On Thursday, Corey Kluber will make the biggest start of his Yankees career in what is shaping up to be a borderline must-win game in Toronto.
Kluber is no stranger to pitching in pressure-packed moments, but he has yet to come through in the big spot in pinstripes. Right or wrong, his Yankee legacy will come down to how he performs on Thursday and potentially in the playoffs, especially with Jameson Taillon’s season up in the air.
Since coming off the IL, Kluber has made five starts and has pitched to a 5.73 ERA. While on the surface, these results have been poor, the underlying statistics show a reason for hope.
Kluber’s FIP is a much more reasonable 4.16, mostly due to his strikeout rate of over one per inning. Additionally, Kluber has not been getting many breaks when batters put the ball in play, as opposing hitters have been benefitting due to an elevated .383 BABIP.
There has been a clear pattern in Kluber’s starts that needs to be broken for the righty to pitch up to his potential.
Kluber has started games strong, and then begins struggling. The veteran has yet to give up a first inning run since his return from the IL and has paired that with 11 strikeouts in those five first innings.
His start against Cleveland, in particular, stands out as the one recent outing where everything has come together, a hopefully-replicable pattern for Thursday’s game.
So where do things go wrong? For starters, Kluber has not been getting a lot of soft contact. When the whiffs regress, especially once hitters get their second look at Kluber, they have been barreling up the ball. This is a big factor into why his BABIP against is so high.
Kluber’s pitches have a ton of movement. He does not have an overpowering fastball and mostly throws cutters and sinkers to pair with his excellent curveball and the occasional changeup. His plan is clearly for the batter to rarely see anything that is straight. The issue is, at times, his pitches can become tough to control leading to meatballs or walks.
There is also a very easy change Kluber can make when it comes to his pitch mix. Kluber’s sinker, which he throws 25% of the time, has been getting absolutely demolished by opposing hitters this season. Hitters have a whopping .586 SLG% against the offering, which is even more astounding considering the sinker is designed to get ground balls.
Kluber would be better served mixing in more changeups and relying on his off-speed pitches. Considering how massive his performance against Toronto on Thursday will be, there is no better time to pitch to your strengths. It would be encouraging to see a steady diet of junk instead of letting the Blue Jays’ powerful lineup get too many chances to tee off against the sinker.
His start on Thursday is simply too important to stray from what works. Kluber should lean on his breaking pitches, and at the first sign of trouble, the Yankees should get the bullpen going. They must manage these games as if they are already in the playoffs. The time for patience has come and gone.