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A sleeper who woke up: Corey Kluber, RHP, Cleveland Indians

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Corey Kluber was the best pitcher in baseball in 2014. He was never a top prospect. Were there any clues in his profile that this could happen?

Corey Kluber
Corey Kluber
Tom Szczerbowski

According to Fangraphs WAR, the best pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2014 was Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians, with a 7.3 WAR.  Not everyone likes WAR as a metric, but even if you prefer a more traditional approach, his numbers were undeniable: 18 wins to lead the American League, 2.44 ERA, 269 strikeouts in 236 innings, just 205 hits and 51 walks, 152 ERA+, and a league-best 2.35 FIP.

Now the funny thing here is that Kluber's 2013 season (2.8 WAR in 147 innings) was already considered a great example of a sleeper waking up. He's not just awake now; he obtained a zenith of baseball consciousness that few pitchers reach.

Okay, so where the heck did this one come from?

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: that was a very, very good performance. Also note that Kluber came out of Stetson University, the same school that produced New York Mets surprise Jacob deGrom this year.

While Kluber performed well in college, 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. Here's the book comment for 2008:

Corey Kluber’s excellent spring for Stetson University garnered him a spot in the fourth round of the ’07 draft. A four-pitch starter, he has a 90-93 MPH fastball, a curveball, a slider and a changeup. While none of his pitches are terrific, none of them are bad, either. He held his own in his pro debut, and if he can sharpen his command a bit more, he could be a surprise in ’08. Kluber, along with fifth round Padres pick Jeremy Hefner out of Oral Roberts, is a possible breakthrough guy. Grade C+.

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. Kluber still struck hitters out at a decent clip, but the league environment is awful tough in the Cal and scouting reports weren't very enthusiastic.

I had him as a Grade C type entering 2009 and did not put him in my book.

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 were much worse after he moved up. He did not make it into the 2010 book, although the strikeout rate showed some promise. Nowadays I would be more likely to find room for someone like him, in part because of the example that Kluber himself set.

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.

I should definitely have included him in the 2011 book, but failed to do so. Baseball America did not make that mistake, ranking him 26th on their Indians prospect list entering 2011.

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. Baseball America dropped him out of their Indians prospect list, but when I saw him pitch in person something caught me eye, so he went back into the 2012 book with the following comment:

Kluber was a fourth round pick by the Padres out of Stetson in 2007. The Indians picked him up in 2010 as part of a three-way trade involving Jake Westbrook. Kluber has average stuff: 88-93 MPH fastball, decent slider, decent changeup. He has this little hook-hitch in his delivery that helps his stuff play up, and he’s always had good strikeout rates. A little kink can take some people a long way. Kluber is not spectacular but he can eat innings. With some command improvements he could be a useful utility pitcher. Grade C.

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 (4.29 FIP) in 63 innings with the Indians. As noted he pitched pretty well in '13 and was truly outstanding this season.

Some points to consider:

***There was statistical evidence that Kluber was a sleeper type well before he reached the majors, back when he was in college and A-ball, as noted in the old reports.

***It took several years for that to fully manifest, but even when he struggled at times, he maintained good strikeout rates.

***His velocity has picked up; he gets his fastball up to 97 MPH these days, averaging about 93, up a good 3-4 MPH from earlier in his career.

***Even more important than the velocity is an improved breaking ball, as pointed out by Jeff Sullivan a few weeks ago. Kluber's work ethic and constant adjustments are also a major factor as Sullivan points out.

***Looking at every piece of video I can find, including this extensive multi-angle view from Indians Baseball Insider dating back to 2012, I'm not seeing the hooky action in his delivery I mentioned a couple of years ago. Either he smoothed that out, it was a one-game aberration that I just happened to see, it was an optical illusion, or it was an hallucination on my part.

The bottom line: even the most-optimistic appraisals of Kluber did not come close to predicting this type of dominance. Even when he was considered a sleeper, Kluber looked more like an inning-eater than an ace.

That said, in my view Kluber is for real, maybe not Cy Young quality every year but certainly a legitimately excellent pitcher.

We've looked at several of these sleepers lately and we'll have a summary article shortly, looking for commonalities.