Yankees’ Corey Kluber battles command in first start vs. Blue Jays

NEW YORK — During an offseason in which they needed two starters behind ace Gerrit Cole, the Yankees went with upside over reliability. Most notably, they acquired Jameson Taillon in a five-player trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Taillon has not pitched in an MLB game since May 2019 because of his second career Tommy John surgery. He’ll make his 2021 debut next week.

The Yankees also beat out several clubs to sign two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber. Injuries ranging from bad luck (line drive broke his forearm) to annoying (strained abdominal) to worrisome (shoulder muscle tear) limited Kluber to 36 2/3 innings the last two seasons. He worked out for teams in January and the Yankees signed him soon thereafter to a one-year, $11 million contract.

“We expect him to be a really good pitcher for us. Hopefully, he can go out and have the start to a really strong season for us,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said prior to Kluber’s season debut Saturday. ‘We think he’s a guy that we’re going to hopefully be able to lean on in some very big games. Feel really good about the winter he’s had. Feel really good about the spring training he’s had and his build up to this moment, to this point. Excited to see him go out and kick off his season today.”

Kluber’s season debut was far from vintage Kluber, as he battled poor fastball command and ran some long counts against a very good Toronto Blue Jays lineup in his team’s eventual win (NYY 5, TOR 3). He contributed to a gift run in the third inning with two walks and a wild pitch, then gave up a solo home run to Marcus Semien in the fifth inning on a fastball that leaked back over the plate.

“I thought Corey threw the ball well. Pretty easy first couple innings there, then had to extend himself there. Had that stretch there were he lost the zone a little bit,” Boone said following the game. “… I thought overall it was another good step for him.”

The misplaced fastball to Semien was Kluber’s 74th and final pitch of the afternoon. The Yankees intend to ease their non-Cole starters into action following the short 2020 season, so Boone did not let Kluber face the middle of the lineup a third time. He walked three in four innings, hit a batter, and went to a three-ball count on three other hitters. Kluber fought his command all afternoon.

“It was fun to get back out there and have a chance to compete with the boys,” Kluber said. “All in all, I made pitches when I needed to. For the most part when there was traffic out there, I was able to make pitches … Obviously there was a couple situations where the guys turned some big double plays behind me to get rid of the traffic.”

When he needed to make a pitch, Kluber leaned on his trademark breaking ball, so much so that he threw more breaking balls (22) than sinkers (20). Here are Kluber’s fastball locations Saturday. Elevated four-seam fastballs are all the rage these days. Elevated sinkers and cutters though? No. This is not where Kluber wanted to locate.

Corey Kluber consistently missed location with his fastballs Saturday.
Baseball Savant

“Today, I feel like we were on the same page,” catcher Gary Sanchez said following the game. “He’s a veteran. He has a lot of experience pitching in this league. He knows how to get out of jams like that. To be behind the plate and having him pitch, it’s easy (to catch). We want to keep working together and keep that rhythm going, and keep executing.”

Even at his peak, Kluber was not overpowering. He instead relied on precision and an ability to miss the barrel, and his 5.1 percent walk rate was among the lowest in baseball. That precision has not been evident yet in 2021. Kluber walked seven batters (and hit three others) in 13 innings in spring training, when walked three (and hit one) in four innings in his first regular season start.

That Kluber escaped Saturday’s start with only two runs (one earned) allowed is thanks in part to his defense (the Yankees turned two double plays behind him) and also thanks to the quality of his stuff. For example, he expertly backdoored three breaking balls to strike out Rowdy Tellez to end the second inning.

“The movement on all his pitches, it’s amazing,” Sanchez added “… There are going to be things we want to improve, of course. It was great to catch him and I want to keep that rhythm going.”

Kluber’s command issues could be attributed to many things. Age, for example. Father Time comes for everyone. Also, injuries limited Kluber to 36 2/3 innings the last two years, so he simply may need some more time to get right. It should also be noted Kluber is a slow starter. During his 2014-18 peak, he had a 3.70 ERA and a 4.4 K/BB in April compared to a 2.67 ERA and a 5.8 K/BB in all other months.

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I’m certain they’d tell you they’re not expecting 2014-18 Kluber. That’s unrealistic at this point in his career, coming off two injury-riddled seasons. The Yankees do believe Kluber can be an above-average starter who makes postseason starts for them, however. He didn’t look like that guy Saturday, though he’s healthy and his velocity is where it needs to be. Kluber just needs to iron out his command, which the Yankees will hope comes as he accrues innings.

“That’s one of the aspects of missing time, so to speak, is you can’t account for. The emotional side of it, the ups and down of it,” Kluber said about getting back on a mound after a lost 2020 season. “… I think you have to rely on experience and what worked for you in the past.”

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