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There haven’t been many AL starting pitchers as consistent the last three seasons as Corey Kluber. He’s topped 210 innings all three times, had K/9 of 9.5 or higher, had WHIPs below 1.10, FIPs under 3.30, ERAs under 3.5, HR/9 under 1.0, and SwStr% over 12%. All those things put him in great company and make him a very valuable fantasy asset.
However, he might be showing his age and beginning his decline. He’ll be 31 in 2017 and there are some not-so-good signs lurking in his 2016 numbers. Is it enough to lower his 2017 draft value? Let’s find out.
Let’s start with the numbers that look bad. His 2016 FIP of 3.26 and xFIP of 3.50 were his worst since 2012. His K% (26.4%) was the lowest since 2013 and his BB% of 6.2% was his highest since 2011. His hard hit % was a three-year high, but just by fractions of a % so it’s not a big deal. Finally, his first-strike % was a three-year low at 62.4%.
I should point out that his 2016 ERA was better than 2015, primarily, I believe, due to a drop in BABIP. His BABIP allowed went from 0.297 to 0.271. The Indians team BABIP allowed was 0.288 and 0.288, so their defense was about the same. Kluber was just a little lucky in 2016 after being unlucky in 2015.
What could have caused those bad 2016 numbers? Let’s start with velocity.
It looks like his velocity was right in line with his 2013 and 2015 marks, so no issues there. I checked his horizontal and vertical movement graphs, and there wasn’t much change there.
However, take a look at this vertical release point graph. It has dropped slightly each of the last three seasons. Perhaps this is a minor mechanical issue that is causing worse performance or maybe it is just a coincidence, but I thought it was worth noting.
His horizontal and vertical pitch locations haven’t changed much, however. He did throw breaking balls more often than (almost) ever before in 2016.
Unfortunately for me, his breaking balls weren’t hit any harder than usual, so that doesn’t explain anything. What about Statcast exit velocity and pitch location data? What does that say?
The first chart below is from 2015 and the second is 2016. Notice how many more 92 mph+ squares there are in 2016. They are all located in the lower left and middle of the zone.
Is this due to pitching differently in terms of location? Well, not really (2015 heat map followed by 2016).
So, we’ve found nothing definitive yet to show why he had a worse FIP and xFIP in 2016 than in previous years. His walk rate went up a little, due partially to a drop in first-pitch strikes, but that’s about it. To further cement the case that 2016 was not a sign of worse things to come, I give you his rank among all MLB starters in average fly ball and line drive exit velocity: 22. That’s right, only 21 were better. Of those 21, many are the names you would expect: Kyle Hendricks, Yu Darvish, Kenta Maeda, and Jon Lester.
Despite those exit velocity zone profiles I showed above, overall, he’s not giving up harder contact lately. Kluber remains in good company in terms of limiting hard contact and limiting contact in general (his 12.6% SwStr% in 2016 was 6th among qualified starters). His IFFB% did take a dip from 8% to 6% last year, so that’s fewer free outs, but it’s hard to know if the 6% will carry over into 2017, since his pitch locations didn’t really change.
Taking all this together, it seems Kluber’s FIP and xFIP declines were the result of a small uptick in BB% and a small downtick in IFFB% and not the result of any real changes to his mechanics or health. I want to keep an eye on his declining vertical release point, but that’s just a precaution at this point. He was his usual self otherwise and doesn’t show signs of decline just yet.
As long as his two-seamer is still getting ground balls and looking strikes to get ahead of batters with 92+ mph velocity, he will be fine. Why? Because he has that nasty breaking ball that is just as hard to hit now as it was three years ago and his top-of-the-scale command of a sinker, four-seam, change, slider, and curve (most of which get above average swinging strike rates).
212 IP, 3.20 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 3.25 xFIP, 1.07 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 6% BB%
Basically more of the same. He’s not old enough yet to start the decline phase since he’s not a pitcher that relies on high velocities to get hitters out. He should age well as long as injuries don’t crop up. He should still be one of the first five AL starters off the draft board just behind Darvish and Sale, and probably ahead of Verlander, Archer, Price, and Sanchez. Tschus!