We already know the many stories and angles on Chicago Cubs’ Game One starter Jon Lester, but what about the guy taking the ball for the Cleveland Indians?
First up for the Cubs will be the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner, Corey Kluber.
Kluber, 30, is the right-handed de facto ace of the Cleveland Indians here in 2016. He went 18-9 for the Tribe this season, accumulating over 5.0 fWAR for the third consecutive season, while being named to his first ever All-Star Game, and leading the American League in FIP. He’s a formidable opponent for the Cubs, like most Game 1 starters, but I’m thinking that the Cubs have (to use Bill Murray’s words) too many sticks.
Let’s dive in.
Like I said, Kluber lead the American League in FIP this season, and his overall slash line was downright great:
- 32 starts, 215.0 IP
- 3.14 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 3.50 xFIP
- 26.4% K-rate, 6.6% BB-rate
Kluber doesn’t get a ton of ground balls (44.5%), and lets up some homers (10.8% HR/FB ratio), but he was certainly one of the best pitchers the American League had to offer in 2016. His FIP ranked first in the AL (7th in baseball), and his ERA was fourth, although to be fair, the Cubs have already faced and beaten two of the pitchers ahead of him this postseason, Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto.
That said, Kluber is likely the best remaining starting pitcher the Cubs will face this year, and he’s been pretty darn good in the first postseason of his career (18.1 IP, 0.98 ERA). But like most pitchers the Cubs face, including Clayton Kershaw, there’s a reason for hope.
Your glimmer of hope against Kluber is actually two-fold, but both come with a pretty big caveat. First, he’s done slightly worse each postseason start, and second he’s got a Cubs-favorable lefty-righty split. Let’s dive in.
Corey Kluber has made three postseason starts in 2016, the first was a gem against the Red Sox in Game 2 of the ALDS, and the next two came against the Blue Jays in Game 1 (a win) and Game 4 (the Indians only playoff loss this year) of the ALCS. Let’s check out the box scores side-by-side.
ALDS Game 2 (Red Sox):
- 7.0 IP, 104 Pitches
- 0ER, 3H, 3BB, 7Ks
ALCS Game 1 (Blue Jays):
- 6.1 IP, 100 Pitches
- 0ER, 6H, 2BB, 6Ks
ALCS Game 4 (Blue Jays):
- 5.0 IP, 89 Pitches
- 2ER, 4H, 2BB, 7Ks, HR
Although the results are mostly good across the board (the third start was pretty meh), I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that he might be experiencing a bit of fatigue. Before the 215 innings he tossed in the regular season, Kluber threw more inning twice in his career: 2015 (222.0 IP) and 2014 (235.2 IP). So he’s no stranger to a high inning count. That said, he’s already at 233.1 IP total for the season, so this next start will certainly push him to a point he’s never yet been – in the highest stress start of his career.
The big caveat here, however, is that his last start came all the way back on October 18, so he’ll have had plenty of time to rest his arm in advance of this game. If anything, this might be something that affects him much greater in his second start of the series, whenever that may be. I still believe this will have a non-zero affect, however.
But let’s move onto the splits.
Corey Kluber isn’t a huge split guy, but like most right-handed pitchers, he’s struggled against lefties more than righties for his career.
Kluber v. Lefties: .254/.316/.404 (.316 wOBA)
Kluber v. Righties: .221/.263/.346 (.266 wOBA)
Now, the Chicago Cubs aren’t the Los Angeles Dodgers when it comes to left-handed hitting, but with Dexter Fowler, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and now Kyle Schwarber (in addition to possibly Jason Heyward, Chris Coghlan and Miguel Montero) all capable of hitting from the left side of the plate, the Cubs might be able to stack the odds in their favor – from the starting lineup up to any necessary pinch-hitting appearances.
The rub – as there always is one – is that Kluber’s toned down his splits a bit here in 2016, to a much less inviting .284 wOBA versus lefties and .266 wOBA versus righties. Like the possibility of fatigue, I still think the splits are a net positive for the Cubs, and their lineup’s chances against Kluber.
According to FanGraphs, Kluber primarily throws his sinker (92.5 MPH), but also throws a four-seam fastball, a slider, a curveball, and occasionally a changeup – that all sounds quite a bit like the Cubs’ own late-blooming righty, Jake Arrieta.
With any luck, the Cubs’ lefties can put the ball in play, get it in the air and score just enough runs to give Jon Lester a lead he can work with. The Cubs are just four wins away from winning the World Series, and Corey Kluber is the first challenge they’ll face.