How the Cubs Can Charm Corey Kluber the Third Time They Face Him
Corey Kluber has been really good this postseason. Like, 4-1 with a 0.89 ERA and 0.99 WHIP in 5 starts good. In 12 innings over a pair of World Series starts against the Cubs, the former (maybe future) AL Cy Young winner has allowed just a single run on nine hits while striking out 15 and walking just one batter. Kluber was masterful in Game 1, working his two-seam fastball for called strikes all night long. He was tagged early in Game 4, but buckled down and shut the Cubs down for the most part.
So what can we expect from Game 7 and how can the Cubs turn things around? Let’s see.
By all accounts, Kluber is an excellent pitcher. He primarily utilizes a four-pitch mix (two-seam*, slider, curve, four-seam), with a change thrown in for good measure. His pitches have good life and he changes velocity to keep hitters off balance, which we’ve seen all too much of in two games thus far. But Kluber is very beatable and the Cubs are going to have to get to him right out of the gate lest they be faced with the prospect of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen pitching with a lead for multiple innings.
As is often the case with starting pitchers, they become more fallible as opposing hitters get more looks at them. While Kluber has a 3.09 ERA in both the 1st and 2nd innings this season, it spikes to 4.55 in the 3rd. It’s not as though there’s some magical barrier he passes through that strips him of his ability for that lone frame, just that guys are getting more looks at him. Considering that there were a couple baserunners in the early innings, the 3rd would usually see him facing the bottom of the order and then turning over to the top for the second time.
The stats appear to show that Kluber really gets settled by the 4th, as he’s posted a 1.19 ERA in that inning here in 2016. He then goes to 2.79 and 4.38 in the 5th and 6th innings, which might explain why he’s pitched as many as 7 frames only once in five postseason starts. It must be noted here that some of these numbers can be skewed by a really bad performance or two throughout the season, but I think they speak to how the Cubs need to attack their opponent Wednesday night.
Kluber has gone as many as 8 innings in only one of his last 15 starts, including the playoffs, and there’s no way Terry Francona is going to leave Miller and/or Allen on the shelf even if his starter is looking good. That means the Cubs are going to want to jump out early, which actually means being patient…to an extent. The Cubs took as many first-pitch balls (7) in Game 4 as they did in the opener, but they also took 50% more called first strikes (9 to 6).
Not that scoring a single run is going to get this done, but they were able to get on the board first against a pitcher who came into the game with a decidedly different approach than he had the first time around. Kluber leaned mainly on the two-seam and curve in that first game, throwing them 28 and 27 times (of 88 total), respectively. As expected, the slider was used 19 times and the four-seam and change 10 and 4 times.
When he took the mound in Chicago, however, Kluber pretty much scrapped the straight stuff and went with his three key pitches almost exclusively. He threw only one four-seamer and no changeups to 24 batters Saturday night while more than doubling his typical curveball usage. The curve made up 35 of his 81 pitches (43.2%), with the two-seam (29 pitches, 35.8%) getting a little more play and the slider (16, 19.8%) staying pretty much static.
Having Kyle Schwarber batting in the two-hole will change that strategy a bit, though I think we’ll see Kluber hew closely to the Game 4 plan. It’s not a bad thing for Cubs hitters to see a few pitches, but they’re going to have to be ready to pounce on mistakes just like we saw them do against Josh Tomlin Tuesday night. While Kluber is obviously a different animal, he’s also going for the second straight time on short rest and has given up some really solid contact that happened to find gloves.
Major league hitters often prefer to sit fastball and get fooled by breaking stuff rather than the other way around, but the Cubs are going to need to stay out of that mentality Wednesday night. Of the 45 first pitches Kluber has thrown, 19 have been curveballs and 17 have been two-seamers. Look for that trend to continue, though with the latter maybe getting heavier usage and the slider jumping up there as well. Even if he backs off the first-pitch curve, Kluber’s going to spin it a lot.
Kris Bryant’s homer against Tomlin’s curve may have put a bit of a wrinkle in the way Kluber attacks him specifically, as the MVP has seen 14 benders out of the 25 pitches he’s faced. Even so, the Indians ace has shown more than enough confidence in that pitch to continue leaning on it heavily. We really saw that in how he used it against lefties. While he gave them the hook only nine times in 53 pitches (16.99%) in Game 1, he got more confident in it in the later innings (5 of first 42 pitches, 4 of last 11).
Then he utilized the curve 14 times in 41 pitches to lefties in Game 4, a trend the Cubs are going to have to look out for. When Kluber’s got that two-seamer really working, it looks as though it’s coming in on a lefty hitter’s hip and then it darts over the plate. The curve, however, tends to bend in the opposite direction, coming down and in to lefties. If you get caught looking for one, the other is going to burn you.
A really good pitcher can manipulate the break and location of his curve, though, so a hitter can’t just sit on one spot. Kluber does generally stay down and in to lefties, but he’s also got a tendency to spike a few in the dirt and even leave some up in the zone. If he does indeed go to that well often enough, he’s liable to hang a few.
It’s imperative that the Cubs hitters, particularly those at the bottom of the order, stay calm and sit back. That’s easier said than done, but I’d love to see more guys sit on the curve and then try to go oppo if they end up getting a fastball. Rather than play a guessing game, the Cubs need to take what they’re given and just keep putting bat to ball. They haven’t shown the ability to do that against Corey Kluber yet in the series, though their confidence is riding high after two straight wins.
Because we’re probably looking at a 5-inning max for Cleveland’s starter tonight, it would be really nice if the Cubs could just ambush him. If he’s allowed to get comfortable and get a feel for his stuff, things could get dicey. After seeing just about everything their opponent has to offer, I believe the Cubs will indeed be able to get to him in Game 7.
Kluber may still have a few tricks up his sleeve, though, and I could see him changing the strategy from his previous two starts. Still, I’ve got a feeling that he’s going to make a few more mistakes than what we’ve seen from him thus far and that the Cubs’ revamped lineup will exploit them.
So strap in, folks, it’s gonna get wild.
*MLB Gameday calls it a sinker, but whatever