Currently Kluber has the worst ERA on the Indians' rotation, and it currently stands at an astronomical level of 3.61 through the first half. Oh, and he was named an All Star for the first time in his career.
Oh wait, that’s actually pretty good. Hold on, let’s start over
The Indians' rotation is obviously pretty good, probably the best in the majors. Since the 2014 season, Kluber has pretty much led the way as the bonafide ace of this rotation. He was masterful in 2014. He built up a WAR of 7.3, xFIP of 2.57, and maintained a K/9 rate of 10.27. With the fall of previous ace Justin Masterson, Kluber and his robotic composure began to lead this team to a whole new level.
What makes Kluber so great is that even when he’s not having a great game, he still keeps his cool on the mound. 2015 wasn’t as good of a year for Kluber, but even then it was pretty good. Sure, there were a handful of games where he got rocked around, but Kluber did what he always does: he went back out for his next start and acted like the previous one never happened.
When I say that Kluber wasn’t as good in 2015, that doesn’t mean he was bad. I mean, we’re comparing him to the year that he won the Cy Young. Kluber still posted a 5.5 WAR in 2015, and maintained an xFIP of 3.05. His cutter was even ranked as the third best cutter in the MLB last season at 15.5. Even when Kluber’s not at his best, he’s still pretty dang good.
There hasn’t been a whole lot of variance in 2016 for the ‘Klubot’. You can even make the argument that he’s pitching better this season then he did in 2015. We all know the story of how Kluber taught himself how to throw a two-seam fastball during a postponed game back when he was in the San Diego Padres system, and that was what made Kluber the kind of pitcher he is today. I think that story plays into the way that he thinks, and performs on the mound more than people think.
The man is not just masterful on the mound by pure talent, it’s also because of his highly proficient baseball IQ.
Last season Kluber had to play in front of a horrible defense. Knowing this, he knew that he was going to have to be near perfect with his pitches and rack up as many strikeouts as he can to be successful.
In fact, he did just that when he struck out 18 against the St. Louis Cardinals.
With this fantastically improved defense that he’s playing in front of now, Kluber has been utilizing this asset as often as he can to make outs. His groundball rate has jumped this season from 42.4% in 2015 to 49.7%. When you have players like Francisco Lindor, Mike Napoli, Juan Uribe, and Jose Ramirez playing defense behind you, this is what will start to happen. By decreasing the amount of times Kluber strikes somebody out, 27.7% in 2015 to 25.2% in 2016, he’s increased his groundball rate by a decent margin, and it’s working for him.
Even with his strikeout rate dropping, he’s still averaging 8.95 strikeouts per nine innings, which is solid. Something that Kluber has started using more often this season is his change-up. In 2015, he threw it about 4.6% of the time, while this season he’s throwing it about 6.61% per Brooks Baseball. With his change-up, he’s inducing about 45.45% whiffs per swings. Which is the most amongst his pitch types, just below his slider which currently sits at 48.51%. This pitch is also inducing about 11.76% of his groundballs, which then plays into why his groundball rate has spiked this season.
The point is, while Kluber may not be striking out batters at the same rate he has in previous years, he’s evolved into a pitcher that is even more valuable to the team that he is playing in front of. His ability to adapt to this defense has solidified his superiority in the rotation as the mainstay ace. Granted, by pure talent he may not be best pitcher amongst the bunch, but he has the longest tenure of success, and brings the type of demeanor to each start that allows him to be successful each start.
As he gets older and wiser (do robots age?) he’ll inevitably have to pass on the torch of the ace to someone else. For now, he’s the leader and he should continue to run with it.
Kluber is just one of the five reasons to be excited about this rotation. As the season goes on, I think we’re in store for something special night. Until someone figures out how to cross the wires in Kluber's circuitry, he’s going to be on that hill every fifth start and continue to dominate as he has so far this season.