Give the Corey Kluber Reclamation Project Some Time

Kluber hasn’t looked great in his first three Yankees starts, but don’t smash the panic button just yet.
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Nearly every No. 2 starter in the majors has thrown at least five innings in a game this season. Yankees right-hander Corey Kluber remains one of the few holdouts.

Here, the term “No. 2 starter” is loosely defined as the second pitcher listed on the depth chart of each team’s official website. There are a few individual cases worth pointing out, though:

  • Jake Odorizzi is listed as the Astros’ No. 2 starter, but he just made his 2021 debut on April 13 after signing in the middle of spring training. He threw 3.1 innings in that game.
  • James Paxton threw 1.1 innings in his season debut before getting hurt. He’s slotted second on Seattle’s website, but Yusei Kikuchi started the second game of the Mariners’ season and has a six-inning game logged this year.
  • Pittsburgh’s Chad Kuhl has not surpassed four innings in a start. He is second on the Pirates’ depth chart, but he started on Opening Day and has remained on schedule since. Their actual No. 2 starter, Tyler Anderson, has thrown at least five innings in all three of his starts.

When it comes to Kluber, there hasn't been any confusion over his place in New York’s rotation, no realignment of the Yankees’ depth chart, no forgetful website manager ignoring an overdue update on the backend. Kluber was penciled in as the second punch behind Gerrit Cole before Opening Day, but the two-time Cy Young Award winner hasn’t thrown many frames for his new team. 

He hasn’t looked anything like his old self in the ones he has either. 

Kluber’s best outing came in his Yankees debut on April 3. The 35-year-old showed put-away stuff that afternoon and allowed just one earned run. He only lasted four innings, though, and he struggled with his command.

Control issues have continued in his two starts since then. He’s tossed 6.1 combined innings and opponents haven’t had trouble making contact.

Corey Kluber: 2021 Game Log

DateOpponentWLIPHRERHRBBSOPitches

4/3/21

Blue Jays

0

0

4

5

2

1

1

3

5

74

4/9/21

Rays

0

1

2.1

5

5

3

0

2

3

62

4/14/21

Blue Jays

0

0

4

6

3

3

2

2

4

77

Total

0

1

10.1

16

10

7

3

7

12

213

"Stuff's getting better. Location’s getting better,” Kluber insisted after Wednesday’s outing, in which he surrendered three earned and two homers over four innings in an eventual Yankees loss to the Blue Jays. “The amount of misses throughout the course of the game are becoming less and less. The mistakes I'm making, I'm paying for.”

Aaron Boone offered a similar assessment after the game, stating that Kluber is “close to where he needs to be” despite a pedestrian performance. There was some evidence of that Wednesday, as Kluber’s fastball, cutter and sinker were all delivered with upticks in velocity compared to his first two starts.

Corey Kluber: 2021 Velocity

DateFastball AVGCutter AVGSinker AVG

4/3/21

89.4 mph

85.8 mph

89.6 mph

4/9/21

89.7 mph

87 mph

90.4 mph

4/14/21

91.3 mph

88.5 mph

91.6 mph

The cutter was Kluber’s most effective weapon in Dunedin, inducing 10 whiffs on 30 pitches. Though that wasn’t enough for a dominant day on the mound, it does inspire some hope for the Kluber reclamation project.

Remember, this is a pitcher who tossed one measly inning last year and has thrown just 36.2 innings over the past two seasons thanks to a fractured forearm and a shoulder strain. Kluber hinted that he felt he could have gone longer on Wednesday, but the Yankees are wisely taking a cautious approach with the hurler—who hasn’t cracked 80 pitches in a game since April 26, 2019—even if it means taxing their bullpen.

Kluber has never been quick out of the gate, either. The first month of the season has always been the toughest for him, as he has typically put up his worst numbers in March and April:

Corey Kluber: Career Splits by Month

MonthWLW-L%ERAGGSGFCGSHOIPHRERHRBBSOHBPWPBFWHIPSO9SO/W

March/April

14

14

0.5

4.01

39

37

1

3

1

238

232

119

106

25

65

248

9

8

999

1.248

9.4

3.82

May

15

11

0.577

3.36

32

32

0

1

1

203.2

191

80

76

23

35

241

7

5

822

1.11

10.6

6.89

June

15

12

0.556

2.92

32

32

0

4

2

212.1

168

80

69

17

44

218

5

5

827

0.998

9.2

4.95

July

13

6

0.684

2.67

33

33

0

2

1

225.2

179

74

67

18

48

241

4

3

888

1.006

9.6

5.02

August

18

9

0.667

2.78

36

36

0

5

1

243

196

84

75

29

54

261

9

0

964

1.029

9.7

4.83

Sept/Oct

23

7

0.767

3.32

40

37

2

2

1

230.1

215

91

85

23

54

265

14

5

954

1.168

10.4

4.91

Even when Kluber is not coming off major injuries, he usually takes a little time to heat up.

Lastly, the Yankees defense hasn’t exactly been stellar this season, particularly in Kluber’s first two starts. He’s surrendered 10 runs this year, but only seven were earned. 

That’s still too high of a number over three outings, but New York’s daily fielding woes haven’t helped Kluber pitch efficiently. The Yankees are keeping a close eye on his workload because of his recent injury history, so every out given away and extra pitch thrown hurts him.

All this is not to make excuses for Kluber. He occupies a prominent place in the Yankees rotation and they’re going to need him to pitch better if they hope to be serious contenders this year, considering the staff’s other questions marks.

The Yankees' Rotation Has Been a Disappointment So Far

Rather, it’s to suggest that it’s a bit early to start worrying that Kluber will end up a failed signing at one-year, $11 million. He very well could be in the end, but we don’t know that after three starts. 

It might be unrealistic to expect him to return to his Cleveland form, but he’s shown flashes in the early going that he can still be an asset in the rotation. He may just need a little more time to ease into that role after seeing such limited work over the last two years.

“I thought it was a step in the right direction,” Kluber said after Wednesday’s game, adding that he’s focused on the execution and shape of his pitches rather than velocity. “I’m as frustrated as anybody with the results on the scoreboard, so to speak, but I can tell that things are heading in the right direction.”

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