It wouldn’t take much to be considered the ace of the Indians’ starting rotation right now.
Tribe starters currently have a 4.66 ERA, fourth-worst in the MLB and have pitched the fourth-fewest innings. With Justin Masterson pitching as inconsistently as ever and Danny Salazar toiling in Triple-A, it’s easy to point to Corey Kluber as the ace of the staff.
His supporting cast not withstanding, Kluber would be the ace of a lot of major league teams right now.
That might sound surprising, given the lack of fanfare surrounding Kluber’s career thus far.
There’s a lot of buzz right now with regard to Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price and his place on the trade block.
Price, obviously, is viewed as one of the game’s premier arms. Some Indians fans are clamoring for a trade to bring Price to Cleveland.
What they might not realize is, the Indians have already had a version of David Price for about a year and a half. Since the start of 2013, Price’s ERA is 3.51. Kluber’s is 3.66. Price has struck out 23 percent of batters he’s faced. Kluber’s struck out 24 percent.
Kluber has allowed fewer home runs than Price and generated more ground balls. The only area where Price has had a real edge over Kluber is his walk rate, but nobody’s walked fewer batters than Price since 2013 and Kluber still has a top-20 walk rate.
Yet Price will almost certainly be cashing in for more than $100 million when he hits free agency in 2016 and Kluber is mostly known as that guy who doesn’t smile.
So how did Kluber go from a fringe prospect, traded from the San Diego Padres in 2010, to one of the best pitchers in the majors?
It started with a two-seam fastball.
In 2012, former Triple-A Columbus pitching coach Ruben Niebla suggested Kluber start to throw a two-seam fastball. Current Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway has helped him develop it.
“It’s just easier for me to grip a two-seamer than a four-seamer, just the way it feels in my hand,” Kluber said. “It feels a little different, a little more comfortable. So, for whatever reason, being more comfortable like that allowed me to stay down more with my fastball.”
Kluber has excellent command of his fastball and its development is a large reason why Kluber has been able to post above-league average ground ball and home run rates, and one of the league’s best walk rates.
He uses it about half the time, but that ramps up to 60 percent on the first pitch. As a result, Kluber gets a first-pitch strike nearly two-thirds of the time, one of the best marks in the major leagues. And he is still getting better with his two-seamer.
“His overall intent with that pitch was just to throw it over the plate,” Callaway said. “Last year he could command it to halves of the plate. Now he’s getting to where he can command it wherever he wants to, in thirds and corners and stuff like that.”
And if it was the development of the two-seamer that put him on the map, it’s his cutter that makes him one of the game’s nastiest pitchers.
By the numbers, Kluber’s cutter is one of the 10 best individual pitches in the majors. Callaway calls it one of the best pitches he’s ever seen. It has the movement of a sharp slider, the velocity of a fastball and Kluber can put it wherever he wants.
Nearly a quarter of the time batters swing at Kluber’s cutter, they miss. His cutter is the leading reason why Kluber currently has the ninth-best strikeout rate in the majors.
Though he does a good job limiting the long ball, the knock on Kluber is that he has a propensity for giving up base hits at a higher than league average rate.
Despite Kluber also having a plus curveball and change-up, 75 percent of the pitches Kluber throws are fastballs and cutters. Callaway says this is the reason he gives up a lot of base hits.
Hitters can sit on hard stuff, but his approach has gotten him this far and the Indians don’t want him to change it now.
“If it’s at the expense of giving up some hard-hit balls, so be it,” Callaway said. “We don’t want him to change, we just want him to attack the zone so he can get ahead and get those valuable strikeouts. He’s not walking guys and he’s not giving up the long ball, so we can live with a few hard hits.”
Kluber was never expected to be this good, but he is. His numbers are great and he has as much movement on his pitches as anyone in baseball.
“He’s a front-of-the-rotation starter and he’s going to continue to get better,” Callaway said. “I don’t think there’s a ceiling for a guy with the kind of stuff he has — he can be as good as he wants to be. He’s at that age where his best years are still ahead of him.”
Makeup game set
The Indians announced the rained-out game against the Los Angeles Angels from June 18 will be played Sept. 8 at 1:05 p.m. at Progressive Field.
Tickets for the June 18 game will be valid for the makeup game. Fans holding tickets for June 18 who cannot attend the Sept. 8 game can exchange them by July 18 for one of two eligible games — July 30 or Aug. 12.
Visit Indians.com/ScheduleChanges for exchange details based on ticket purchase method.
August Fagerstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/blogs/indians. Follow August on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AugustF_ABJ.