Evaluating Corey Kluber
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: AP Photo – Ross D. Franklin
When most baseball fans think of Corey Kluber, they remember the ace who anchored one of the best pitching staffs in baseball, carrying the Indians through numerous playoff series while continuously putting himself in contention for Cy Young awards. Quite simply, Kluber was one of the best pitchers in the American League in the last decade. Kluber is now a Free Agent following two injury-plagued seasons, so there is some thought that Kluber can be signed for a bargain relative to his previous performance. Does he make sense for the Yankees?
We evaluated the Free Agent case of Trevor Bauer on Sunday here at SSTN. Bauer, a former teammate of Kluber’s with the Indians, is widely considered the best Free Agent pitcher available in this winter’s market. Those of you who read that post will be familiar with Bauer’s numbers, and if you haven’t read it, I strongly suggest reading it. To summarize, Bauer’s bottom line numbers are very good, though he has been plagued by inconsistency, and his walk and homer rates are red flags in the Yankee Stadium bandbox.
Rather than blindly compare Kluber, I’m going to cut to the chase and compare Kluber to Bauer over the last 4 seasons.
Corey Kluber vs. Trevor Bauer 2017-2020 (Click to Enlarge)
Bauer threw more innings by virtue of the fact that he was healthy in 2019 and 2020, but otherwise, Kluber is pretty clearly the better pitcher overall during this timespan. Kluber averaged 200+ innings per season in 2017 and 2018, besting Bauer’s impressive strikeout rate, while pounding the strike zone in a way that Bauer is unlikely to every manage. Additionally, Kluber consistently kept homers in check, and excelled at inducing soft contact.
From a statistical point of view, there’s little we can pick at with Kluber’s aggregate numbers. However, even before we discuss the injuries, we must note Kluber’s struggles in 2019 prior to the onslaught of injuries that shut him down in both 2019 and 2020. In 35.2 innings pitched prior to breaking his arm in 2019, Kluber’s velocity was down somewhat, he was walking significantly more batters, allowed more contact, and struggled to limit hits more than at any time in his career. All told, Kluber’s ERA was 5.80 in 2019, though some of that may have been bad luck, as Kluber’s FIP was 4.06. Even with bad luck, Kluber was not the same guy in 2019 as he was in his monster 2017 and 2018 seasons, though he had started slow in 2017 as well, so 2019 could be nothing more than small sample noise.
Statistically, though Bauer is the hot item on the Free Agent Market, Kluber’s best work is as good or better than Bauer.
Kluber’s last 2 seasons have largely been lost to injuries. In May 2019, Kluber was struck by a line drive, breaking his pitching arm. He was later cleared to begin a rehab assignment in late summer, but experienced abdominal tightness and was subsequently shut down for the remainder of the year.
In 2020, Kluber threw 1 inning prior to experiencing shoulder pain and tightness in his first start for the Texas Rangers. Kluber was diagnosed with a torn Teres Major muscle (shoulder), which is the tendon that runs between the lat and the scapula. It is unclear whether Kluber could have been expected to return from this injury in a normal season.
Generally, prior to the last 2 seasons, Kluber was known as a workhorse starter who consistently threw 200+ innings. While those days are likely gone at age 34, Kluber’s recent injury history strikes me as more of the freak than structural variety. A broken arm from a line drive is clearly a freak injury, while a muscle tear for a pitcher who had been shut down for a significant period of time prior to stopping and re-starting training suddenly can be chalked up to the rush to squeeze in a 2020 season. I don’t think I’m ready to slap the injury prone label on Kluber just yet.
One of the concerns we would generally have with a pitcher with Kluber’s recent injury history is whether or not his stuff is intact. There were concerns that Kluber’s velocity was down in 2019. Here, we can see that Kluber’s velocity ticked back up in his short outing in 2020:
Corey Kluber Velocity Trending Data Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
As we can see, Kluber had consistently lost velocity from 2016 through even his best seasons in 2017 and 2018. However, his velocity numbers in 2020 were consistent with his last great season in 2018. But what about the rest of his stuff, like spin rate and movement? Check it out:
Corey Kluber Spin Rate, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Corey Kluber Vertical Break with Gravity Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Kluber’s spin rate on his fastball has dropped consistently since his Cy Young season in 2017, though it still appears to be in playable range. Most importantly, Kluber’s slider, his out pitch, is functionally the same as it has always been. In fact, as we can see from the vertical drop chart, Kluber’s slider exhibited drop more in line with its appearance with his Cy Young 2017 season.
The charts show that in a small sample size, Kluber’s stuff is largely intact.
It’s pretty hard to predict what Kluber will earn on the Free Agent market, but a 1-year deal is almost a lock. Kluber made $17.5 million in 2020, but I don’t think he’ll command that much money this offseason. MLB Trade Rumors has him pegged at 1 year/$12 million, and I think that sounds about right. A 1-year “prove-it” deal sounds like the appropriate amount of risk for both sides of any Kluber contract.
Corey Kluber is a high-risk, high-reward player. The risk lies in depending on Kluber to perform, so any team signing him cannot count on Kluber to be an innings eater after missing the better part of 2 seasons. However, given that his stuff seems relatively intact and his previous status as a Cy Young caliber pitcher with playoff experience, I think that Kluber should be really attractive to the Yankees.
The risk and money was too much for me to endorse signing Trevor Bauer, but I think the risk/reward profile align beautifully for a union between the Yankees and Corey Kluber. Kluber can be a veteran presence, slotting in the back of the rotation, but possibly provide performance that outstrips both his place in the rotation and his salary. At 1 year/$12 million, I’m definitely in on Kluber, and I could even be convinced to go as high as 1 year/$14 million. Kluber is a perfect fit for the 2021 Yankees.