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All systems go: Peek at Kluber's hard-wiring

September 12, 2017

There is a syntax question to be asked about Corey Kluber's nickname. You probably know that the nickname is "Klubot," because of the robotic, impassive, emotionless way he carries himself. His inexpressive look when he pitches often makes me think of the ancient comedian exchange, made most famous by Don

There is a syntax question to be asked about Corey Kluber's nickname. You probably know that the nickname is "Klubot," because of the robotic, impassive, emotionless way he carries himself. His inexpressive look when he pitches often makes me think of the ancient comedian exchange, made most famous by Don Rickles:
Rickles: "You having a good time?"
Audience member: "Yes."
Rickles: "Tell your face."
Kluber's face reveals nothing, and that's what the whole Klubot thing is about. He doesn't even like the nickname much, which is no surprise -- Corey Kluber would unquestionably prefer no nicknames, no hype, no adornments or flourishes at all connected to his pitching. But the Klubot thing is too far down the road now, so back to the syntax question. Is his nickname "Klubot," as in, "Hey, Klubot, whatcha doin'?" Or "Klubot, you want to go and get some dinner?"
Or is it The Klubot? This is important. I believe it should be The Klubot -- like The White House or The Rolling Stones or "The Godfather" -- because there is only one like him. Another straight-faced pitcher with Klu in his name might come along someday. But he could never be The Klubot.
The Klubot takes the mound Tuesday with Cleveland just one away from its 20th consecutive victory, and if it was any other pitcher on Planet Earth, there would be the threat of jinxes. Don't jinx him! The Klubot rejects jinxes. The Klubot disavows curses. The Klubot will pitch well or he won't pitch well, but it will have nothing to do with voodoo. The only black magic The Klubot concedes is the sorcery of the implausible "he that shall not be named" breaking ball he throws, one that is neither curveball nor slider.

Before he became The Klubot, he was an ordinary young man from Texas named Corey Kluber who could not get out Minor League hitters. He had shown some promise as a high school pitcher, but then he blew out his right arm, ending any hopes of getting drafted. Instead, through a series of coincidences, he went to Stetson University because that was the only school interested. He developed the early versions -- a very early version -- of that Voldemort breaking ball while at school there and showed enough promise as a junior to get drafted in the fourth round by San Diego.
Then Kluber got pummeled -- largely because, scouts said, he lacked a put-away pitch. For Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore in 2008, he gave up nearly 10 hits per nine innings and posted a 6.01 ERA. Kluber wasn't much better the next year with Lake Elsinore, either. He was traded to Cleveland in 2010, and in his first full season with Triple-A Columbus, he went 7-11 with a 5.56 ERA. Kluber was by then 25 years old.
The chances of a 25-year-old Minor League pitcher with Kluber's resume making it in the big leagues are very small. "Fairly hittable," Baseball America said, and added, with charity in their hearts, "could be a back-of-the-rotation starter."
My favorite part of the Baseball America scouting report, by the way, is that they mentioned Kluber's one developing strength -- his rapidly improving control -- and then added, "he might be around the strike zone too much."
So how do we get from there to here, from a faltering Minor League pitcher, who was better off not throwing as many strikes, to this guy? Well, Kluber got his first real shot in the big leagues when he was 27. He was immediately good. It is as if The Klubot programming didn't really kick in until he was in the big leagues.
All of those things that had left scouts yawning disappeared. Suddenly, Kluber's fastball consistently sat at 93-94 mph (and not "between 88 and 95," as one baseball executive so vaguely approximated). Suddenly, his command was razor sharp. And suddenly, he didn't just have a put-away pitch, he had perhaps baseball's best put-away pitch. Nobody could hit that bleepin' breaking ball thing he threw.
Kluber gets missed a lot when people discuss the game's best pitchers, but going back to 2014, you could make a pretty good argument that he is the best pitcher in baseball, non-Kershaw division. That designation would probably come down to Kluber, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale …
Scherzer: 66-29, 2.83 ERA, 2.95 FIP, 855 2/3 innings, 1,051 K's, 199 walks, 145 ERA+
Kluber: 60-38, 2.92 ERA, 2.79 FIP, 848 1/3 innings, 976 K's, 187 walks, 149 ERA+
Sale: 58-32, 2.96 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 805 innings, 993 K's, 164 walks, 137 ERA+
Those are a lot of numbers -- some which you might care about, some which you might not -- but suffice it to say it's close enough that, as a friend of mind used to say, distinctions made at this level are meaningless. The Klubot won the American League Cy Young Award in 2014, had a compelling case to win it last year and is locked in a fascinating battle with Sale to win it this year. He's a force.
And Kluber is a self-made force; The Klubot reached such great heights on the wave of his own persistence and stubbornness and flatlining emotions. In addition to that Voldemort pitch and a great fastball and absurd command, he doesn't seem to complicate things with the distractions that affect the rest of civilization. He routinely follows bad starts with good ones. He doesn't talk much about technical aspects (or anything else). He returns from injuries as if they never happened. He pitches the same in big games and small ones.
The last part is probably my favorite. There is a sports cliche about how great players rise to the occasion. Maybe it's true, but even greater players rise always, whether the occasion calls for it or not, and that's Kluber. He was fantastic in the postseason last year. But he was equally fantastic in June last year. Kluber is great against the Kansas City Royals, the team that has been Cleveland's No. 1 rival since he got into the league. But he is also great against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who register a 0.00 on the Cleveland rivalry Richter scale.
And Kluber will be pitching for win No. 20 in a row. There's no telling how it will go; the Tribe has been stretching the limits of good baseball for three weeks now. At some point, you would think, things will go wrong. But if things do go wrong, it won't be because of bad luck or intangibles or anything like that, because Kluber does not acknowledge such nonsense. Kluber will take the mound, like he always does, with one intention. The Klubot doesn't play.

Joe Posnanski is a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year.