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The Ascension Of Corey Kluber

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Kluber’s ascension to the Major League elite came in the face of detractors who saw him as nothing more than a back-end starter.

The story of Corey Kluber is unlike that of Kris Byrant, Bryce Harper, or Clayton Kershaw.

Kluber was not a highly touted prospect coming out of high school or college. He wasn’t expected to eventually become of the league’s premier players. His ceiling, in fact, was initially predicted to be as a back-of-the-rotation starter or long reliever out of the bullpen. He didn’t become a regular starter in the league until 2013 at the ripe old age of 27, six years after being drafted.

During the past three seasons, though, Kluber has ascended into the Major League elite with a ridiculous arsenal of pitches that features a unique combination of power and deception rarely seen in this league.

But before he was a Cy Young award winner, before he became “Klubot,” before he helped lead Cleveland to within one game of its first World Series title since 1948, Corey Kluber was an afterthought.

The story of Corey Kluber is a case study in perseverance and determination. It’s a story of vastly exceeding expectations. It’s the story of how one man defied his detractors en route to becoming one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball.

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Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

So many of the league’s best players start out as highly-touted teenagers. At 16 years old, Bryce Harper landed the cover of Sports Illustrated because of the hype that surrounded him. Clayton Kershaw was taken seventh overall in 2006 at 18 years old and made his Major League debut by the time he was 20. Phenom shortstops Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa were taken eighth overall and first overall respectively in the 2011 and 2012 drafts, both at age 18.

Each of those players received rave reviews and earned enormous expectations from a young age, and each has delivered on those expectations. They have propelled themselves (or in Lindor’s and Correa’s cases, they’ve begun to propel themselves) to Major League stardom.

But there were no magazine covers for young Corey Kluber. He received no accolades or attention of any kind. As a young pitcher for Coppell High School in Texas, Kluber showed flashes of potential, though. His fastball ran in the mid-to-upper 80s and topped out around 90 MPH, and his curveball had better bite than most high schoolers.

Unfortunately, overuse caused Kluber to develop stress fractures in his throwing elbow that eventually required surgery and the implantation of multiple screws.

With a lack of any real notoriety and his health in question, Kluber went undrafted out of high school in 2004. Instead, he landed at Stetson University, a small private school in DeLand, Florida with a total enrollment of just more than 4,000 students. His freshman season was a picture of inconsistency. As a reliever, he posted a striking 7.82 ERA in 25 innings. Despite that, he flourished his next two seasons as a starter.

During his junior year, in what would turn out to be his final collegiate season, Kluber finished with a 12-2 record, a 2.05 ERA, and 117 strikeouts, and was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Pitcher of the Year. He performed well enough, in fact, to be drafted by the Padres in the fourth round of the 2007 Draft, and was offered a $200,000 signing bonus to forgo his senior year.

Even still, Kluber was never expected to blossom into much of anything at the Major League level, and he struggled to break through at all as he bounced around the Padres’ farm system. Kluber racked up a 4.29 ERA and 3.43 BB/9 while in the Padres’ minor league system, displaying a lack of control necessary to succeed at the next level. He never once cracked their top-30 prospects list.

He did consistently exhibit one talent, though. Kluber could strike batters out. While with San Diego’s affiliates, Kluber accumulated a 9.47 K/9, and that ability to mow down opposing batters is what kept his career-potential afloat. It’s also what intrigued his future employer, the Cleveland Indians, in the first place.

During the summer of 2010, Cleveland was looking to deal starter Jake Westbrook to anyone who would take him in an attempt to cut salary from the payroll. The Indians were one of the worst teams in the Majors, and all they wanted to do at the trade deadline was cut their losses, and maybe acquire a prospect or two.

As it turns out, the Cardinals and the Padres were looking to make deals to marginally improve their clubs and hold on to their slim division leads. St. louis needed a back-end starter and San Diego needed an extra bat, which made a three-way deal between the two playoff-hopefuls and Cleveland ideal.

While the deal was being discussed, general manager Chris Antonetti asked his scouts which minor leaguers intrigued them, and his scouts mentioned a 24-year-old righty who had never sniffed the majors but was leading the San Antonio league in strikeouts: Corey Kluber.

The Cardinals ended up with Westbrook and 22-year-old left-handed pitcher and Nick Greenwood, the Padres got outfielder Ryan Ludwick from St. Louis, and the Indians were able to dump a little salary and land Kluber from San Diego.

Trades are difficult to evaluate in the moment. At the time, it seemed like Cleveland had made a reasonable move to dump a veteran’s salary during a down season, and both the Padres and Cardinals had done a little bit to improve their rosters heading down the stretch.

But as we look back on that trade today, knowing that both St. Louis and San Diego missed the playoffs in 2010 and neither Westbrook nor Ludwick lasted much longer in the big leagues, there is no question which side ended up with the better end of that deal.

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Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody could have predicted that at the time, though, and the numbers Kluber posted in Cleveland’s system the next season-plus showed nothing too promising.

