Corey Kluber, the Cubs, and Small Sample Size

The World Series Notes column that ran earlier today included quotes from Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist on the subject of Corey Kluber. More specifically, their lack of success against the Indians right-hander. The sample sizes are small, but nevertheless real. The two Cubs came into tonight’s game a combined 1 for 20 against Kluber.

They weren’t alone in their woe. The nine players in Chicago’s starting lineup were 4 for 35, with 15 strikeouts, in their cumulative career against the Cleveland ace.

Do small sample-size results mean anything in a given game? Conventional wisdom says no. It is, after all, small sample size. That doesn’t mean it can’t hint at future performance. Some players simply don’t see the ball well against certain pitchers, which is something you can’t quantify. And if a player isn’t careful, the conundrum can go from his eyes to between his ears.

“It’s a mentality,” said Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan. “Some pitchers, the more you face them, it domes you up. You’re like, ‘Man, I’m getting out all the time. I don’t feel good.’”

“Guys know if they’re comfortable against a pitcher or not,” confirmed Cubs hitting coach John Mallee. “They know how they felt in the box, and that’s something you can’t see in the numbers.”

Tonight’s numbers looked all too familiar to most members of the Chicago lineup. They went 4 for 22 against Kluber, with nine strikeouts. Eight of those punch outs came in the first three innings.

Did a multitude of Cubs lack confidence in the box in Game One of the World Series? The answer to that question is an unequivocal no. This is one of the best hitting teams in baseball. They aren’t about to be cowed, no matter how good the pitcher.

That doesn’t mean subconscious doubt didn’t begin to creep into a few heads. As for how well the NL champs were tracking the ball, the number of swings and misses, and called strikes, tell a story.

Which brings us back to sample size, which now stands at 8 for 47, with 24 strikeouts. Still too small to be meaningful in a certain sense. As much as anything, what it says is that Corey Kluber is very good.

The Cubs will face Kluber at least one more time this October, and while they’ll do so with stiff upper lips, it’s hard to imagine them being fully confident.

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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6 years ago

Wow, kluber pitches yet another awesome postseason game but fangraphs still manages to make this article about the cubs. How about just officially declaring fangraphs to be a cubs’ fan site?

6 years ago

Probably the only time I will agree with a Giants fan.

6 years ago

Hey, that 9th inning of Game 4 of the NLDS sure was fun, wasn’t it? We need more articles on that, I think. You’d find a much more receptive audience if you went and whined about the Cubs at McCovey Chronicles or some other site where Giants fans congregate online. Here, where there are a diversity of fans, it’s just annoying.

Chip Lockemember
6 years ago

There are two teams for which there is anything of present value to speak. Both are getting tremendous amounts of attention. If the Giants hadn’t lost, there would still be content on them. But they lost.

6 years ago
Reply to  Chip Locke

Don’t look at me, I didn’t mention them.