Spring training, for veteran pitchers that won’t be adding a new pitch or making any modifications in their routine, mound position, or repertoire, is more about getting their feet wet and building up stamina than results. We can say that’s true for everybody, or at least for most ballplayers. They are practice games, and they are there for a reason.
The Yankees made an investment — $11 million for one year, to be exact — to be able to enjoy Corey Kluber’s services this season. They’re hoping that he can shake off the rust after missing most of the last two years (he pitched 35.2 innings in 2019 and only one in 2020) with injuries and show something close to the level he had in 2018, when he finished with a 2.89 ERA (3.12 FIP) and a 9.29 K/9 in 215 frames.
Yet Kluber’s command was a little off during Grapefruit League play, and some people have raised concerns about how he currently looks. The soon-to-be 35-year-old right-hander pitched 13 spring training innings, and finished with seven walks and 14 strikeouts. His ERA was a sparkling 2.77, but his WHIP was uncharacteristically high at 1.31.
Definitely a little concerned about Kluber. Looked great in the beginning of spring training but now his command looks off. Walking a lot of batters lately. I get its spring training, but its less than a week before the season starts— Pinstripe Dude (@NYYankeesdude) March 28, 2021
Kluber's stuff has been good but his command has been bad all spring, and was again today. Was hoping to see improvement in his last spring start, but nope. Hopefully it's just a "he needs more time after throwing 30-something innings the last two years" thing. pic.twitter.com/G0KglbKqih— River Ave. Blues (@RiverAveBlues) March 28, 2021
Corey Kluber doesn’t look that good. Never really had a great fastball and now he’s sitting 90, muscled up for 92. Vaunted command doesn’t seem all the way back either. Love his breaking ball and he’s had a great career, of course, but this isn’t anything close to vintage.— Eno Sarris (@enosarris) March 23, 2021
You could say that some of those concerns are warranted, to a certain point. Kluber’s age, recent health history, long layoff, and lack of elite fastball velocity all suggest that an eventual decline is inevitable.
But let me tell you something about Kluber: his command, or lack thereof, shouldn’t be an issue moving forward. Not unless he’s not healthy. If he is indeed healthy, Kluber will start to hit his spots, because there is ample data that suggests that will be the case.
Yankees fans, and baseball observers in general, should just be patient with Kluber. After all, he has pitched just 36.2 innings in the last two seasons as explained above, so he could take a while to get going. It’s understandable that a hurler takes a little while to start finding the strike zone with consistency after not stepping in a mound for such a long time.
Additionally, Kluber is the kind of pitcher who improves his commands as the season goes on, or, to put it in better words, as he gets into a groove.
His numbers in the summer months are better than his performance in April and May, and we have enough of a sample to conclude that’s a fact. For his career, Kluber has a 27.1 K% and a 5.4 BB%. Those numbers, during the first month of the season (a combination of March and April) are 24.9% and 6.1%, his worst monthly stats in both metrics.
As a consequence, April is the only month in which Kluber’s K-BB% is below 20%, at 18.8% to be exact. As you can see, Kluber is a pitcher that needs rhythm and reps to get better and better as the season gets deeper.
From a run-prevention standpoint, March/April is also Kluber’s worst month historically. During the first four weeks of each campaign, the righty’s 3.91 ERA and 3.52 xFIP are his highest marks, and considerably worse than his 3.16 career ERA and 3.07 xFIP. Again, we are talking about a sizable sample, as Kluber has pitched 227.2 frames in March and April — basically a season’s worth of innings.
While it’s true that the seven walks in 13 spring innings raise some eyebrows — they represent, after all, a 4.84 BB/9 — there’s reason to not put much significance into it. The Yankees had every available resource to conclude that Kluber is healthy again heading into this year, and if they’re correct in that deduction then they should be confident heading into his debut.