Something Was Off with Kluber, Cleveland’s Stars

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CLEVELAND — In a spartan, fluorescent-lit conference room adjacent to the home clubhouse of Progressive Field sat Corey Kluber early this morning. The night before, he’d started — and lost — Game 5 of the ALDS to the Yankees. It was clear as Kluber pitched on Wednesday that something wasn’t right. It hadn’t been right in his Game 2 start on Friday, either.

Surrounded by a swelled press corps containing local and national reporters, he was asked what was wrong, what had gone wrong. Inevitably, the topic of his health arose. Despite producing a Cy Young-caliber season, Kluber had also visited the DL from May 2 to June 1 with a back strain.

By the end of the series against New York, Kluber had allowed nine earned runs and 13 baserunners — including four home runs — in 6.1 innings over two starts. Two of the home runs he’d conceded were off his curveball. He’d allowed only two homers off the curve all season, a sample of 811 pitches.

After a remarkable second half, after an outstanding 2016 postseason, Kluber inexplicably produced two clunkers in the playoffs, his two worst — and briefest — outings since coming off the disabled list on June 1.

Kluber typically doesn’t miss his location like this, letting the ball drift into a hitter’s sweet spot:

“I don’t feel like I need to get into details right now,” Kluber told reporters after Game 5. “I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch.”

Minutes earlier, down a corridor in another conference room, Terry Francona had been asked about Kluber’s back. “You know what? I think he’s fighting a lot,” Francona responded. “I think you have to respect the fact that guy wants to go out there and he’s our horse.”

Something was off with Kluber. Yankees GM Brian Cashman saw it, too.

At least we knew something was off with Stephen Strasburg before he started on Wednesday. As for Kluber, it seemed obvious that he wasn’t himself, but why? If the Indians had received a typical Kluber outing, they might very well be hosting the Astros in the ALCS on Friday

Something was off by the eye test — and the pitch-tracking metrics. Kluber’s velocity didn’t drop in the postseason, but his release point did.

Between the point at which Kluber returned from the DL on June 1 through the end of the regular season, his average vertical release point was 5.34 feet, according to Statcast data via Baseball Savant. That mark dropped to 5.25 feet in the postseason.

Consider the following visuals. First from that regular-season period:

And then from the playoffs:

Of course, it wasn’t just Kluber who had a tough series. Other of Cleveland’s stars had down performances.

Francisco Lindor was 2-for-18 in the series, Jose Ramirez was 2-for-20, and Edwin Encarnacion was 0-for-7.

Sabermetics and Statistics 101 both caution us not to make too much of small samples. On the game’s most important stage, though, in its postseason, small samples are all that matter. And those small samples also come after the endurance test that is the regular season. It’s difficult to win against quality opposition if a club’s stars don’t perform in that setting.

And what’s interesting about Cleveland’s stars is that no team — at least, no playoff team — leaned more heavily upon their stars.

Of the 15 pitchers to reach 200 innings this season, the Indians had two, Kluber, and Carlos Carrasco. The Red Sox (Chris Sale and Rick Porcello) and the Nationals (Gio Gonzalez and Max Scherzer) also had two pitchers reach 200 innings among playoff teams.

What’s notable, though, is that Kluber reached the 200-inning threshold despite missing a month of the season. While he was excellent upon his return, he was also worked heavily.

From June 1 to Oct. 1, Kluber led baseball in innings pitched, with 166.1. The next closest mark? Justin Verlander‘s 138.

While Kluber’s excellent September gave no indication that anything was wrong, or was going to be wrong, pitchers are fickle beasts. They’re fine until they’re not fine. He reached at least 110 pitches five times in August and September.

Indians reliever Bryan Shaw tied for the MLB lead with Peter Moylan with 79 appearances.

Among their position players, the Indians have three players who ranked among the top 25 in plate appearances. Lindor finished second in baseball with 723, Encarnacion finished 24th with 669, and Carlos Santana finished 25th with 667. Ramirez finished 42nd with 645 plate appearances.

By comparison, the Dodgers didn’t have a single player among the top 50. Corey Seager was the top-ranking Dodger with 613 plate appearances spread over 145 games. He missed several days in June with a hamstring ailment, but he avoided the DL. Among Dodger pitchers, only Clayton Kershaw threw more than 152 innings.

The Astros have only one player in the top 50 of plate appearances, Jose Altuve with 662. The Cubs had two — Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant — as did the Yankees with Brett Gardner (682, ranking 14th) and Aaron Judge (678, ranking 18th).

The Indians had the third-best (lowest) out-of-zone swing rate in the majors in 2017 (28.9%) and it ticked up in the ALDS (31.5%), so it’s not as though they totally abandoned their strenghts. But did a season’s worth of wear and tear, of chasing history (a 22-game winning streak that ended in mid-September), and a No. 1 seed create some type of fatigue? It’s hard to know. And no one should have a better idea than a professional strength-and-conditioning staff.

Part of the heavy usage is because the Indians’ bench has been one of the thinnest areas on an otherwise outstanding team the last two seasons. That was complicated this year, too, Cleveland having dealt with injuries to position players like Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Bradley Zimmer.

The Indians sorely missed Guyer’s lefty-mashing ways Wednesday night.

In the eighth inning Wednesday, Franona elected to hit Jason Kipnis and Giovanny Urshela against Aroldis Chapman. Given the matchups, the Indians had little chance that inning, but the bench options were less than ideal: the lefty-batting Brantley and Chisenhall, back-up catcher Yan Gomes, reserve infielder Erik Gonzalez, or rookie Greg Allen.

The Indians played their stars in part because they had to, because they were thin, because they were chasing major-league history, and perhaps also for secondary considerations like individual accolades. Kluber, for example, earns significant bonus money for a Cy Young award.

The Indians also leaned upon their stars because their stars want to play.

I wrote about the heavy workloads several times for The Athletic this season. Said Lindor to this author in May:

“Tito [Francona] knows. He tries to give me off days,” Lindor said. “But there are times when I don’t feel like I need an off day. He’s awesome. He gives me the freedom to decide if not today, two days from now.”

Lindor and Ramirez had peaked during the win streak and had begun to cool entering October.

We’re in an age where there is a heightened focus on injury prevention and increased performance efficiency through better rest and nutrition practices.

When the NBA’s Golden State Warriors reduced their star’s playing time and their efficiency went up two years ago, some in the sporting world took notice. In the majors, the Dodgers have spread the burden of innings and plate appearances across a deep roster. If the Indians had been deeper, had been fresher, had learned on their stars less, would it have mattered? It’s hard to say. Ultimately, every team that enters the postseason has greater odds of returning home early than finishing as World Series champions. The Indians won 102 games. They did a lot of things well. It was one of the best campaigns in club history. But the postseason cares little for what a team did a month earlier.

Perhaps the Indians’ demise could have been delayed, perhaps they would still be playing if they were a little deeper, a little fresher, having not relied upon their stars so heavily.

What we do know is that we didn’t see the Indians at their best, at peak performance, in October. We saw that in September. And now a special regular season, including a record 22-game winning streak, is merely a historical footnote.


12 October 2017 | 8:59 pm

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