Scouting Game Two of the ALDS: Corey Kluber

(Mark Brown/Getty)
(Mark Brown/Getty)

Three days ago, when Indians manager Terry Francona announced Corey Kluber would start Game Two of the ALDS rather than Game One, it seemed … questionable. Kluber is arguably the best pitcher in the league and you’d think they’d want to go with their best to start the series to try to get a quick lead. Instead, Trevor Bauer got the ball so Kluber could start Game Two and potentially Game Five on normal rest.

Now, following Game One, that move looks genius. Bauer was masterful in Game One last night, holding the Yankees to two hits in 6.2 innings, and the Indians now have a shot to take a two games to none series lead with Kluber on the mound this afternoon. The Yankees are in trouble. There’s no sugarcoating it. Kluber threw 203.2 innings with a 2.25 ERA (2.50 FIP) and hysterical strikeout (34.1%) and walk (4.6%) rates during the regular season. He’s a monster.

Of course, Kluber can be beat. He took four losses during the regular season and 13 times in his 29 starts he exited the game with the score tied or the Indians trailing. On three other occasions the Indians had a one-run lead when Kluber was pulled. Those are winnable games! The Yankees are probably going to need to employ the old Pedro Martinez strategy to win tonight — wait out Kluber and beat the bullpen. Let’s look at the Indians’ ace.

History Against The Yankees

Tonight will be Kluber’s eighth career start against the Yankees, and in those eight starts he has a 1.80 ERA (2.60 FIP) with a .185/.225/.326 batting line against in 50 innings. That includes two starts this season, in which he allowed three runs in 17 total innings. Kluber has thoroughly dominated the Yankees in his career.

Players currently on the Yankees’ ALDS roster have hit a combined .155/.204/.250 with a 28.0% strikeout rate in 157 career plate appearances against Kluber. That dates all the way back to his rookie season in 2011, however, before he went from Corey Kluber to Corey effin’ Kluber. Here’s how the Yankees have fared against Kluber the last three seasons, via Baseball Reference:

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Todd Frazier 24 22 3 0 0 0 2 2 8 .136 .208 .136 .345
Aaron Hicks 22 19 3 1 0 0 1 3 6 .158 .273 .211 .483
Brett Gardner 14 13 2 0 0 0 0 1 4 .154 .214 .154 .368
Didi Gregorius 13 13 2 1 0 0 0 0 2 .154 .154 .231 .385
Starlin Castro 12 12 2 0 0 0 0 0 3 .167 .167 .167 .333
Jacoby Ellsbury 12 11 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 .091 .167 .182 .348
Chase Headley 9 9 1 0 0 1 1 0 3 .111 .111 .444 .556
Gary Sanchez 9 9 2 1 0 1 2 0 4 .222 .222 .667 .889
Ronald Torreyes 6 6 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 .167 .167 .167 .333
Austin Romine 4 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Greg Bird 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0  .000 1.000  .000  1.000
Total 129 121 17 4 0 2 6 7 35 .140 .194 .223 .417

Now here’s how Yankees on the ALDS roster have fared against Kluber the last three seasons in meme form:

Noticeably absent from that table: Aaron Judge. He did not play in either of Kluber’s two starts against the Yankees this season, nor did he face him last year. Going into a postseason game having never seen Kluber is also not great, Bob.

Also, allow me to note Ellsbury is 5-for-19 (.263) with two doubles against Kluber in his career, which is probably why he is in today’s lineup. That is broken down into 4-for-8 from 2011-14 and 1-for-11 from 2015-17. Shrugs.

Pitch Selection

There are not too many pitchers in baseball who can match Kluber’s stuff. He is a five-pitch pitcher, though his straight four-seam fastball and fading changeup are distant fourth and fifth pitches. The sinker, slider, and cutter are his main three pitches. Here’s how one player described Kluber to Joel Sherman recently:

One frequent opponent likened Kluber to vintage Roy Halladay because “There is nothing straight. He doesn’t throw many four-seam fastballs. The ball darts both ways, and he is so precise that he can pitch to the quarter of the plate. You won’t get much over the middle of the plate. His cutter is so deceptive that guys come back over and over to the dugout saying they were right on the pitch, and then it was off their sweet spot.”

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Kluber’s pitch selection against right-handed and left-handed batters during the regular season:

corey-kluber-pitch-selection

When he’s ahead in the count, Kluber is going to try to put the hitter away with the slider, both righties and lefties. It’s so good he can use it against batters on both sides of the plate. For the most part, his pitch selection split is fairly small. Lots of sinkers, cutters, and sliders against everyone. A few more changeups against lefties, though not a ton.

Here is every pitch from Kluber’s three-hit shutout of the terrible White Sox — to be fair, Kluber makes just about everyone look terrible — back on April 21st:

I’m not sure how anyone ever gets a hit against this guy. You basically have to hope he makes a mistake. His pitcher’s pitches don’t get hit. If Kluber throws you a fastball, you don’t know if it’s a cutter or sinker until it’s about halfway to the plate, and by then your brain is already telling your arms to start swinging. If he throws you a slider, well, good luck.

Platoon Splits

Kluber does have a platoon split, but it is a small one, and he’s so damn good against righties that he’s starting from a very low baseline. He dominates lefties too, just not as much as righties. His 2017 numbers:

  • vs. RHB: .185/.218/.321 (.230 wOBA), 36.6%, 4.4 BB%
  • vs. LHB: .199/.255/.321 (.251 wOBA), 31.3 K%, 6.0 BB%

Great pitcher is great against hitters on both sides of the plate. News at 11.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

Yes! You need to get runners on base first and that’s a tall order, but opponents went 15-for-20 (75%) stealing bases against Kluber this season, and that’s with the great catch-and-throw tandem of Roberto Perez (43% caught stealing) and Yan Gomes (42%) behind the plate. Last season runners went only 4-for-11 (36%) stealing bases against Kluber, but the year before it was 16-for-23 (70%). I wonder what the fluctuation is about. Maybe just sample size?

