Corey Kluber, Command, and Living on the Edge

77KluberBy: August Fagerstrom / @AugustF_MLB

At this point, there’s little doubt that if Corey Kluber isn’t the very best pitcher in the world, then he isn’t far from it. He’s established himself as one of the few hurlers in the game who is must-watch television every time he takes the mound, and it’s possible he’s still improving. Coming off an otherworldy second half of the 2014 season that earned him an American League Cy Young Award, all Kluber’s done is improve his strikeout, walk, home run, ground ball, and swinging strike rates, while adding about half a tick to his average fastball velocity.

Not that you need the numbers to understand what company Kluber surrounds himself with, but since the start of 2014, he leads all pitchers in WAR, with a full two wins separating him from the guy in third place. Only Clayton Kershaw boasts a better FIP than Kluber over that span.

It’s gotten to the point where it feels like we’ve run out of ways to talk about how good Kluber really is and what makes him so dominant, and if that’s the case, it means we’ve started to take him for granted. We should always avoid taking the truly remarkable for granted in life, so let’s find a new way to appreciate Corey Kluber.

* * *

A couple years back, over on FanGraphs.com, Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman started tracking something called Edge%, which is exactly what it sounds like. Using PITCHf/x data, they found all the pitches that were thrown to the edges of the strike zone, and how often each pitcher threw there.

It’s intuitive that the ability to repeatedly work around the edges and corners of the strike zone is a plus. If you have an understanding of baseball, you have an understanding of this concept. It isn’t necessarily a skill that all great pitchers need to have — some guys make their living by getting hitters to chase out of the zone, while others can get away with pounding the heart of the plate — but it’s something that serves as an indicator of a pitcher in command.

It’s also typically an indicator of a certain type of pitcher. Using Petti and Zimmerman’s data, I made a leaderboard of the 10 starting pitchers who have most often worked around the edges of the strike zone, since the start of the 2014 season:

  1. Phil Hughes, 32.9%
  2. Mark Buehrle, 29.8%
  3. David Price, 29.7%
  4. Nathan Eovaldi, 29.4%
  5. Bartolo Colon, 29.2%
  6. Jordan Zimmermann, 29.0%
  7. Corey Kluber, 28.9%
  8. Clayton Kershaw, 28.9%
  9. Wei-Yin Chen, 28.8%
  10. Madison Bumgarner, 28.7%

Up at the very top, we find two guys that I’d wager nobody reading this post is surprised to see. Hughes and Buehrle are two of the most prolific and notorious low velocity strike-throwers in baseball — guys who work around the edges by necessity. Joining them in that mold are friends Colon and Chen. And although Eovaldi and Zimmermann possess elite velocity, each tend to favor a more contact-oriented approach, not dissimilar from the Hughes’ and Chen’s of the world.

So, on this leaderboard, perhaps unsurprisingly are six of the game’s most effective contact pitchers. Six contact pitchers, in Hughes, Buehrle, Eovaldi, Colon, Zimmermann and Chen, and four of the most dominant pitchers on the entire planet, in Price, Bumgarner, Kershaw and Kluber.

Some pitchers are contact guys. Some pitchers are swing-and-miss guys. It’s when the swing-and-miss guys can pitch like the contact guys that you wind up with the best of the best. When the swing-and-miss guys can pitch like the contact guys, you find yourself a Clayton Kershaw or a Corey Kluber.

* * *

With that in mind, I wanted to do what I could to gain a sense of Kluber’s ability to command his pitches, and how he uses that ability to work around the edges to his advantage. Gauging a pitcher’s command can be a tough thing to do, because it’s not something that can be quantified, but, really, what else can we do here in our time on Earth but give everything our best effort?

Inspired, as I often am, by some previous work done by Jeff Sullivan, I took to the video of Kluber’s most recent start with the intent of creating some illuminating images. I decided I’d watch an inning of Kluber’s pitches, focusing on where the catcher’s glove was set, and where the pitch wound up. I picked an inning completely at random, the fourth, which ended up being a convenient inning to pick, because Kluber needed just eight pitches and I was making the images as I went along. Hooray for inadvertently saving time!

The events which transpired in the inning are as follows: Jay Bruce, double. Brayan Pena, fielder’s choice. Zack Cozart, groundout. Skip Schumaker, strikeout. Also, I feel it necessary to note that the pitch locations shown below each .gif were generated using BaseballSavant.com.

