The ace of the Indians is used to anonymity—but Corey Kluber's unexpected Cy Young Award will change that. (Maybe.) The Klubot isn't great at expressing emotion, but he's extremely adept at getting batters out
This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2014 issue
COREY KLUBER has been a Cy Young winner for precisely 44 hours, and, to hear him tell it, life feels a lot like it did before he got the American League award. It's a Friday afternoon at a coffee shop nestled among the pines and birches near Jacksonville, just down the road from his home, and Kluber is sitting at an outdoor table nursing his Americano, basking in a bright November sun. Sure, he belongs to history now, but he's still a sleep-deprived father in charge of bath time, still a T-shirt and flip-flops kind of guy who, in the middle of this crowded café, would be asked for a selfie only if he were wearing a neon sign around his neck that read NASTIEST RIGHTHANDED PITCHER ON THE PLANET.
Kluber, bearded and broad-shouldered, says that he's never—not once—been recognized outside northern Ohio. Even this summer, as he was conjuring up images of Gaylord Perry, the Indians' ace hardly turned heads in sports-crazed Cleveland. Asked how many times he's been made by a fan away from the ballpark, and Kluber, peering through his sunglasses, says, "You might not be able to count it on one hand—but two, yeah, definitely."
Great seasons, it turns out, can still sneak up on us in this accelerated age, even from a 28-year-old who's never made an All-Star team. ("Not even in the minors," Kluber says.) "As a starting pitcher, you kind of know everybody; at least I do," Clayton Kershaw said of Kluber as he accepted the NL Cy Young last Wednesday. "But I definitely didn't realize how good he was." Almost no one believed with conviction that Kluber would beat Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, not even Kluber himself. But that's not to say that the voters, many relying on advanced metrics, didn't get it right. Kluber, who went 18--9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 2352/3 innings, has a strong case as the best pitcher in 2014 not named Kershaw.
"It wasn't just his starts—it was every bullpen session too," says Cleveland pitching coach Mickey Callaway. "I was there for the 60 times he threw off a mound, and he was totally locked in each time. It was extraordinary." Even at the height of his dominance—he was 9--3 with a 1.73 ERA over the second half—Kluber had little more than a cult following. That included the Internet-savvy Indians fans who produced memes reflecting how emotionless he is on the field and spawned a nickname: Klubot.
True, Kluber rarely changes his expression—stoic is a more frequently used adjective when describing him than righthander. "Once in a blue moon you'll see a grimace," says Callaway, while noting the time that Klubot "snatched his glove, and gently hit the water cooler and got some water on his shirt." Even Kluber's celebrations feel routine. After a three-hit shutout of Seattle on July 30, "I was so pumped," says catcher Yan Gomes. "But then when I ran to him, it was more like an awkward hug between us."
During the MLB Network's announcement of the Cy Young Awards, Kluber was standing by from a Jacksonville country club; when he won, he turned to his off-camera family and flashed a quick smile and thumbs-up, reacting more like someone who'd successfully changed a tire than a pitcher who'd just received the game's most prestigious honor.
The Klubot can, in fact, emote. Have a cup of joe with the coffee-addicted hurler (the morning of each start he has a venti Americano—then another five cups of coffee through the day), and you'll find out that he is a self-deprecating, dry-witted Texan (he grew up in the Dallas area before attending Stetson, where he met his wife, Amanda) who dotes on his daughters, two-year-old Kendall and 10-month-old Kennedy, and that he is the biggest prankster in the Indians' clubhouse. To lighten the mood during a horrid skid, Kluber waddled out onto the field during batting practice wearing a chicken outfit. In July players wore T-shirts that read JK CONSTRUCTION COMPANY: I BREAK IT. YOU FIX IT, a playful jab at second baseman Jason Kipnis, who tends to unleash his frustration on chairs, air conditioners and whatever else might be nearby.
When reporters asked Kipnis who was behind the joke, Kipnis said, "The secret guy behind everything: Corey Kluber."
THIS IS like the old Michael Jordan being left off his high school team story," says Ruben Niebla, introducing a tale he's been telling a lot recently. In 2011, Niebla was the pitching coach at Triple A Columbus, working with a 25-year-old who had a meandering fastball and a 5.56 ERA. That year the Clippers won the Triple A national championship—and they did it with Kluber stuck on the bench. "We just thought he wasn't good enough to break the rotation. The three guys [in the rotation] are no longer in professional baseball," says Niebla.
Baseball is littered with tales of one bullpen session changing a pitcher's fortunes; for Kluber, it happened one May afternoon in 2012 at Columbus. After getting blasted in a start, he was alternating four-seamers that stayed dangerously up in the zone and two-seamers that he was effectively locating down.
"Let's try this: Stick to the two-seamer," Niebla said. Kluber began throwing sinkers that dotted both sides of the plate with a pointillist's precision. He ditched his four-seamer, and in his next start at Syracuse was so dominant that Indians special assistant Tim Belcher called Callaway from the stands to say, "If he were pitching against big leaguers today with that kind of stuff, he'd be just as good." Kluber's two-seamer is the pitch that sets up the others: the slider with the fiendishly late movement; the cutter that bores in on lefthanders; the changeup that he vows to work on this winter, to make it more of a weapon against lefties.
Kluber's coronation as the AL's best pitcher was in part a product of voters placing less emphasis on stats like win percentage and even ERA—Kluber trailed Hernandez in both—and turning to metrics like Fielding Independent Pitching, which in essence attempts to strip out variables like luck and team defense. (Kluber, who had one of the worst defenses in baseball behind him, had a better FIP than King Felix.) That he's become something of a face for the statistical revolution is amusing to Kluber. "When I hear an acronym and don't know what it means, I assume it's an advanced stat, and I try not to concern myself with it," he says. "It's not about numbers for me; it's all about the process."
Since season's end, Kluber has mostly tuned out the game. He caught only snippets of the postseason (following the Royals' run, he says he felt mostly "jealousy, because we were so close to them"), and he won't throw again until mid-December. "I'm going to stick to the same schedule, keep the routine," he says. Kluber looks at his watch—it is nearing 4 p.m., which means the girls will be up soon from their naps and ready for bath time. "Got to enjoy these days as much as possible," he says. "Before we know it it'll be spring training." The weather has turned chilly, and you can feel it coming: fall turning into winter; Opening Day; the release of the Klubot 2.0.