I am generally anti-stolen base, especially early in the game — just let the game’s best home run hitting team swing the bat with men on base! — but if the Yankees have an opening with either Gardner or Ellsbury (or Hicks), it might be worth letting them try to steal. You can’t count on stringing together walks and base hits against Kluber. It’s a risk. No doubt. But sometimes you have to take risks to beat the best.

* * *

Against a pitcher like Kluber, a legitimate ace at the peak of his powers, there’s not a whole lot you can do other than a) hope he makes some mistakes, and b) try to work long at-bats to get him out of the game as quickly as possible. If he’s on, forget it. There won’t be much the Yankees can do, as defeatist as that sounds. Kluber can be beat. Absolutely. It’ll just take pretty much everything going right for the Yankees.

Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber, and the importance of Game One of the ALDS

Klubot. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)
Klubot. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty)

A few hours before the Yankees won last night’s Wild Card Game, Indians manager Terry Francona announced Trevor Bauer, not Corey Kluber, will start Game One of the ALDS tomorrow. Kluber is, by almost any measure, the best right-handed pitcher in the AL and the likely AL Cy Young winner. The Tribe are instead giving the ball to Bauer.

“We’re trying to get as much flexibility as we can. There are a lot of factors, but I think we set it up (well). We didn’t try to over-complicate it,” said Francona to Jordan Bastian. “I think for a number of reasons, it makes good sense … The biggest thing was keeping him on his five-day. That was really important to Kluber. That was really the only way we could do it.”

Long story short, the Indians are starting Bauer in Game One because they feel he is better equipped to come back on short rest in Game Four, if necessary. (It’ll be Josh Tomlin if they don’t bring Bauer back on short rest.) They don’t want to use Kluber on short rest (yet) after asking him to do it three times last postseason, including twice in the World Series. As it stands, he can now start Game Two and then Game Five on normal rest. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s talk out how this affects the Yanks.

1. It gives the Yankees a better chance to win Game One. This is very simple. Trevor Bauer is not as good as Corey Kluber, thus the Indians’ chances of winning Game One decrease while the Yankees’ chances of winning Game One increase. How much, exactly? Eh, that’s up for debate. But I’d rather face Bauer than Kluber in any game, let alone a postseason game, roughly a zillion times out of a zillion.

I love Francona as a manager, he’s the best in the business as far as I’m concerned, but I can’t help but wonder if he and the Indians are getting a little too cute here. In the LDS era, the team that wins Game One in the best-of-five series has gone on to win the series 71% of the time. I get the big picture view the Indians are taking, but geez, if this were the Yankees, I’d want them to just start the best pitcher in the league in Game One and try to take an early series lead. In the postseason, the most important game is always the next game on the schedule.

(Maddie Meyer/Getty)
Bauer. (Maddie Meyer/Getty)

2. Expect Bauer’s leash to be short tomorrow. As we saw last year, Francona is very aggressive with his bullpen in the postseason, and there’s no reason to think this year will be different. Should Bauer struggle early, it won’t be long before Andrew Miller starts warming up. And because the Indians have Kluber lined up for Game Two and can reasonably expect him to pitch deep into the game (because he’s so damn good), Francona might push his top relievers a little more than usual in Game One, knowing he probably won’t need them as much in Game Two.

Point is, the Yankees are going to have to capitalize on Francona’s decision to start Bauer over Kluber in Game One by actually scoring runs against Bauer, before he gets the hook and bullpen comes into play. Bauer faced the Yankees twice during the regular season, both times in the second half, and allowed two runs in 13 innings. If he does something like that again, the Yankees are in trouble. The bullpen will ready to go at a moment’s notice.

3. Game One is basically a must win. No, it is not a literal win or go home must win, but the Yankees do not want to be down 1-0 in the series with Kluber lined up for Game Two. That’s a good recipe for a quick 2-0 series deficit. Even with Chad Green and David Robertson presumably available for Game Two, facing Kluber down in the series is a tough assignment. Every postseason game is important, and that is especially true when trying to avoid having your back up against the wall against a guy like Kluber.

4. It’s gonna rain Friday. The current weather forecast calls for rain pretty much all day in Cleveland on Friday, meaning Game Two might get postponed. Should that happen, the game would be played Saturday, during the scheduled off-day, and Games Two through Four would be played three consecutive days. That’ll screw up each team’s bullpen deployment a bit. It’s also ruin the whole “start Kluber on regular rest in Game Five” plan. If Game Two gets rained out and he has to pitch Saturday instead, Kluber would have to start Game Five on short rest. Hmmm.

* * *

Joe Torre used to say Game Two was the biggest game of the series because you had a chance to go up 2-0 or down 0-2, and that’s why he always started Andy Pettitte in Game Two. He trusted Andy. Of course, that’s easy to say when you have David Cone or David Wells or Rogers Clemens or Mike Mussina to start Game One, not Trevor Bauer. But that’s pretty much the approach the Indians are taking. They’re starting their best in Game Two.

With Kluber looming, the Yankees don’t want to lose Game One and fall behind in the series. They don’t want to lose Game One and fall behind in the series no matter who is pitching Game Two, but with Kluber set to pitch that game, if feels like there’s even more urgency to win Game One. It does to me, anyway. Hopefully the decision to start Bauer backfires and the Yankees can pick up a Game One win against a pitcher not as good as Kluber. If they do that, suddenly it’ll be Kluber on the mound feeling that urgency in Game Two.