Corey Kluber was probably the best starter in baseball between 2014 and 2017. It was these past successes that prompted the Yankees to take a flier on the the 35-year-old this winter to fill a spot in their rotation despite missing the majority of the previous two seasons to injury. Through his first four starts this year, he inspired more worry than confidence with consecutive poor outings. However, on Tuesday night Kluber flipped the script on that narrative, turning in a performance reminiscent of his Cy Young days in Cleveland.
He pitched well enough to garner the praises of David Cone on the YES Broadcast, who offered the following evaluation of what he saw: “Kluber is in the Roy Halladay mold … relies on movement and precision.” And that’s exactly what we saw Tuesday night: movement and precision.
Let’s start with a quick recap of his night. Kluber went 6.2 innings, giving up six hits, one run, and two walks while striking out five. The 6.2 innings was a season high-water mark for the righty, as were the 96 pitches thrown — a massive improvement over the 4.0, 2.1, 4.0, and 4.2 inning outings his first four starts produced. This is particularly encouraging, as it shows he is building up arm strength, and it gave some much needed rest to a bullpen which has been overused in the early going.
Before we get into analysis of his individual pitches, I’d like to point out the three trends from Tuesday that I think will carry Kluber to success if he can maintain them going forward: overall command, aggressiveness, and pitch sequencing.
Kluber had his best command of the year against the Orioles, walking only 7.1 percent of batters — less than half his walk rate of 15 percent the previous four starts. Following his start, Kluber talked about wanting to be more aggressive in the zone, and the results bear that out. He only reached two 2-0 counts and got to ball three only twice, allowing him to turn in multiple pitch-efficient innings and go deep in the ballgame. Finally, we saw the best pitch sequencing from Kluber on Tuesday: the first time through the order he started at-bats with mostly fastballs whereas the second time through he went with first-pitch curveballs. This just adds another layer of unpredictability to his game, which can compensate for stuff that diminishes in the later innings due to fatigue.
Now getting to his pitches, the first and most obvious improvement was fastball velocity. Through the first five innings, his sinker hovered around 92 mph, about two ticks up from his season average. He started to flag a bit in the later innings, but if he can sit at 92 for most of his outings, that will put him within about half a mph of his average fastball velocity when he won the Cy Young in 2017.
Next let’s talk about his curveball, a pitch that for a four-year stretch was one of the most closely guarded secrets in baseball, one that Kluber referred to as just a “breaking ball”. For the purposes of this analysis, we will call the pitch a curveball, as that is its given designation on Baseball Savant. The pitch’s spin rate was up 156 rpm giving it a sharper and more pronounced break.
The curve is a large reason why Kluber won two Cy Young awards, and you can see why with this version from 2017:
The amount of horizontal movement is ridiculous, it just keeps breaking away from the zone. Compare that to one of the curves from Kluber’s outing against Toronto and you can see how much the pitch regressed:
It never really breaks, spinning like a cement mixer right in Kirk’s wheelhouse. On Tuesday, however, the curve was back to its filthy best:
Interestingly its usage actually went down relative to previous starts, though this ends up making the pitch less predictable, as he was almost throwing it too much before. Kluber’s curveball is at its deadliest when he is locating with the hard stuff. Take this at-bat against Trey Mancini in the first inning, which I feel was the best sequence of the night:
He first establishes up and just off the outer part of the zone with the sinker. This is followed by a cutter which Mancini fouls off the end of the bat, perhaps because he was expecting a sinker to break over the plate. He then steals a strike low and away with a tight curveball thrown pretty hard, catching Mancini off-balance. He finishes it off with another curveball, this one a vintage Kluber curve that dives violently out of the zone and gets Mancini to flail. In this sequence, each pitch sets up the next so that Kluber can save his best pitch to collect the sword and the K.
Moving on to the changeup, Cone talked about how he’d like to see Kluber deploy the offspeed more when commentating his start against the Rays. Well, Kluber obliged, upping the pitch’s usage from 5.6 percent in his first four starts to 14 on Tuesday. Not only did he use it more, but it showed much better diving action than in previous starts, racking up a 71 percent whiff rate.
Kluber uses the pitch almost exclusively against lefties, and you can see from this 2017 clip how it throws off their timing:
Mixing it in can help keep lefties off balance. While he hasn’t surrendered a hit off the change yet this year, his has struggled with locating it:
Kluber missed his spot badly and was lucky not to get punished. And while he did still miss a few spots on Tuesday, the wicked downward action on the pitch made up for that occasional loss of command:
Finally I’d like to discuss the cutter. Its usage soared, up to 41 percent on the game, and it will be interesting to see if it is his most-used pitch going forward. Although it straightened out at the end of his start, he threw some real dandies in the early innings.
Statcast has wavered between classifying it as a slider and a cutter, and it’s easy to see why from this 2017 clip:
It was thrown harder than your average slider, but displayed more movement than your average cutter. Contrast that with this pitch to Vladdy Jr. and you can see why it got hit hard in his first four starts:
That cutter flattened out, remaining on the same plane to the zone, which allowed Guerrero Jr. to square it up. Kluber ironed out those issues for Tuesday, and it was darting all over the place the first time through the order. It also looks like he reshaped it relative to 2017, ditching some of the downward tilt for greater horizontal zip.
I find it interesting that Kluber is deploying the cutter as his primary fastball. It isn’t the fastest pitch and its movement won’t blow your socks off, but the way it works in tandem with his sinker means the offering punches above its raw metrics. In the third inning, Kluber paired the two pitches perfectly to get a quick two-pitch out.
Kluber paints the outside edge with a first-pitch sinker. He follows up with a cutter at the same height, and Pat Valaika’s eyes light up. In his mind, it looks like the previous pitch, only further inside and fading over the heart of the plate, and he’s ready to barrel it up. Instead, it cuts in the opposite direction, away from his swing plane, and all he can do is fly out to right field.
If Kluber can consistently command these two pitches, he becomes borderline unhittable. À la Roy Halladay as Cone alluded to, command of the sinker and cutter allows you to bear pitches in on the hands of both righties and lefties, but at the same time allows you to steal strikes on either side of the plate.
The final point I’d like to bring up is the pace of play. Kluber got into a notable rhythm with Kyle Higashioka, something he mentioned in his post-game presser. He cited the homework he and Higgy did ahead of time, which allowed them to be on the same page throughout the outing.
When the Yankees signed Kluber to a one-year deal this winter despite having pitched fewer than 40 innings over the previous two seasons, they were betting on his top percentile outcomes and hoping he could recover some of the ability that made him one of the best pitchers in baseball in the mid-2010’s. That is exactly what he delivered Tuesday night. If he can continue to perform like he did against the Orioles, the Yankees will have a potent one-two at the top of their rotation.