MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Kluber's run thrusts him into awards contention

Kluber's run thrusts him into awards contention

CLEVELAND -- People with the Indians say Corey Kluber was angry and even a tad embarrassed when he had to go on the disabled list in early May. It could be that he was upset that the mere presence of lower back trouble was the first public proof in several years that Kluber is, in fact, a man and not a cyborg sent from baseball's future to terrorize opposing batters. More likely, Kluber was simply frustrated that his 5.06 ERA and minor physical troubles were playing right into the "November hangover" narrative that naturally accompanied his huge postseason, which included three starts on short rest.

Anyway, it's laughable now to look back at Kluber's early-season travails, because, since his June 1 return, he has been a man (or bot) on a mission -- a mission that will continue with Tuesday night's 7:10 p.m. ET start at Progressive Field against the Rockies.

The numbers since Kluber came back are amazing and probably enough to thrust Kluber into the offseason awards discussion, despite the April statistical sag and the lost month of May:

12 starts
86 1/3 innings pitched
1.77 ERA
.172/.216/.272 opponents' slash
131 strikeouts
15 walks
2 complete games

Kluber is on a run right now that has put him in some rare company. Randy Johnson (four times), Pedro Martinez (twice) and Nolan Ryan (once) are the only other pitchers to have at least eight strikeouts in at least 12 consecutive starts. Despite missing a month, Kluber trails only Chris Sale (6.5) and Max Scherzer (4.5) in FanGraphs WAR (4.4) and only Sale (216), Scherzer (201) and Chris Archer (182) in K's (172).

So you could say Kluber certainly adjusted within the context of this 2017 season. What began looking like a year of regression has instead been progression. Kluber's 167 ERA+ is not only higher than his league-leading 145 mark of a season ago, it's also higher than his 160 mark from his American League Cy Young Award-winning season of 2014.

For Kluber, though, the adjustment comes also in smaller, less noticeable samples. In his complete-game win over the Yankees last Thursday, for instance, he threw his four-seam fastball 28.3 percent of the time -- more than double his typical use of that particular pitch (12.5 percent).

The Yankees didn't know what hit them, and that's why they didn't really hit them. They went 0-for-6 on four-seamers put in play and took 15 of the 30 Kluber threw (seven for called strikes).

"Everybody talks about his two-seam and curveball," catcher Yan Gomes said afterward. "He'll still put guys away with his curveball, because that's something that we're going to do, but getting ahead with the four-seamer, especially against some of their good lefties, you don't expect that from a guy that usually doesn't throw them very often."

Kluber on complete-game win

Because of his trust in his arsenal and his ability to read batters early in games, Kluber is not predictable. The result is this very counterintuitive look at how batters fare against Kluber as the games goes on:

First time through the order: .183/.228/.340, 7.25 K/BB
Second time through the order: .255/.306/.396, 5.40 K/BB
Third time through the order: .164/.200/.281, 8.67 K/BB

Somehow, Kluber is better the third time you face him than he is the first or second. Among those with at least 100 opponent at-bats the third time through the order this season, only Scherzer (.480) has yielded a lower OPS than Kluber (.485) in those situations.

"When he was on that run in the midst of getting to that Cy Young [in 2014], he would go fastballs -- I remember one time he got to the ninth batter without ever throwing a breaking ball," Terry Francona said. "Now the league starts making adjustments, and you'll see him break out his breaking ball early, an occasional changeup to the right hitter. It's not that he remade himself, but he's adjusting also. You face these teams over and over, and that's what's most impressive."

We like to have some fun with the whole "Klubot" mystique, but Francona said there's truth to the talking point.

"He never looks tired," Francona said. "I'm sure he is, but he works so hard so that he doesn't give anything away. And he can get upset, but he's pretty stoic. I think it serves him well, because I don't think other teams know when he's upset."

They also don't know what's coming. And three months ago, when Kluber's body and numbers were both ailing, it would have been hard to see his current season stat line coming.

That's the beauty of it.

"Every year," Gomes said, "he seems to surprise everyone."

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.