During his 2011 season with AAA Columbus, Kluber posted a 5.56 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 4.2 BB/9, 4.53 FIP, and just an 8.54 K/9. He ended up making a lackluster Major League debut September 1 of that year and made three total appearances for the Indians during the 2011 season. He finished with a 8.31 ERA, 6.23 BB/9, and a 10.38 K/9.

Kluber spent 2012 going between Cleveland and AAA Columbus, and didn’t settle into a consistent Major League role until April of 2013. After initially failing to make the Opening Day roster out of spring training, Kluber was promoted in mid-April after Brett Myers went down with an injury. He hasn’t been back to the minor leagues since, but his performance during 2013 did nothing to quell the critics from projecting him as a No. 5 starter or long reliever.

He ended up finishing 11-5 in 24 starts with a 3.85 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 1.26 WHIP, and 8.31 K/9. More than reasonable numbers for his first full season, but at age 27, it seemed more likely that Kluber had reached his ceiling than that he had any significant improvements left in the tank.

During that following season, however, Kluber showed unequivocally that he was nowhere near his ceiling.

During the 2014 season, Corey Kluber became the Klubot that we know today. The errant, walk-plagued pitcher who wandered through the minor leagues for the better part of six years became the stoic, emotionless pitching machine that mows down opposing batters with fierce regularity.

During the offseason, Kluber dropped a couple subsidiary pitches from his arsenal and developed the weaponry we know him for today. His control improved tremendously, and he found a way to give his pitches both heat and late movement creating a deadly combination of power and deception seen in only a few pitchers in the league.

He can blow a four-seamer by you, he can run a two-seamer with heat back across the plate to freeze both lefties and righties, and his curveball leaves opposing hitters shaking their heads and wondering if their god is real. Opponents hit an absurd .091 against Kluber’s curveball during the 2014 season and he recorded 123 strikeouts with it, roughly twice as many as any other pitch.

During his 2014 Cy Young campaign, Kluber went 18-9 and accumulated a 2.44 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 10.27 K/9, 0.53 HR/9, 1.09 WHIP, 7.4 WAR, and 20.3 soft-contact percentage. Each of those numbers was top-five in the American League, except his WHIP, which finished sixth. 

Kluber followed 2014 up with a solid 2015 in the midst of mediocre season for Cleveland, posting a 3.49 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 9.93 K/9, and 1.05 WHIP. He also tossed one of his greatest masterpieces May 13, 2015 when he became just the 19th pitcher in Major League history to record at least 18 strikeouts in a regulation nine-inning game. He did it in a mere eight innings of work.

And yet, he still seemed to be outside the conversation of the best pitchers in the American League. Kluber finished 2016 with a 3.14 ERA, 3.26 FIP, 9.50 K/9, and 1.06 WHIP, and he will likely finish either first or second in Cy Young voting this season, but he only made his first-ever All Star team this season because injured Marco Estrada couldn’t participate.

And this postseason has been nothing if not one more opportunity for Kluber to prove to everyone that he’s as elite a player as any of the phenoms.

In five starts so far this postseason, Kluber has posted a 0.89 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9. He’s been even better in the World Series.

His first World Series performance was record-setting. Kluber struck out eight Cubs through the first three innings, the first time any pitcher had struck out that many batters through the first third of a World Series game. He returned to the mound for Game 4 on short rest and tossed a six-inning beauty before turning the ball over to Andrew Miller. Those two starts were good for a 0.75 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, and 15.00 K/BB.

If the series reaches Game 7, the ever-present, ever-dominant Kluber will be back on the mound for Cleveland, once again on three-days rest.

Kluber has been everything and more to Cleveland this postseason, but with Andrew Miller receiving all the attention and accolades, Kluber’s performances have once again slid under the radar. Something tells me that he likes it that way. It only serves as more kindling for the fire.

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Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Following his 2014 Cy Young campaign, Kluber signed a five-year, $38.5 million contract extension, with club options for 2020 and 2021, making him one of the most cost-efficient aces in the league. The Indians have Kluber locked up until he is 35 years young, and there are no signs that he’ll do anything but continue to prove wrong those who doubted him.

And although most of Cleveland’s starters have exceeded expectations and impressed during this postseason run, Kluber has been the rock the holds this rotation together. He has been the shut down ace that can dominate for six, seven, eight innings before turning the ball over to the Indians’ bullpen, even on short rest.

Kluber took a circuitous route to becoming one of the most dominant arms in baseball. He was not highly recruited or highly drafted. He was never a top-prospect in either of the farm system’s he rotated between for six, long seasons. But after years of being overlooked, he took what might have been his one legitimate opportunity to be a Major League pitcher and exceeded expectations in a way that not many pitchers have before him.

Corey Kluber is one of the league’s elite players, and no one should ever forget that.

Edited by Justin Peroff.

In what year did Corey Kluber make his Major League debut?
Created 10/31/16
  1. 2011
  2. 2009
  3. 2013
  4. 2007

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