Inbox: Why is Corey Kluber’s value so low on this site?
Update: Corey Kluber was traded to Texas on 12/15/19 for Delino DeShields and Emmanuel Clase, a package that totals $9.7M in value. The trade was accepted by our system as an overpay, but within the bounds of acceptability. Many observers felt like the return for Cleveland was light. As you can see below by our analysis, we’re not surprised by the size of the return. And assuming his medicals check out, Kluber’s discount for medical unknowns would lift up his value a degree, making the balance even closer.
Update 2: Per MLBTR: “it turns out teams just weren’t champing at the bit to surrender hauls for Kluber – a 33-year-old who’s expensive ($17.5MM guarantee for 2020) and coming off an injury-marred campaign. Thanks to those factors, when the Indians left this month’s Winter Meetings, the majority of offers they’d received only included players at the Single-A level, Terry Pluto of cleveland.com relays.”
We get a lot of questions about Corey Kluber  ‘s value here. Why is it so low?
Yes, we know he was an elite pitcher, and could still return to that form. But let’s face facts: 2019 was an unmitigated disaster for him, both in performance and injury, and since the most recent year carries the greatest weight in projection systems and in our model, it really takes a toll on his value. So let’s dive into each of those components.
On the performance side:
He made seven starts in 2019 — granted, that’s a small sample size, but for a starter, it’s usually enough to paint a picture. And he was inexplicably awful in that timeframe. Most glaringly, he seemed to have lost his control, which had been his greatest strength.
Some key stats:
His WHIP, which had previously been consistently around 1.00, jumped to 1.65 (way below average).
His xwOBA, which had previously been consistently below 3, jumped to .332 (also way below average).
His xSLG, which had previously been in the mid 3’s, jumped to .453.
His BB/9, which had previously been at or below 1, jumped to 3.79 (this is perhaps the most significant stat).
His WPA, which had previously been strongly positive, turned strongly negative, to -0.81. (And this was after only seven starts; if you normalized this across an entire year it would be much worse.)
When he faced batters the second time through the order, his FIP jumped from .291 to .452; his xFIP jumped from 3.88 to 5.66. (This indicates that hitters adjusted to him, and he couldn’t adjust back.)
He had some disastrous outings — and not against good teams, either. Against the White Sox on April 3, he lasted only 3.1 innings and gave up six runs. On April 14 against the Royals, he lasted only 2.2 innings and gave up six runs, walking five batters.
That’s not good, folks. Something was off. The question is, was that a blip? Or an indicator of a more permanent problem?
Now let’s look at the injury side:
On May 1, a comebacker broke his arm. Granted, that was purely accidental — it was not a usage injury — but it’s also a broken arm, which is a serious injury for anyone, let alone a guy who makes his living with his arm. And who knows how it’s healed?
Then he strained his oblique. (Maybe he was trying to rush his rehab?) We’re not doctors, but we understand that strained obliques are annoyingly difficult to heal from.
He’s now going into his age-34 season. He’s not getting any younger, and research on aging curves shows that most pitchers are well into their decline phase at that age. (That may help explain his first seven starts.) When you factor in his previous success, our weighted average of projection systems suggests we can plan for 4 WAR from him in 2020. That seems more than fair, right?
But wait! That doesn’t mean he’s actually going to deliver a 4-WAR season, because projections don’t account for injury risk. And in Kluber’s case, that’s actually a bigger issue than the performance problem. Is he okay? Will his arm be the same? We don’t know. What we do know is that the older you get, the less likely you are to stay healthy. Time is undefeated on this one. So we have to account for that as we do with any 34-year-old pitcher, but also for the additional probability that Kluber’s issues are bigger, using injury-risk aging curves. And in Kluber’s case, our model suggests that his injury risk is around 55% — which means you have to knock off that amount from his expected WAR to provide a margin of safety if you’re trading for him.
In other words, there’s only a 45% chance that he’ll stay healthy enough to be worth 4 WAR from a risk-adjusted perspective, which means his true projection is roughly 1.8 WAR. For starting pitchers, who typically get a bit over $10M per WAR, that’s roughly equivalent to $19.2M.
And guess what he’s earning in 2020? $17.5M. So there’s not much surplus value there, on paper. We also know there is a team option for 2021 at $18M, but given aging and injury-risk curves, at the moment that looks like a non-factor.
Now, we’re aware of the market pressure and his reputation, so we are giving him the benefit of the doubt and assuming he’ll go a bit higher than that based on our read of the market. That’s how we get to his current number.
Still, if you’re going to pay that salary, you better have some degree of confidence that you’re going to get at least that much on-field production out of it. Given all his unknowns, we think most teams would actually pass on that risk.
Looking at market comps, if he were a free agent right now, the numbers suggest he’d get a deal similar to the one Dallas Keuchel got last year, which was the equivalent of $20M for one year. We think this is a validation point that Kluber would get a similar show-me deal of around $20M for one year.
However, we fully understand that there are a bunch of teams still looking for quality starting pitching, and they may see it as an acceptable risk. Angels GM Billy Eppler did mention that they’d have to take more risks, so we won’t be surprised if he nets an overpay of a decent prospect or two.
From the Indians’ perspective, we suspect they’re wisely exploring the market. Typically, in these situations, you’d want to keep the player on to restore his value, then sell higher. If they do trade him, it likely means they know he’s damaged goods, and they’re trying to salvage whatever they can out of a deal before he goes further south. If they don’t, it’s a vote of confidence that he can bounce back and be more valuable either at the deadline or next offseason.