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Corey Kluber’s health is a multifaceted issue

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Whether or not Kluber stays healthy is a good question, but there’s a better one not being asked.

MLB: New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A sizable question surrounding Corey Kluber has been regarding his health. Can he stay healthy through 2021 after recovering from a fractured forearm and a torn teres major muscle, which forced him to miss most of the 2019 and virtually all of the 2020 seasons? It’s an important question for sure, as I’m only one of countless writers who’ve opined on his chances of remaining 100 percent active throughout the season.

Yet there’s an overlooked aspect of his recovery that will play a large part in his 2021 performance, which raises a different but just as important a question. Before we get to that question however, we’re going to need to dust off our memories a bit and recall our grammar school science classes, when we first learned about human movement.

Human movement is a very complex science. We as a species don’t know too much about it — we know that we have nerves throughout our body that send messages to our brain, and then the brain sends messages back to muscles and we move — that’s about all we know. The result is that we have a tendency to vastly oversimplify questions and issues surrounding it. A common mistake we make is to discuss injured players as if we’re talking about Frankenstein’s monster, and it usually sounds something like this: “Back hurt, back fixed, back good,” or “Knee hurt, knee fixed, knee good.” In Kluber’s case, “Arm hurt, arm fixed, arm good.”

The problem is that it’s nowhere near that simple. Shoulder function as part of an overall total body movement is a highly complex process that requires a metric ton of neuromuscular coordination on a reflexive, unconscious level. The nerves we mentioned send messages to the brain from all over the body; the brain then processes it all within milliseconds and sends messages back to every individual muscle in the body to either push, pull, or stabilize simultaneously.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the nerves in the injured area are affected, often resulting in decreased coordination — even if only on a minute level. Sometimes, movement is altered to avoid pain, while other times, nerves simply don’t function well as a result of the trauma. Regardless, it’s something that happens on a reflexive and unconscious level and may alter movement imperceptibly, whether we’re aware of it or not. Therefore, and this is the important part: Movement post-injury is often slightly altered without the person even realizing it because it’s reflexive and because there’s no pain.

All of that brings us to the question that should really be considered: “Yes, I understand Kluber’s arm is healthy and pain-free, but does it work?”

To be clear, “work” as a synonym of “function” is pretty simple for you and me. If we recovered from a shoulder injury, a centimeter change in what used to be normal shoulder movement would be imperceptible. For the vast majority of us, it certainly would not get in the way of our vocation or day-to-day activities. But if you throw a baseball for a living, your shoulder moving a centimeter in a different direction than you intended is a pretty big deal. That’s the difference between the ball going where it’s intended to, and somewhere else.

The bottom line is that there is a very distinct possibility that due to past trauma and inactivity, which both alter neuromuscular coordination on a reflexive level, Corey Kluber’s arm is not doing exactly what his central nervous system is telling it to do. As a result, several pitches end up going somewhere other than where they were intended to go.

Unfortunately, the available evidence backs this theory up in the early goings.

In Kluber’s first start on April 3rd against Toronto, he threw 74 pitches over four innings, facing 19 batters. Among the 19 batters, eight reached base (five hits, three walks), and of the 10 balls put in play against him, five were hit 96 mph or greater. This was the start that was generally framed as “good” by plenty of Yankee observers, which necessitated me confirming the definition of “good.” An average of seven walks and 11 hits — exactly half of them being clotheslines — over nine innings, is most decidedly not good.

Since many considered that performance the “up” portion of the “up-and-down” start of the season for Kluber, you can imagine what the “down” was on April 9th against Tampa Bay. If you missed it, the veteran righty allowed seven baserunners over 2.1 innings (five hits, two walks) and of the nine balls batters put in play, four were hit 96 mph or greater.

Yes, we’re still in the opening weeks of the season, Kluber has historically been a slow starter, and he has received little help from the Yankees’ defense. Those are all fair points and legitimate discussions to have.

That doesn’t mean we should sugarcoat the evidence. The two-start average of 15 hits and seven walks per nine innings – is not good, nor is it up-and-down. When you combine the aforementioned residual physical issues with the absence of bad luck (as noted, he’s not allowing “ground balls with eyes,” he’s been hit hard), it’s cause for concern.

As you can imagine, I’m not known to be particularly fun at parties, so forgive me as I counter the glass-half-full crowd with even more skepticism. If you’re hanging on the “it’s early and he’s always been a slow starter” points, you’re referencing the recent Cy Young Award winner who was young and healthy. The current subject under discussion is a 35-year-old coming off two serious arm injuries and 43 subpar innings across three years. Furthermore, if your hope is that the Yankees’ defense is going to pick him up — well that’s another parade upon which I’ll have to rain some other time.

I’ve certainly been wrong before. I hope I’m wrong again, in this case anyway. But when it comes to assessing Corey Kluber’s performance and his future prospects, we can’t mollify the facts.