Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber has been a source of solid innings for the Tribe this spring, posting a 3.68 ERA, 3.43 FIP, with a 69/13 K/BB ratio in 71 innings thus far. A reader recently asked me how Kluber was viewed as a prospect. Carson Cistulli over at Fangraphs is a big Kluber supporter and we chatted about him briefly during the podcast last week.
I find guys who "come out of nowhere" like Kluber to be quite fascinating, so let's take a look at him today with a Prospect Retrospective.
Kluber was a fourth round pick in 2007 out of Stetson University in Florida, drafted by the San Diego Padres. He was quite effective in college, posting a 2.05 ERA with a 117/36 K/BB ratio in 114 innings with just 90 hits allowed. Keep in mind that this was before the NCAA adopted less-potent metal bats. His performance was respected, but his stock was hampered a bit by a high school injury, a stress fracture that required the insertion of a metal pin in his throwing arm.
He pitched well in his pro debut, posting a 3.51 ERA with a 33/15 K/BB in 33 innings for Eugene in the Northwest League. I liked what I knew about him and gave him a Grade C+ in my 2008 book, marking him as a sleeper and a possible "breakout candidate" entering 2008.
He got off to a good start with a 3.21 ERA and a 72/13 K/BB in 56 innings for Low-A Fort Wayne in '08, but found the going much rougher after moving up to the California League, with a 6.01 ERA and a 75/34 K/BB in 85 innings with 93 hits allowed for Lake Elsinore. He still struck hitters out at a decent clip, but his command wobbled enough to be troublesome and scouting reports weren't particularly optimistic. I had him as a Grade C type entering 2009.
Kluber posted a 4.54 ERA in 109 innings for Lake Elsinore in 2009 with a 124/36 K/BB, followed by a 4.60 ERA with a 35/34 K/BB in 45 innings for Double-A San Antonio. The K/IP rate in the Cal League was excellent, but his ratios deteriorated sharply after his promotion. He was still a grade C at this point for me, though the strikeouts showed some promise.
He returned to San Antonio to open 2011 and performed much better, with a 3.45 ERA and a 136/40 K/BB in 123 innings. He was traded to the Indians in late July and continued to pitch effectively for Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus, though scouting reports remained lukewarm.
2011 was a strange year. He posted a 5.56 ERA for Columbus, obviously not good, giving up 153 hits in 151 innings with a 143/70 K/BB. He made his major league debut with four relief innings for Cleveland. Entering 2012 there was no objective reason to be impressed, but when I saw him pitch I was impressed enough to note him as someone to watch. His fastball was now up to 92-93 MPH, I thought his slider and changeup were pretty decent, and he had a little arm hook in his delivery that I felt added some deception. I still had him as a Grade C, but noted that "Kluber is not spectacular but can eat some innings" and that he could be useful with some command improvements.
He showed those improvements in 2012, with a 3.59 ERA and a much better 128/49 K/BB in 125 innings for Columbus. He held his own in 63 innings with the Indians, and as noted he's pitching very well thus far in '13.
So what gives?
Cistulli's Fangraphs piece has useful GIFs of Kluber's fastball, slider, and curve. There's quality movement there. His fastball has gradually picked up steam: it was 87-92 when he was drafted, but it gets up to 95-96 now, averaging 92-93. As noted, his command of all pitches has improved. His secondary stuff was always pretty solid, but the combination of added velocity and sharper location has enabled him to thrive. Sabermetrically speaking, Kluber always had solid strikeout rates even when he was having problems in the low minors. He's also been extremely durable, with the high school injury having no ill long-term effects at all.
Kluber isn't an ace-type and I think he's a league-average pitcher when all is said and done, but that's hardly a bad thing. I don't see any reason why he can't continue to eat innings at a good clip. Someone who can give a team 180 league-average or slightly better innings has a lot of value.