In Corey Kluber, Red Sox get strike-throwing workhorse, if not more


To state the end of Corey Kluber’s 2022 season unceremoniously would be putting it mildly.

With the Rangers and Rays trading zeroes in extra innings in Game 2 of their AL wild-card series, both bullpens were worn down. Initially projected as a strong candidate to start Game 3, Kluber was called into action in the 13th inning of Game 2, coming on in relief for the first time since 2013. He stranded a runner in the 13th and sat with the 2- Cleveland’s 3-4. batters in order in the 14th.

Then, to lead off the 15th, Kluber hung a 1-0 slider to Guardians rookie outfielder Oscar Gonzalez:

end of the game The season is over. The same Cleveland fans who had cheered him on so fondly in his prime were going ballistic over his fall. It was nothing personal, of course, simply a cruel and unusual script in which his team advanced at the expense of their former hero. Baseball will sometimes.

Less than three months after leaving the mound at Progressive Field in defeat, Kluber has signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Red Sox. It makes a lot of sense for a Boston team looking to bolster its rotation, which had significant interest in the veteran righty the past two seasons. It’s also a good landing spot for Kluber, yes raised his family in Winchester since 2016. As he turns 30, what can Red Sox fans expect from the accomplished right-hander?

Between 2014 and 2018, only one pitcher (Max Scherzer) made more regular season starts than Kluber’s 160. Between 2019 and 2021, 184 pitchers made more regular season starts than Kluber’s 24. He suffered a broken arm in a comeback early in his senior year with Cleveland in 2019, and then shoulder problems limited him to just one start with Texas in 2020 and 16 starts with the Yankees in 2021.

It was this worrisome trend that prompted the Rays to give Kluber such an incentive contract entering 2022: a one-year, $8 million deal with up to $5 million in incentives based on various thresholds of the start of games, which shows a strong belief in Kluber. talent, if he was able to stay on the field.

Kluber responded accordingly, making 31 starts and not spending a day in the IL. His fully healthy 2022 was a refreshing reminder of the durable workhorse he once was, as we could once again count on seeing Kluber take the mound every five days. However, the return to durability didn’t exactly come with a return to dominance. His 4.34 ERA was 16% park-adjusted worse than the league average, and he struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings, a career low and well short of the mark of 11, 7 from his peak in 2017. Although he was never a full-blown flamethrower and his average fastball velocity had begun to decline even before the injuries, his heater now sits around 89 mph, the third slowest among qualified starting pitchers.

The Kluber we see now, the one who turned 37 in April, is considerably different than the one who took up residence on AL Cy Young ballots during his prime. The superhuman story of Justin Verlander pitching ’90s heat into his forties has clouded our perception of what is a much more normal transition for pitchers like Kluber as they age. As fun as it is to watch Verlander continue to dominate with the same kind of arsenal he had in his 20s, it can also be fascinating to watch the league’s Klubers, Johnny Cuetos, Zack Greinkes or Adam Wainwrights figure out a new way to strike out hitters.

The point totals may never return to where they once were for Kluber, but the most encouraging part of his 2022 was the rediscovery of his elite ability to avoid free passes. While he showed flashes of excellence during his injury-shortened year with the Yankees in 2021, including a no-hitter, of course, his command barely resembled that of a pitcher who had led the league in walks per nine innings (BB/9). ) both in 2017-2018. In 2022, however, Kluber again posted a league best — i the best race – 3% walk rate, with just 21 bases on balls allowed over 164 innings. That number becomes even more impressive when you consider that Kluber struck out four batters in his first start of the year on April 10, but never again walked more than two (which he only did twice) in none of his 30 starts the rest of the game. season

In addition to limiting free bases, Kluber also got opposing hitters to swing on a career-high 38.8% of the pitches he threw outside the strike zone. third best among starters behind split specialist Kevin Gausman and All-Star Tyler Anderson. Kluber’s 29.7% called strike plus whiff percentage (CSW%) was tied with Kyle Wright for 12th among qualified starting pitchersa much better grade than one might expect if you look simply at strikeouts and ERA.

Strikeouts will always be sexier, but this new version of Kluber paints the picture of a professional pitcher in every way, constantly developing new, ingenious sequences to keep hitters out of harm’s way. His limited raw materials may be affected a lot more and more often than before, but that doesn’t mean Kluber can’t still deliver quality starts on a regular basis.

He may not offer the same upside as other free agent starters who were available, but Kluber provides a degree of certainty that this Red Sox rotation desperately craves. With 69 combined starts between Michael Wacha, Rich Hill and Nathan Eovaldi through free agency, the only returning starter with a significant workload in 2022 is Nick Pivetta. Before Kluber, Boston was preparing to count on Chris Sale and James Paxton, who have combined for 70 innings pitched in the past. three seasonsnot to mention younger arms like Garrett Whitlock and Brayan Bello, neither of whom have spent a full big league season in the rotation.

As the role of starting pitching in MLB has rapidly evolved over the past decade, it hasn’t just been innings totals that have been drastically reduced by teams’ unwillingness to let starting pitchers ‘inside the games. Starters have also become much less durable over the course of a full season, let alone each individual start. Just as the 200-inning starter has become increasingly rare (only eight pitchers reached the threshold in 2022), a pitcher making more than 30 starts is also much harder to come by. Only 43 different pitchers made at least 30 starts in 2022, up slightly from 41 in 2021, which was the lowest mark in a 162-game season since 1967.

Kluber, even after three consecutive injury-riddled seasons, was one of 43 to make 30+ starts in 2022. For the past few years, teams targeting Kluber have seemed to be chasing the potential “what if” of rediscovering the Cy. Young version of himself. In signing Kluber through 2023, the Red Sox, on the other hand, appear to be going for a different profile: one of durability and reliability, something many teams are looking for these days, but especially one with the makeup of Boston’s pitching staff. If he can get back to 30+ starts, it’s very likely he’ll have fulfilled the workhorse role the Red Sox envision him to be. And if Kluber’s ace form resurfaces for any length of time during his age-37 season, this will. be sauce

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Jordan Shusterman is half of it @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball throughout his adult life, mostly for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan who lives in the Eastern time zone, which means he loves a good 10pm first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.


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