GOODYEAR, Ariz. (AP) Corey Kluber was suddenly on a roster of baseball immortality. It was all so surreal, almost overwhelming.
In New York last month to receive his 2014 Cy Young Award, Kluber sat at a dais alongside Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Cal Ripken – heavy-hitting Hall of Famers all. And when John Smoltz, soon to be enshrined in Cooperstown, introduced him to the audience, Kluber realized the enormity of his accomplishments.
His season had indeed been special.
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”Yeah, it kind of hit me then,” the Indians’ sublime right-hander said. ”I wasn’t aware that all those kind of people would be there. Very cool.”
Cool, too, describes Kluber, who made a spectacular rise during his first full major league season. He tied for the AL lead with 18 wins, posted a 2.44 ERA and struck out 269 – with little fanfare. A year ago, he was in the middle of Cleveland’s rotation. Now, he’s the staff’s ace and just maybe baseball’s next big thing.
It’s been an amazing ascent for a guy who can still go unrecognized in public during the offseason.
”In Florida, nobody knows who I am,” said the Jacksonville resident. ”I don’t think a lot of people down there watch Indians games.”
Steady and stoic, almost robotic, Kluber became just the fourth pitcher in the past 28 years to win 18 games with a sub-2.50 ERA and at least 260 strikeouts. The others: Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez.
So, what does he do for an encore?
”I’m not really concerned with trying to duplicate or do anything I did last year,” he said after some conditioning work in the dry desert air. ”It’s a new year, so none of that stuff from last year has any bearing on anything that I do this year or anything we do this year as a team.”
Kluber is the reluctant star, leery of the spotlight and still grappling with new-found celebrity. On Friday, the 28-year-old couldn’t play in the Indians’ annual charity golf outing with the Cincinnati Reds because he had to attend another photo shoot and autograph session, one of many during this whirlwind offseason.
Ah, the price of fame.
As he packed his uniform, glove and other essentials into a travel bag, Kluber acknowledged some of the attention has made him uncomfortable.
”I wouldn’t say I’ve enjoyed the notoriety,” he said. ”But it hasn’t been intrusive or anything, nothing that has kept me from doing what I wanted to do during the offseason.”
Kluber has built a reputation – and, to an extent, his persona – around a tireless, obsessive work ethic. He’s the classic overachiever, the kid who turns in his homework a day earlier than the rest of the class.
To those who don’t know him, Kluber comes across as stiff. He’s business-like, regimented and so focused on doing his job that he appears more machine than man. Hence, the ”Klubot” nickname.
”That’s my demeanor when I’m on the mound, but if you pay attention when I’m in the dugout or with other guys, I’m not much different than they are,” he said. ”It’s just that when most people see me, it’s when I’m pitching. The attention is mostly on you when you’re out there pitching, so maybe people kind of group the two together.”
There’s another side of Kluber the public doesn’t see, but one the Indians know well. He’s a jokester.
”He’s got a great sense of humor,” general manager Chris Antonetti said. ”If there’s a prank going around in the clubhouse, he’s one of the primary suspects.”
Last season, Kluber dressed in a chicken suit during batting practice and he’s not averse to playing a practical joke on an unsuspecting teammate.
”He’s still quiet when he’s in here, but he’s a silent assassin,” said outfielder Ryan Raburn, whose eyes shifted nervously toward Kluber’s locker, knowing that if he was overheard there could be retribution. ”If he finds the right opportunity, he’ll throw a little jab in there. He’s a really good guy.”
He’s way beyond good as a pitcher.
Kluber offered a glimpse of his potential in 2013, going 11-5 in 24 starts. Last season, he was dominant nearly every time he took the mound. Kluber went 4-0 in May with 60 strikeouts; reeled off six straight wins from July 6-Aug. 9; and went 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA in his last five outings.
Despite dazzling statistics, Kluber isn’t paid like one of baseball’s elite pitchers. He’ll make a little more than the league minimum salary this season as the Indians control his contract through 2018. In all likelihood, they will try to sign him to an extension, but Antonetti wouldn’t confirm if any negotiations are ongoing.
It’s safe to assume, though, that the Indians want Kluber to feel rewarded.
”There’s not a better guy to believe in,” Antonetti said.
NOTES: 2B Jason Kipnis is still recovering from surgery to repair a torn finger ligament and manager Terry Francona said it’s possible he’ll be kept out of the first few exhibition games. … RHP Trevor Bauer left the Indians’ complex wearing a blue wig. He sports one when cheering for his beloved Duke Blue Devils, who played Syracuse on Saturday.