The Cleveland Indians are just 8-7 so far in 2019 but will wake up Monday morning only 1.5 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins. Despite this slow start, FanGraphs still views the club as heavy playoff favorites (86.1%) with them most likely getting back to October as a division champion (74.5%).
That probably says more about how thin the American League Central is than anything else. Of all the projected contenders, Cleveland is walking on the thinnest ice. With this in mind, it’s crucial for their roster’s greatest strength — the starting rotation — to carry the squad.
Kluber’s start on Sunday against the Kansas City Royals was significant on a personal level — it was the 200th of his career. The Royals are heading into Monday’s games with a team wRC+ of 102, but they’re also a rebuilding team that’s far from an offensive juggernaut.
Unfortunately, the 33-year-old right-hander celebrated his 200th career start by doing this for the first time ever:
It wasn’t just the walks that did him in, though — it was also the homers. Kluber allowed two dingers Sunday, which were the first two he’s surrendered in 2019. When paired with the five walks, this was also something he hadn’t done before:
Kluber’s final line included six earned runs on six hits (two homers), five walks, and four strikeouts in 2.2 innings. Through 19 total frames, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner is sporting a 6.16 ERA, 4.72 SIERA, 22.6% strikeout rate, and 10.8% walk rate.
That’s a far cry from what he’s done in each of the past two years, which has included strikeout rates of at least 25.0%, along with walk rates below 5.0% and ERAs finishing under 3.00.
What’s Going On?
There are some clear changes going on in his batted-ball profile, with some probably being the result of small sample size, and another that could be a more significant trend. After posting a 24.4% soft-hit rate and 28.9% hard-hit rate in 2017, those numbers worsened to 15.3% and 36.6%, respectively, in ’18. Heading into Sunday’s start, those numbers were 11.5% and 46.2%, respectively.
He’s also not getting nearly as many ground balls as usual. Kluber’s ground-ball rate barely changed between 2016 and 2018 (44.5%, 44.5%, and 44.4%), but it’s currently sitting at just 34.4%. That’s also paired with a 42.6% fly-ball rate, which is nearly 10 percentage points higher than his career average.
There’s Still Plenty of Time
It’s not like Kluber hasn’t been in a similar position in the recent past, ya know.
Through May 2nd, 2017, the right-hander owned a 5.06 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 26.0% strikeout rate, and 8.2% walk rate in 37.1 innings. He then hit the Injured List for about a month with a lower back strain before returning on June 1st.
All he did upon his return was post an absurd 1.62 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 36.2% strikeout rate, and 3.7% walk rate over his final 166.1 frames. That performance helped him win the AL Cy Young Award and place seventh in MVP voting.
Kluber is a couple years older with a few more miles on his arm at this point, but it’s something for Indians fans to hold onto in order to not panic so soon. Plus, he’s built a rather strong track record when it comes to being one of the game’s top starting pitchers.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book and created an online class about how to get started as a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.