Work ethic drives Kluber to succeed
Middling minor-leaguer has turned himself into one of sport’s top pitchers
CLEVELAND— In May 2012, the Big 10 baseball tournament at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, forced the Triple-A Columbus Clippers to move Corey Kluber’s regular bullpen session to the indoor mound below the stands of their home stadium. And there, hidden from the daylight, on another mundane day in another unspectacular season for another unmemorable right-handed minorleague pitcher, Kluber, then 26, heard these fateful words from his pitching coach:
“We want you to try throwing a two-seamer.”
Ruben Niebla, the pitching coach, showed Kluber his preferred twoseam fastball grip and, Niebla recalled this week, Kluber’s first try with the new pitch swept through the strike zone. Do it again, Niebla told Kluber. “And he did it again.” Now try throwing it to the catcher’s glove-side, Niebla told him. “And he dotted it on the corner.”
Two days later in Syracuse, when Kluber made his next start, the new pitch was part of his repertoire. By the end of Kluber’s 6 2/3-inning performance in a 7-1 win, Niebla sidled up to Clippers manager Mike Sarbaugh and said, “We might have something here. I think Corey is really figuring it out.”
By August 2012, the Cleveland Indians had called Kluber — with his career minor-league record of 45-50 and ERA of 4.40 — up to the big leagues. By midseason of 2013, he was an established part of the Indians’ rotation. By the end of 2014, he was the American League Cy Young Award winner. By the end of 2016, he was a folk hero in Cleveland, after starting on short rest three times during the Indians’ memorable run to the World Series.
And by the time he takes the mound for his next start Sunday, Kluber, 31, will have been a central figure in the most dominant stretch of baseball any team has compiled in more than100 years — with the Indians entering the weekend having 22 straight games.
Though he was also the last Indians pitcher to suffer a loss before the launch of the streak — a 6-1 defeat to Boston on Aug. 23 — he has been virtually untouchable during its course, going 4-0 with a 1.41 ERA and 35 strikeouts against two walks in 32 innings, while limiting opposing hitters to a .170/.184/.304 slash line.
Since coming off the disabled list June 1, he has gone 13-4 with a 1.77 ERA and may have caught, if not surpassed, Boston’s Chris Sale in the AL Cy Young race.
Kluber’s work ethic and betweenstarts preparation are legendary around the Indians, to the point where the team has assigned a group of its youngest prospects to follow him around for a few days to do nothing but observe him. Those traits are ones he has possessed as far back as anyone can remember.
“He’s not a very loud guy,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “But his leading by example is impeccable.
Indians closer Cody Allen, who was Kluber’s teammate in Columbus during that fateful 2012 season, said while Kluber has transformed himself as a pitcher, he is exactly the same person as the one who struggled as a middling prospect.
“The only difference between then and now,” Allen said, “is he figured a couple things out. The way he prepares and the way he carries himself is the exact same as it was five years ago. He just identified what worked for him as a pitcher and he worked really hard at perfecting his craft.”