It is with the permission and endorsement of the founder of the Corey Kluber Society, Carson Cistulli, that I urge you to buy low on Corey Kluber. Right now. He is scheduled to pitch this Saturday at home versus the Blue Jays, a neutral offense based on wRC+ so far this season. With only three starts to date, any solid start could have a dramatic impact on his 5.40 ERA. I think it will start with this one.
You probably don’t need the Society to tell you to buy low on pitchers with atypically high BABIPs this early in the season. Cliff Lee has a .431 BABIP, and his ERA will likely drop from 5.50. Homer Bailey has a .429 BABIP, and his ERA will likely drop from 8.16. Kluber is fourth on that list—behind Lee, Bailey, and Madison Bumgarner, who has still managed to keep his ERA in check despite a .440 BABIP—with a .411 BABIP. Kluber’s 8.64 strikeouts and 1.62 walks per nine innings are in line with his 8.31 and 2.02 rates from last year when he carried a 3.85 ERA for the season. In fact, Kluber’s 3.31 FIP is almost identical to his 3.30 FIP from 2013. It stands to reason that his ERA will fall in line if he continues to pitch this way.
Kluber is not unusual as a victim of the small-sample madness of the first few weeks of the new season. However, I do think circumstances have conspired to make him particularly vulnerable, and those circumstances have just improved.
To date, only the Minnesota Twins have been worse defensively in the outfield than the Indians based on the combined Defensive Runs Saved totals of the three outfield positions. The Indians have lost eight runs in the outfield, and almost all of it has been the result of Nyjer Morgan and Michael Brantley in center field. Morgan, specifically, has already cost them five runs in just eight games. That is tied for the worst total in baseball.
Having a terrible defensive outfield is a problem for Kluber because he allows a lot of flyballs. In fact, Kluber has been in the top five of qualified starters in both flyball rate and BABIP this season. I believe those two facts are related.
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There are several reasons a pitcher could allow an atypical BABIP in a handful of starts, but I don’t think it is coincidence that Kluber has had terrible outfield defense and allowed a high BABIP and Aaron Harang has had a tremendous outfield defense and allowed a low BABIP.
The reason I think things are about to get a lot better for Kluber is the return of Michael Bourn. Bourn played his first game of the year yesterday following a hamstring injury that put him on the DL to start the season. Over the last five years, Bourn has saved his teams 65 runs in center field. That is tied with Jason Heyward for the fourth-highest total among players at all positions. It is only one run shy of Carlos Gomez’s outfield-leading total. The Indians may well be replacing the worst center field defender in baseball with the best one.
The early numbers have been unkind, but Kluber has answered his breakout 2013 season with similar peripherals so far in 2014. With Michael Bourn back to stabilize his defensive outfield, the results should start to reflect the excellent pitcher Kluber is.
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Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt