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Corey Kluber is still Corey Kluber

Baseball is weird.

Baseball is weird because odd things happen every day. Be it Matt Carson having a huge stretch run moment, Len Barker throwing the Indians' last perfect game or Jerry Sands becoming a momentary twitter hero.

For Corey Kluber, the first month and a half of 2015 has been just plain weird. The Cy Young Award winner has, on the surface, struggled mightily out of the gate.

A note at the outset, expectations for Kluber were always unfair. Over the past five seasons, only three pitchers have had a 7+ fWAR season, Kluber is one of them. Only Clayton Kershaw was able to post multiple such seasons. This is to say, Kluber's 2014 was one of the best single player performances of the last decade.

In terms of expectations, he set the bar inordinately high.

Kluber is 0-5 with a 5.04 ERA. These traditional statistics tell little of the story, but they make frustration with the pitcher understandable.

One of the things that happens when someone struggles is the beginning of a search for causes and often, we discover a collection of phantom issues.

A lot of suggestions have been bandied about regarding Kluber's 2015 issues, the most common one being command.

Time to take a cursory look:
2014: 5.4 BB% 64% F-Strike%,
2015: 5.7 BB%, 60.6 % F-Strike%,

Obviously, Kluber's control has not matched that of 2014, however, repeating such success is incredibly challenging. For instance, though Kluber's walk rate has elevated marginally, the league average BB% is 8%.

Simply, Kluber has not matched one of the best pitching performances in a decade, but his command is still significantly better than a league-average starting pitcher.

Further, Kluber's swing-and-miss rate has actually increased from 11.9% in 2014 to 12.7% in 2015.

Now, it is time to look at the pitching stats that offer great evaluative insight.

Kluber ranks 28th in MLB in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). FIP was devised to attempt to evaluate a pitcher solely on the aspects they control, and is based on the four aspects pitcher most directly control: Strikeouts, walks, hit by pitches, home runs. 

Kluber's ERA-FIP gap is the fifth largest at 1.84. This means that he is outperforming his ERA by a significant margin, but we will return to this in a moment.

Baseball Prospectus has recently unveiled an upgraded version of FIP called cFIP which has significantly better predictive correlations. In terms of cFIP*, among pitchers who have logged more than 20 innings, Kluber is 10th in the MLB.*(cFIP is quite similar to FIP except for adding more contextual adjustments.)

Indeed, every peripheral statistic has Kluber performing as a really good pitcher once again, which leads us to another question: What is the root of this significant gap between indicators (advanced statistics) and outcomes (traditional statistics)?

There are a couple of issues, but the most central was one highlighted in conversation with Nick Wheatley-Schaller, an always wise and engaging fellow.

In 2014, Kluber stranded 78.6% of runners. In 2015, that number is 62.3%. Kluber's 2014 performance was not flukish as generally higher strikeout rates align with an ability to strand runners, as less balls in play limits the ability for advancing runners. 

This season's strand rate seems to be flukishly low.

Why is this happening? Well, in small samples, baseball can be excessively weird.

In baseball, the term sequencing offers some important clarity. For instance, an Indians game in which they score one run on 10 hits, we can immediately see that the sequencing of hits is as important as the amount of hits. A team can post a high hit count but lose while their opponent posts a low hit count when the hits are sequenced closely together.

One of the best examples was the Indians' early home run streak. Early in the season, the Indians were hitting a lot of home runs, but there were no runners on base, so the sequencing was suppressing run scoring.

The point being that sequencing is fairly stochastic and in a small sample can be very noisy.

Back to Kluber though. Ultimately, his BABIP against is obscenely high and likely for decline but further the order of the BABIP is an issue.

With the bases empty, Kluber's BABIP against is a relatively palatable .329. With runners in scoring position, the BABIP against is .400.

In a small sample, a pitcher's ability to strand runners because of an above average to elite strikeout rate can be overwhelmed by noisy outcomes on balls in play. In many ways, this has been a central problem for Kluber in the early going.

To simplify BABIP to luck ignores the impact that defense, contact quality and speed have determining outcomes but it is fair to say that a lot of noise in a small sample is central to Kluber's outcome issues in 2015.

In 2015, Corey Kluber has pitched well, controlled the strike zone among the best in the league, has limited base runners and continues to demonstrate dominant strikeout-inducing stuff.

Baseball is weird. It is defined by a randomness and an uncertain reality that draws us in, but if there is one thing I do know, it is that Corey Kluber is still a damn good big league pitcher.





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