spectacular but can eat some innings.”
“… isn’t an ace-type and I think he’s a league average pitcher when all is said and done…”
- John Sickels, minorleagueball.com
“lacks the command to profile as a front-line prospect. He could settle into a middle relief or spot starting role in the big leagues.”
“His ceiling is as a back-end starter.”
- unnamed writer, Baseball America
“…ceiling now sits somewhere north of No. 5 starter status.”
- RJ Anderson, Baseball Prospectus
The above quotes are pulled from prospect reports at three different publications known for their expertise in evaluating young baseball players. They’re all about a Major League pitcher who would go on to earn two Cy Young Awards, an ERA title and three All-Star appearances. This pitcher would lead baseball in Complete Games and Shutouts three times, Fielder Independent Pitching twice, and WHIP once. This pitcher, if you couldn’t tell from the headline, would be Corey Kluber.
Kluber, a 13-year Major Leaguer who spent nine of those years in Cleveland, announced his retirement on Friday. Without a doubt, his best years, including the years containing the above accolades all came in an Indians uniform.
Kluber first came to Cleveland as a product of a three-way trade that occurred on trade deadline day- July 31st, 2010. The former 4th round pick of the San Diego Padres was shipped to the Indians organization and in turn, San Diego received outfielder Ryan Ludwick (another former Indian) from the St. Louis Cardinals. Jake Westbrook went from Cleveland to St. Louis in order to close the loop on the deal.
And even though the Indians traded for him that summer, they didn’t always know what they were setting themselves up for down the line by acquiring Kluber. Here’s one more quote for you:
“We liked Corey a lot, but he was not the top prospect on our list.”
- Mark Shapiro, former Cleveland Indians President on his perspective before trading for Kluber
Again, in trading for Kluber that summer, the Indians had dealt Westbrook to St. Louis. Jake Westbrook was a fine pitcher in his own right, probably about a number three or four starter on a playoff-level team. But in the context of that season, Westbrook had been pretty flimsy. With an ERA of 4.65 at the time of the deal, he was on pace for the worst season of his Major League career (since he first consistently stayed in the bigs in 2003). As a soon-to-be free agent in the upcoming off-season, the Cleveland front office was selling low. They were just kinda trying to get what they could for them.
They sure did get their money’s worth. Kluber would go on to defy the projections put in place by scouts, writers and even his own new front office.
But first, he would have to find his way. The 2011 season would see him struggle at AAA Columbus, as he would pitch to a 5.56 ERA and strikeout batters at a decreased rate. That K-rate was important because one of the things to first endear Cleveland to the right-handed hurler was his ability to get a high volume of punch-outs. Even with some issues in the minors, Kluber would receive a September call-up and would make his first three Major League appearances out of the bullpen at the end of the season. They were nothing to write home about, with Kluber allowing four runs in four and a third innings.
2012, Ruben Niebla and the Element That Would Make Kluber Great
The Indians would bounce Kluber between AAA and the big league club throughout the course of 2012. His time in Columbus would go much better than the previous year and he would additionally make 12 MLB starts. And while a significantly stronger 3.59 ERA in Columbus was relevant, the most important element to Kluber’s time on the farm would be his interaction with Columbus pitching coach Ruben Niebla. Niebla would convince Kluber to start throwing and refining a two-seam fastball. Coupled with much-improved command, the pitch would go on to be key to his future success.
In short, the two-seamer would have a break to Kluber’s throwing-arm side while Kluber’s cutter would have a glove-side break. The two different fastballs would play off of each other in his repertoire. The other key component was Kluber’s significantly improved ability to command the strike zone. He averaged more than four walks per nine innings between High A and AA ball while in the San Diego organization in 2009, but by 2013, his walks per nine was down to 2.0 against far more discerning hitters in the Majors. He would actually go on to the best the best pitcher in MLB in the walks per 9 stat in three different seasons. This razor-sharp command would allow him to throw those two fastballs in opposite breaking directions on the edges of the strike zone. With similar speeds, arm angles and hard-to-pick-up spin, the pitches were disguised, making the hitter unsure of which pitch he was facing. Would that pitch just off the plate come back into the zone? Or would it break outside and cause the batter to chase and look foolish? Just when you thought you had it figured out, Kluber could mix it up and throw a straight four-seamer at 94 mph to really mess with hitters’ heads. Batters across baseball would struggle with this conundrum year in and year out.
Tangible big-league success would first start to show itself for Kluber in 2013. That season, he would effectively be the number 4 starter on the first Indians team to make the playoffs in six years. He would pitch to a 3.85 ERA and cause a lot of those same scouting websites to write articles about whether or not they had misjudged him in the last few years. Most would decide they hadn’t.
