When the New York Yankees signed Corey Kluber to a one-year contract in January, they did so hoping he would return to his 2014-18 Cy Young form, but understanding that pitcher may be too far gone at age 35 and after two injury-riddled seasons. If he could eat up innings at a league-average rate, they'd take, but Kluber's pedigree suggested he had more to give.
"(We) can't dismiss there's risk," GM Brian Cashman said during a Zoom call with reporters following the Kluber signing. "But we did as much due diligence as we possibly could in terms of the medical evaluations.''
Nine starts into the 2021 season, Kluber looks more like vintage Corey Kluber than some league-average innings eater. He's sitting on a 2.86 ERA and holding opponents to a .215/.301/.315 batting line. On Wednesday night,, his former team, for MLB's sixth no-hitter of the year. It was the Yankees' first no-hitter since David Cone's perfect game in 1999.
Kluber was masterful throughout, striking out nine and limiting the Rangers to only two balls in play with better than a 50/50 chance of becoming a hit according to Statcast's expected batting average metric. Most no-hitters feature at least one highlight reel defensive play to keep the no-hitter alive, but this one did not. Texas didn't make it hard on New York's defense.
"For some reason, it popped in my head the first inning. I'm not kidding you," Boone told reporters, including MLB.com's Jordan Horrobin, about Kluber's no-hitter. "I found myself, in the last two innings, every ball that was hit you think it's destined to be a hit when it's probably not. I think just because you're probably a little bit more emotional in the moment."
As good as he was Wednesday night and as good as he's been this season overall, Kluber did start the year slowly. His first four starts left you wondering how much he had left in the tank, and whether the injuries of the last two years sapped his ability to be an elite starter. Kluber's last five starts, however, have been dominant.
First 4 starts
Last 5 starts
Kluber is a slow starter historically (during his 2014-18 peak, he had a 3.70 ERA in April and a 2.67 ERA the rest of the season) and I discounted that when he stumbled through his first four starts, figuring he is now 35 and coming off a major shoulder injury, so past history wasn't especially relevant. Wrong I was. Kluber has kicked it into another gear since the calendar flipped to May.
It should be noted Kluber's revival these last five starts is not a product of doing the same thing and getting different results. He's changed his pitch mix a bit and become more unpredictable. Kluber is throwing more changeups than ever () and he's scaled back on his slider and cutter. He's throw four pitches at almost an equal rate now, and his location improved too.
There were major questions about New York's rotation coming into the season and they were not unreasonable. Cole is amazing, but behind him the Yankees had two starters coming off major injuries (Kluber and Jameson Taillon), a starter who did not pitch at all last year while serving a domestic violence suspension (Domingo Germán), and a No. 4-5 starter type (Jordan Montgomery).
You didn't have to try real hard to see things going sideways for that group, with Cole dominating every fifth day the Boone pulling his hair out the other four. To date though, the rotation has been great, and the Yankees are among the top run prevention clubs in the game. Only the Padres (3.14), Giants (3.37), and White Sox (3.55) are allowing fewer runs per game than New York (3.72).
Here's where the Yankees' rotation ranks among the 30 clubs:
- ERA: 3.68 (10th in MLB)
- WHIP: 1.10 (7th)
- Strikeout rate: 28.6 percent (5th)
- Walk rate: 6.4 percent (5th)
- Win probability added: 1.32 (9th)
- WAR: 4.8 (6th)
There is still a lot -- A LOT -- of season to be played and enough injury risk in New York's rotation that it's way too early to say this group will continue to perform this well all season, and that Kluber is ready to be 1B to Cole's 1A heading into the postseason. Still, the early returns are very good. The Yankees are no doubt thrilled with their rotation to date.
And, frankly, the Yankees, 24-19 after Wednesday's win, have needed their rotation to be great, because the offense has been anything but. The Yankees rank 22nd in runs per game (4.02), 24th in batting average (.224), and 21st in slugging percentage (.383). The offense mustered four hits in Kluber's no-hitter and never more than one in an inning (they scored two runs on a walk, a triple, and a sac fly).
"By the way, the game was in the balance,'' Boone told reporters following the game, including the New York Post's Dan Martin. "At 2-0, we're not cruising to victory. Every pitch was magnified even more because it was a tight ballgame."
The Yankees are 19-9 since their 5-10 start thanks largely to their pitching staff. It feels like only a matter of time until the offense clicks given the names on the roster, but the season is one-quarter complete now and it hasn't clicked yet, so who knows. Kluber has been brilliant of late though, as has the rotation as a whole. What appeared to be a weakness before the season has become the team's undisputed strength.