When Corey Kluber was placed on the injured list with a shoulder problem on June 5th, it was hard to feel confident about what he could bring to the Yankees for the remainder of the season. He had hardly pitched at all since 2018, so setbacks and struggles seemed likely.
Kluber, of course, has returned to the team, having made two starts so far. Logically, Aaron Boone and pitching coach Matt Blake are slowly building up his pitch count start-by-start to try and keep his shoulder healthy. That, plus his performance, has allowed him to pitch only 4.0 and 3.2 innings in his two games back, respectively.
While management is of course correct to try to keep Kluber’s shoulder healthy, the team as it currently exists and is playing cannot manage short outings like the two Kluber has had since returning. The bullpen is in shambles, with Aroldis Chapman looking unusable as a closer and stalwart Jonathan Loáisiga potentially out for the rest of the season. Those who remain simply can’t be expected to soak up five or six innings a game every time Kluber’s turn comes up to pitch and remain healthy and usable following everybody else’s starts.
There’s a solution that could help shore up the bullpen and mitigate Kluber’s struggles so far — have him pitch out of the bullpen.
This season so far, Kluber has been lights out the first time through the opponent’s batting order, with a 1.30 ERA, 34 strikeouts in 27.2 innings, and .174 batting average against. The second time through the order, his ERA skyrockets up to 6.97 — he is better the third time through, but he’s rarely ever gotten that far and the numbers are likely skewed by his no-hitter. He’s also walked 10 of the 55 batters he’s faced while pitching during the third inning. His ERA is 0.99 with the bases empty, but a ridiculous 13.50 with runners in scoring position.
When Kluber struck out the side with a runner on third base in the first inning of his September 5th start against Baltimore, he showed a lack of stuff hasn’t necessarily been his issue. It’s that he can’t maintain it through the five or six innings he’d need to pitch to put the team in a good spot to win. Sending him out for one or two innings would mitigate that. It also might help add a tick or two of velocity to his fastball, which is in the ninth percentile of MLB this season according to Baseball Savant.
Of course, the injury to his shoulder means the team would probably be reticent to move Kluber to the bullpen, as having to warm up on short notice and with likely fewer than five days rest could very well aggravate the issue. But with less than a month remaining of the regular season, the Yankees simply don’t have the time to give Kluber multiple short starts and see how much strength he can build up in his arm.
Urgency is the name of the game right now, and a move like this would play to Kluber’s strengths, show his abilities at the end of the season as he reaches free agency again, and help plug the holes in the Yankees’ ship as they try to keep their hold on a playoff spot.