Let’s now attempt to learn something from just eight Corey Kluber pitches:

Pitch #1: 0-0 sinker

Kluber1

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Kluber and Perez begin the inning by setting up with a sinker, low and away, to Bruce. Kluber hits his spot, but the pitch’s seven inches of natural armside run carry it a bit out of the strike zone. This is, more or less, exactly what Kluber wanted to do with this pitch. If Bruce swings, it’s either a whiff or weak contact. If he doesn’t, Kluber either catches the corner of the plate or falls behind 1-0, which is far from the worst result in the world when Jay Bruce is leading off an inning against a righty.

Pitch #2: 1-0 cutter

Kluber2

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Here’s the one mistake pitch Kluber makes in the inning. Even Corey Kluber makes mistakes! After falling behind 1-0 to Bruce, Perez wants a cutter low and inside, on the part of the plate to which Kluber almost exclusively throws his cutter. It’s a comfort pitch for Kluber, the pitch he commands better than any other, but he leaves this one a bit up in the zone and, breaking into the barrel of Bruce’s bat, he sends it into right field for a double.

Pitch #3: 0-0 sinker

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Here, Kluber and Perez just want a sinker to go for a strike. With the leadoff man on base, they’re just looking for a quick out, and they get it here. The pitch starts out over the inner-third and runs towards the plate, jamming Pena as he weakly rolls over to first base. This is the second-biggest miss Kluber makes all inning, which is saying something, because he barely missed at all.

Pitch #4: 0-0 sinker

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Perfect pitch. Perez sets up for a sinker low-and-away and Kluber executes with remarkable precision. PITCHf/x thought the pitch was a strike, the home plate umpire didn’t. Doesn’t really matter. This is exactly where Kluber and Perez wanted this pitch to be.

Pitch #5: 1-0 sinker

Kluber5

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Another perfectly-commanded sinker. Perez essentially tells Kluber to throw the same pitch he threw last time, just a couple inches up so that if Cozart takes again, they actually get the call this time. Kluber starts the sinker outside the zone and runs it into the outer-third, and Cozart weakly grounds out to third.

Pitch #6: 0-0 sinker

Kluber6

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Nailed it. Perez sets up for a sinker on the outer half and Kluber puts it right where the glove is. Pretty similar to the first pitch of the inning. Schumaker reaches out and makes contact, but with the location and the movement, it’s an impossible pitch to square up. This ball, when contacted, almost never goes for a hit. Schumaker weakly fouls it off towards the Indians dugout and falls behind in the count.

Pitch #7: 0-1 curveball

Kluber7

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Enough with the contact stuff. Kluber has finally gotten ahead of a batter, and now it’s time to put him away. Perez sets up for a low curveball, and Kluber delivers. He probably wanted this pitch to be just a bit lower, but given the insane movement this pitch has, he’s got some room for error. Schumaker again fouls it off, and is quickly behind 0-2.

Pitch #8: 0-2 curveball

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You can ignore where Perez sets up here. On an 0-2 curveball to Skip Schumaker, the intent is clear. Perez helped make it clearer by motioning to Kluber before the pitch:

PerezDown

Where they wanted the curveball was in the dirt. Where they got the curveball was in the dirt. Skip Schumaker doesn’t stand a chance against this pitch. No hitter in baseball stands a chance against that pitch.

* * *

This has been an inning with Corey Kluber’s command. Kluber made eight pitches and recorded three pretty easy outs. He made one real mistake, and it turned into a double. Around that mistake are seven pitches that, more or less, were spotted perfectly every time. Kluber worked around the edges throughout the inning, keeping the ball down on almost every pitch while avoiding the heart of the plate.

I’m being completely honest with you when I say I chose this inning totally at random, with no prior knowledge of what Kluber might have done. It ended up being almost a perfect inning, and surely Kluber isn’t always this sharp, but that’s also kind of the point. Sometimes, when you choose a Corey Kluber inning at random, you wind up with an eight-pitch frame that somehow includes both an extra-base hit and a strikeout. Sometimes, you get an inning where he never misses his spot by more than a handful of inches on any given pitch. Given those two sentences alone, Kluber’s separated himself from the majority of pitchers in the world.

The movement on Kluber’s stuff is what allows him to pile up strikeouts and makes him one of the most aesthetically pleasing pitchers in the game to watch. That’s the obvious part. The command, like we saw in this inning, is what keeps his walk rates among the best in the league. The command is what allows him to consistently work deep into ballgames, which, by proxy, helps pile up the gaudy strikeout totals. The command is what allows Kluber to consistently work around the edges as well as almost any pitcher in baseball. The command is, perhaps, the underrated part of Kluber’s game, if he has one. The two put together — the command and the movement — is what makes Corey Kluber as dominant of a pitcher as this game has to offer.

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