The Corey Kluber reclamation project isn’t exactly off to a great start. Through three starts, Kluber has a 6.10 ERA and he has yet to go deeper than the fourth inning. Though he has struck out 12 in 10 1⁄3 innings, he’s also walked seven batters and given up three long balls including two from the Blue Jays on Wednesday.
It’s not all bad news, however. Kluber may not be getting the results he or the Yankees want, but he has shown flashes of dominance and reason to not give up hope just quite yet. Hoping for Kluber to return to his former glory is wishful thinking, but it’s not unreasonable to think there’s a solid rotation piece there.
Since 2014, Kluber has had to deal with declining velocity. Once his sinker averaged 93.8 mph, but it has lost a tick every year since, falling to 91.3 mph in 2019. In his first two starts, his sinker averaged only 90 mph, and that decline has affected his other pitches as well. In 2019, Kluber’s cutter averaged 88.1 but that was down to 86.4. His changeup dropped 1.2 mph in that same time frame while his curve dropped 1.8.
On Wednesday, however, Kluber appeared to get his velocity back to pre-injury levels. Most notably, his cutter averaged 88.7 and topped out at 91.2 mph. The cutter was easily the best thing Kluber had going for him in Dunedin. Out of the 31 he threw, 19 were swung at and 10 of those were missed. On the year, Kluber’s cutter has induced a 46.9 percent whiff rate which ranks third behind José Alvarado’s and Adam Wainwright’s cutters.
Corey Kluber today: 4 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 2 HR.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) April 14, 2021
Look at the swings and misses on his cutter. pic.twitter.com/6mQsxRI9dc
That Kluber threw 31 cutters is noteworthy, too, as Kluber had only thrown it 21.3 percent of the time, opting for the sinker and curveball more frequently. In Kluber’s first two outings, he threw his curveball more often than any other pitch. Of course, this is a small sample. Counting Wednesday, Kluber has only thrown 60 cutters on the year, but it’s been an effective pitch for him in the past and it has certainly performed better than his sinker.
The sinker and four-seamer have always been used to set up his better pitches, but it’s getting harder for Kluber to get them by hitters so he can put them away with the curve. Hitters put up a .488 xwOBA against Kluber’s sinker in 2019, and a glut of the 2021 damage has been against the sinker as well.
Obviously, the fix isn’t so simple as ‘stop throwing sinkers.’ Kluber still needs to command his pitches better (Alejandro Kirk’s two-run shot came off a belt-high, hanging curve). The sinker can still play if he keeps it on the edge of the zone.
If Kluber wants to throw cutters and curves most of the time, it might be worth exploring switching which side of the rubber he throws from. The idea is that by changing the angle from which the pitch is delivered, pitches appear to have greater horizontal movement. Kluber sets up on the extreme first base side of the pitching slab and generally keeps his cutter on the gloveside edge of the plate (in to lefties, away from righties). Mark Melancon, who throws cutters and curves over 90 percent of the time, made the switch from the first base side to the third base side in 2019, and that’s been part of what helped him return to form.
The potential for Kluber to turn things around is definitely there, but with the Yankees off to a 5-7 start, there’s perhaps a bit more urgency to right the ship. Kluber doesn’t have to pitch like his old self, but he needs to pitch better than his results.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.