The Indians are 62-50 and in the thick of the playoff race. At this time last year they were 52-60 and starting a rough August which would see them go 5-24. They would eventually finish the season at 68-94.
The have made a ten game improvement even without prized acquisitions Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Brett Myers and Mark Reynolds performing up to expectations. Those players have helped from a leadership perspective, but the numbers to this point for all range from slightly disappointing to very disappointing.
Where the Indians have seen a marked improvement is from within, and the biggest impact to the team this year may be the emergence of Corey Kluber.
Kluber, 27, came into the season as a depth starting option for the Indians. In 15 major league appearances he owned a 2-5 record and 5.35 ERA, and his minor league career was ordinary – 43-49 with a 4.39 ERA in 144 appearances. He was not expected to be a significant contributor this season, unless a starter got hurt or they needed a spot starter for a doubleheader.
In a unique set of circumstances, the Indians lost Scott Kazmir with a strained rib cage muscle, Carlos Carrasco went headhunting against the Yankees and was banished to the minors for two months, and Brett Myers went down with an elbow injury. Opportunity was knocking.
At the time, rookie Trevor Bauer was still being limited in his opportunities. So the Indians turned to Kluber, inserted him into the starting rotation, and he has been a key reason for their turnaround.
The Indians acquired Kluber three years ago in a three-team trade that sent Jake Westbrook to the Cardinals – Kluber was sent from the Padres to the Indians. During his time in the minor league system, coaches (and other team personnel) consistently said he had the best stuff in the organization, even if the results were not there. They believed in him and felt it was a matter of time before things would click.
This season, he is 7-5 with a 3.54 ERA in 21 appearances (19 starts). He has always been a guy that gets strikeouts – in the minors, he averaged over a strikeout an inning (9.1 K/9), but the walks (3.6 BB/9) often hurt him. This year his command has been much improved (1.9 BB/9) and the strikeouts have remained (8.6 K/9).
Kluber’s ability to limit base-runners is a big reason for his emergence. His average fastball is up to about 93 MPH, occasionally touching 94-95 MPH. That’s a discernible difference, as that extra bit of life has helped him blow pitches past hitters and setup his repertoire of breaking pitches
Under the direction of pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Kluber is throwing more fastballs and fewer change-ups. He is throwing his fastball 51.8% of the time compared to 43.6% in 2012, and he is throwing his changeup 10.9% of the time, compared to 16.5% in 2012. This shows a pitcher who is learning to pitch off his fastball, aggressively attack the zone, and have confidence in his stuff rather than trying to nibble and trick hitters with breaking stuff.
Combine his ability to stay focused with his physical frame and you have an impressive starting pitcher with potential to build your rotation.
The Indians needed to find another pitcher in the rotation that they could team up with Justin Masterson. It appears they have found their man in Kluber.
Kluber’s emergence has helped solidify the staff and everything since has fallen into place. The Indians now have an effective one-two-three punch with Masterson, Kluber and Scott Kazmir, to go with two solid back-end guys in Zach McAllister and Ubaldo Jimenez.
There is no doubt that Kazmir has also had a huge impact on the rotation this season, but he is a free agent at the end of the year. Kluber, on the other hand, is under control with the Indians for at least five more seasons. Having a pitcher of his capability locked up for that long is essential to building a World Series winning rotation, and this season may just be the start of it.