Losing Corey Kluber Isn’t What the Indians Needed

The 2019 season, already something less than a banner one for Corey Kluber, went from bad to worse on Wednesday night in Miami. A 102-mph comebacker off the bat of the Marlins’ Brian Anderson struck the 33-year-old righty on his right forearm — OUCH! — reportedly causing a non-displaced fracture of his right ulna. It’s the second major injury to hit Cleveland’s rotation, at a moment when the team already finds itself looking up at the Twins in the AL Central standings.

Trailing 3-1 with two outs and nobody on in the fifth inning, Kluber couldn’t get out of the way fast enough on Anderson’s line drive. He had the presence of mind to attempt glove-shoveling the ball to first base after being struck, and while he didn’t show signs of being in significant pain when the Indians’ training staff examined him after the play, he departed immediately nonetheless:

X-rays taken at Marlins Park revealed the fracture. Kluber will be reexamined in Cleveland on Thursday, at which point a timetable for his return will be determined. Since he’ll be shut down from throwing while the fracture heals, he figures to miss at least a month. His streak of five straight 200-inning seasons, the majors’ second-longest behind Max Scherzer, is probably over.

It’s fair to wonder if the mileage has caught up to Kluber anyway. Before the injury, he was in the midst of the latest in a series of uncharacteristically frustrating outings, having already given up seven hits and three runs in less than five innings. He’s shown little of his ace form this year; only two of his seven starts have been quality starts (six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer), just one of them after a seven-inning turn against the Twins on Opening Day in which he failed to get any run support. In 35.2 innings, he’s been cuffed for a 5.81 ERA, and while his 3.96 FIP is considerably more respectable, he’s walked a career-worst 8.9% of hitters, more than double his 4.3% mark of the past two years. Meanwhile, his 22.6% strikeout rate is 3.8% below last year, and 11.5% below the career-best rate that helped him capture his second Cy Young award in 2017.

Adding to Kluber’s woes has been a .380 BABIP, the highest among AL qualifiers, and a 40.0% groundball rate, about four points below his career mark but trending in the right direction (he entered Wednesday at 37.4%). His average exit velocity of 85.1 is down 2.2 mph from last year, placing him in the 87th percentile, his xwOBA has jumped from .281 to .331, his worst showing of the Statcast era.

Batters have given his sinker particularly rude treatment, hitting .429/.500/.829 on the 40 that have ended plate appearances; the pitch accounts for all four of the homers he’s served up. That said, there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary about his velocity, his swinging strike rate, his chase rate, and so on — it’s just that the results haven’t been there. If there’s a silver lining, maybe hitting the reset button on the season will change that.

That said, Kluber’s injury comes at a time when the Indians’ rotation — which was projected to be the majors’ best in our preseason Positional Power Rankings — has been significantly depleted by injuries. They’re already without Mike Clevinger, who made just two starts before an upper back strain sent him to the 60-day injured list, meaning that he’ll be sidelined until at least early June. Thanks to off days, the team has only needed two starts from fill-in Jefry Rodriguez, both against weak teams (the Royals and Marlins).

Somehow, Cleveland’s rotation owns the league’s top WAR (4.0) and FIP (3.38), and sixth-best ERA (3.75), though none of its other members have been particularly brilliant. Trever Bauer’s 2.45 ERA is offset by a modest 3.54 FIP, Shane Bieber has been solid (3.62 ERA, 4.00 FIP), and Carlos Carrasco (5.86 ERA, 2.90 FIP) has been burned by a .420 BABIP (he’s 1.1 innings short of qualifying to overtake Kluber in that department). Though his last three outings — including an April 23 start shortened by a bruised left knee, suffered in a collision at first base — have been much better than his first three, Carrasco has lasted more than five innings only twice in six starts. Working in the rotation’s favor has been the league’s second-highest strikeout rate (28.4%) and third-highest K-BB% (19.3%) and home run rate (0.94 per nine).

As for fill-ins, given the way the front office threw nickels around like manhole covers this winter — lefty reliever Oliver Perez’s one-year, $2.5 million deal represented their only major league free agent expenditure — it’s safe to say that they won’t be signing Dallas Keuchel. The best bet for a callup may be Cody Anderson, who made 24 starts for the team in 2015-16 but missed all of the past two seasons due to Tommy John surgery. This year, he’s made three appearances totaling five innings out of the bullpen for Cleveland, sandwiched around a pair of three-inning starts at Triple-A Columbus, the most recent of which, on April 28, totaled just 36 pitches; he’d have to be stretched out at the big league level.

Adam Plutko, who made 12 starts and five relief appearances for the Indians last year, is working his way back from a forearm strain and has yet to pitch this season, though he could start a rehab assignment soon. Chih-Wei Hu and Sam Hentges, the other two minor league starters on the 40-man roster, have both been getting roughed up. Hu, a 25-year-old righty who slipped into the Others of Note section of Cleveland’s prospect list this spring after placing 29th on Tampa’s list in 2018, is carrying a 5.01 ERA and 5.41 FIP at Columbus, while Hentges, a 22-year-old lefty who was 10th on this year’s list, has an 8.02 ERA and 5.44 FIP at Double-A Akron. Maybe it’s time for that Bartolo Colon homecoming.

Whatever the Indians do to cover for Kluber’s absence, they’ll still need to find a way to resuscitate an offense that’s averaging 3.83 runs per game, second-to-last in the AL, and dead last with a 70 wRC+ via a .215/.300/.343 line. Only two players — Carlos Santana and backup catcher Kevin Plawecki — have a wRC+ of 100 or better. Leading lights Jose Ramirez (48 wRC+) and Francisco Lindor (83 wRC+, albeit in just 10 games since returning from a calf strain), have been dreadful, and an outfield whose lightly refurbished corners were forecast to rank 29th (left field) and 29th (right field) in the majors have ranked 28th (-0.6 WAR) and 22nd (0.0 WAR), respectively, with offseason trade acquisition Jake Bauers‘ 85 wRC+ the high-water mark offensively. If it wasn’t already clear that the front office should have taken a more aggressive tack this winter, it’s glaringly apparent now.

For all of their woes, somehow the Indians (16-13) are just two games behind the Twins (17-10), but their odds of winning the division have faded from 88.6% at the outset of the season to 62.0%, and they’ll fall further once our depth charts are adjusted to account for Kluber’s absence. For those hoping that the AL Central would feature an actual race, this added setback certainly increases the odds, but this is a lousy way for it to happen.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Uncle Spikemember
3 years ago

If I got hit by a 102 MPH comebacker that fractured my arm I would be rolling around in the grass, crying like a baby. Meanwhile Kluber’s acting like he just got bit my a mosquito.

3 years ago
Reply to  Uncle Spike

Bones, the solid part anyway have no nerves, so while it does sting, it’s surprisingly less painful than you’d think. That’s not too diminish the klubots zen reaction.

3 years ago
Reply to  Billsaints

Sort of, but the periosteum is full of nerves and that’s usually where the pain comes from.