But just one year later, they would get the chance to see just how far off base they were. Kluber would be ascendant in 2014, pitching to a 2.44 ERA, a league-best FIP of 2.34 and tying for the league lead in Wins at 18. This would begin a half-decade of dominance. From 2014 to 2018, he would be one of the top pitchers in baseball, while anchoring arguably the best starting rotation in the game over the same time period.
For those five seasons, only two future Hall of Famers- Max Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw– were worth more Wins Above Replacement as a starting pitcher. Kluber would also be an absolute workhorse. Only he and Scherzer would pitch over 1000 innings in those five seasons. A 2.85 ERA would be good for fourth best during this time-frame while his walks per nine would also be fourth best in baseball. The best five pitchers of this era are Kershaw, Scherzer, Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom and Kluber, and not necessarily in that order. Kluber wasn’t just in esteemed company. He was an esteemed company.
Beyond the statistics, Kluber was also a leader, often credited with being an incredibly hard worker who pushed a young but talented starting rotation around him to follow his example and compete. He would receive the moniker “Klubot” (short for Kluber Robot) for his subdued disposition off the field and quiet competitiveness on it. He was straight to the point and dedicated to his craft, rarely showing emotion on or off the field even when at his most overpowering.
In those same five seasons, Cleveland’s starting rotation had the best strikeout per nine and second-best walk per nine in baseball. They pitched the second-most innings of any rotation while posting the second-best FIP and fifth-best ERA. No starting rotation in the game contributed more to their team’s success, proven as they collectively led the sport in WAR for those five seasons.
And Kluber was at the helm of all that. Plus American League Central Division titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Which brings us to arguably his crowning achievement.
The 2016 Post-Season
His aforementioned breakout 2014 season was great. Winning all four of his starts during the 2017 winning streak while never pitching fewer than seven innings or allowing more than two runs and pitching a complete game shutout vs. Detroit was all pretty good too. His second Cy Young Award in 2018 where he still had an ERA below 2.00 after his 13th start on June 5th was excellent. But truthfully, the 2016 post-season was Kluber’s best act.
With Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar injured, and Trevor Bauer slicing his hand open on a drone, Cleveland’s lauded starting rotation was devoid of its depth. With up to 60% of the regular rotation down for the count, the team would get performances that would range between gutsy and accomplished from the likes of an underappreciated Josh Tomlin and a very game Ryan Merritt (as well Bauer when his hand finally stopped bleeding all over the ball).
But during that month of baseball, Kluber and a talented Indians’ bullpen, put together one of the best carry jobs in recent memory on the game’s biggest stage. As evidence, here’s Kluber’s results:
ALDS Game Two: Seven shutout innings vs. the Big Papi/Mookie/Hanley Red Sox– the best offense in baseball that season based on wRC+. The Indians win 6-0.
ALCS Game One: Six and a third shutout innings vs the Donaldson/Encarnacion/Bautista Toronto Blue Jays. Indians win 2-0.
ALCS Game FOur: 5 innings, Two runs on Three-days rest vs. those same Blue Jays in a 5-1 loss.
World Series Game One: Six shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the MVP Kris Bryant/Anthony Rizzo Cubs. Indians win 6-0. At this point, Kluber’s post-season ERA is 0.74.
World Series Game Four: Six innings, One run on Three-days rest vs. the Cubs. Indians win 7-2.
World Series Game Seven: Four innings, Four runs on Three-days rest vs. the Cubs… we know how this ends.
Game Seven where he just ran out of gas non-withstanding, few have put together as dominant of an October on the mound in recent memory (Madison Bumgarner comes to mind, that’s it). Kluber pitched into the 7th inning on four different occasions, while only allowing one run in any of those four starts. He pitched on Three days of rest on three different occasions. In total, he put together a 1.83 ERA in 34 1/3 innings while striking out 35 and walking eight. In nearly every game, he was dominant. Even in World Series Game Seven, where he finally faltered, he still pitched well enough for the Indians to stage a comeback.
Corey Kluber started as an underestimated prospect that the Indians organization just hoped they could make the most out of. And that’s exactly what they did. With a little tutelage and a lot of hard work, Kluber would become an ace, a leader, one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball and a main character in the deepest Cleveland baseball post-season run since the 90s.
Due to his dedication to the team, incredible level of performance and amicable departure via trade in 2020, he’s a player fans felt they could root for even in his seasons with New York (where he threw a no-hitter), Tampa Bay and Boston. For all that could be said about his overly even-keeled nature, he was downright likable. One of the most important players of the Terry Francona era. He’s someone sure to get a standing ovation a few years from now when inducted into the Indians/Guardians Hall of Fame. Hopefully, on that day, the Klubot will crack a smile and enjoy the moment. He deserves that and more.