The New York Yankees signed two-time Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber to a one-year contract worth $11 million dollars this weekend. Immediately the fantasy sports sphere on Twitter — which is really more of a rounded mound of a shape — well, analysts went Klu-razy with the news. A big-time player on a big-time team! Hooray! Stonks up and let care fly to the wind! I’m looking through rankings from various sites on Kluber, and people are absolutely Ku-losing it (let’s see if I can get one more pun in before the jump!). Even Razzball’s 2021 Steamer Projections have Kluber as SP22 at this point in the pre-season. With some big time sites considering Kluber in the 30s for SP — in other words, your 3rd starter in a 12-team league — it’s absolutely worthwhile to see if the stats are Klean or Kluttered. Ha! Four of ’em!
Corey Kluber — Deal or No Deal?
From 2014-2018, Corey Kluber topped 200 innings every year, had a combined 10.13 K/9 (28.5 K% for you completionists), a ridiculously low 1.84 BB/9 (5.2 BB%), a combined 2.84 FIP, and over 30 WAR combined. He won two Cy Young awards, won 18 games three times, 20 games one time…I mean, the numbers were wilder than Grey digging through Rodney Dangerfield’s closet. Then in May 2019, Kluber took a line drive to his forearm, which effectively ended his 2019 campaign. After struggling through some rehab starts, Kluber didn’t return to Cleveland that year, and was traded to the Rangers. With the Covid-delayed start to the season, he made his first start for the Rangers on July 26th and lasted one inning, leaving with a torn muscle in his shoulder.
After dominating hitters for the better part of four years, Kluber has effectively missed 2 years of pitching due to injury. His signing with the New York Yankees — a team which has never been shy about finding big-name free agents and signing them in the hopes the big city lights ignite a spark in their playing careers — is a chance for the Cy Young award winner to restart his career on a team that, ostensibly, knows how to manage big-name players.
So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of drafting Corey Kluber in 2021 and see if he’s Klearly worth the price.
The commotion around Kluber right now — writing in January before he’s even taken the mound — is that he’s a “value.” In NFBC drafts this month, he’s going around pick 200. Chris Towers of CBS has him going around pick 200 overall, making him around SP80. Nick Pollack of Pitcher List said he’s putting Kluber in the 30s for his rankings. Rudy’s got him as SP22 on the 2021 Steamer Rankings. Prior to the signing, NFBC drafters had him around SP80.
So, we can see that there’s already a huge difference in perceived value over Corey Kluber. That’s advantageous if you’re in a league where he starts slipping in draft value. In 17 NFBC drafts that have taken place in January, Kluber was going next to Dane Dunning and Justus Sheffield. Quick, who has higher upside — Dane Dunning or Corey Kluber? If you answered Dunning, you’re gonna need to get a pair of his giant glasses to fix your eyesight. When you’re talking the SP5 range on your team, Kluber becomes a good value because there are so many fine fifth starters for your team. If Kluber bombs, then you’ve got [searches ADP rankings] Yusei Kikuchi on the wire for your team (also…Kikuchi going as SP118 right now…guess who I’m hyping next week!?). If Kluber outperforms his role as your fifth starter, then he’s brought enormous positive value to your team. So, if you’re seeing “deal” on your league, then Kluber is a…hmmm…what’s the word…deal!
Corey Kluber turns 35 years old on April 10, 2021. Since 2010, there are exactly 20 starting pitchers who were 35 years or older and started at least 20 games and returned at least 3 WAR over the remainder of their career. That’s cumulative WAR. Of those 20 pitchers, only two could be said to have returned from a nearly two-year absence: Bartolo Colon is the obvious choice, and Rich Hill is the arguable choice (because his missed time wasn’t entirely consecutive). So, if Kluber comes back and produces positive value at the MLB level, he’ll be in elite if not quite slightly-doughy company with Bartolo Colon.
Additionally, Kluber’s cutter/sinker combo was slowly losing velocity over the years. From 2016-2019, his cutter and sinker lost nearly 2MPH each. In 2019 — a small sample size of pitches early in the year, admittedly — batters tagged Kluber’s sinker for a 1.188 OPS and a .732 SLG. His cutter had a 7.8 wRC+ and his sinker had a 12.4 wRC+. Don’t know what all these numbers mean? It means Kluber’s main pitches were basically batting practice difficulty for hitters. The best outcomes for fantasy are generally produced by pitchers who miss bats with their primary pitches, or pitchers who can at least limit damage when their pitches are hit. The evidence on record shows that Kluber’s pitches were losing their efficacy before his injuries.
Lastly, the New York Yankees rotation is crowded. Gerrit Cole is an obvious lock as SP1, and RosterResource projects Kluber to be SP2. Behind Kluber, though, there’s Jordan Montgomery, Deivi Garcia, Domingo German, Chad Green (made 15 starts in 2019), Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luis Severino (returning from injury in June). We’ll probably see Clarke Schmidt in 2021, as well. And, as we all know, something like 60% of free agents are still available. The rotation could be even more crowded come the start of the season. But seriously, don’t get too close! We don’t want a Plesac situation happening again. A crowded rotation limits Kluber’s upside because he could miss starts, or possibly even be moved to the bullpen. Last year, we saw starters pitching fewer innings than ever before. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that if Kluber shows signs of injury or fatigue early in the year, then he would slide into a role that allows him to throw 2-3 innings while players like Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia take the starts.
Corey Kluber was one of the best starting pitchers in Major League Baseball over the past decade, and he was a fantasy superstar for years. But, is he still an elite pitcher and of use to your fantasy team? I think if you’re in 8-10 team territory, then you should pass on Kluber. There are too many warning signs to take a chance on Kluber in that format. If you’re reading this in March and all of the spring training reports say, “He’s super healthy and ready to go!”, then by all means take a chance on him. In 12-teams or best ball formats, Kluber is worth a shot as your fourth or fifth starter. I’m just not excited about Kluber this year. I think batters are going to Klub him. And, not take him to the club, like Plesac would do.
Let me know your thoughts on the newest Yankee down in the comments — is he a top-20 SP, or a dart throw? What’s your take?