Making a Case Against Kluber for the Cy Young Award
Bob Toth | On 28, Sep 2014
Now before Cleveland Indians’ fans and supporters of Corey Kluber jump down my throat and tell me that I must be crazy for the title of this post, hear me out. It does not have anything to do with me not wanting Kluber to be given the honor nor does it have anything to do with the Indians’ history of trading away young star Cy Young winners, I assure you that.
Anyone can throw out the numbers that Kluber has put up in this breakout season to make a case for him to be in consideration for the American League Cy Young Award. Kluber has made it extremely easy with the incredible season he has put together.
Numbers speak volumes. They confirm what has already passed the eye test. But there are plenty of other numbers from other pitchers around the league that merit consideration, too. Does Kluber have enough to overcome where his numbers lack and where others’ numbers may excel? What obstacles stand in the way for the new Indians ace in his pursuit of the top pitching award in baseball in just his first full season in the Major Leagues?
One of the first cards people will play is that the Indians will finish the season out of the playoffs, while several other deserving pitchers will be playing into October. How good could Kluber have been and how instrumental was his role with the club if they could not even reach the postseason with his stellar play on the roster?
A big part of that reflects back on the offense, of no fault of Kluber’s own.
Kluber made 34 starts this season and earned the win in 18 of them, tying him with Jered Weaver and Max Scherzer for the AL lead. Like Kluber, both pitchers are done in the regular season, although both will be key figures in their respective team’s starting playoff rotations.
The Indians won 22 games that Kluber started. In those wins, the offense supported Kluber with 123 runs, an average of 5.59 runs per game. The Indians pitching staff in those 22 wins, including Kluber, allowed 1.95 runs per game.
Run support is a key here. Kluber was tagged with the loss in nine starts and the team lost a total of 12 games in which he was the starting pitcher. Kluber and his bullpen mates allowed a total of 62 runs over those dozen games, an average of 5.17 runs per game. The offense? The same that supplied 5.59 runs per game in wins? They scored a total of 25 runs in those losses, an average of 2.08 runs.
In five of his losses and six of the team’s losses, the offense scored one run or less. He did win a 1-0 ball game against Tampa to close out his season on September 26th, making seven different games this season that he was supported by just one run or less. He was given three runs or less to work with in 15 of his 34 starts this season.
As it stands, Kluber starts will have accounted for nearly a quarter of Cleveland’s wins this season. He did his part.
Kluber is not a household name amongst baseball fans, which hurts his chances to some degree.
National League teams, with the exceptions of the NL West’s Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and the Central’s Cincinnati, were spared from having to deal with him, which hurt his nationwide exposure over the course of the season. Those that saw him saw him at his best – he was 4-1 against the NL in interleague play with a 1.83 ERA. His lone loss? A 1-0 defeat to the Dodgers. Run support…
This was Kluber’s first full year in the Majors, even though he has been up for parts of the previous three seasons. He made three relief appearances in his rookie season in 2011 before making 12 starts in 2012, posting a 2-5 record with a 5.14 ERA, after going 11-7 at Triple-A Columbus with a 3.59 ERA in 21 starts.
He worked out of the bullpen for Cleveland last season after two unimpressive starts at Columbus. He put his name back on the Indians radar when he relieved for Scott Kazmir in a 19-6 blowout in Houston over the Astros in Kazmir’s first start off of the disabled list and poached a victory. He would earn ten more wins on the way to an 11-5 record with a 3.85 ERA for the season, securing himself a spot in the rotation despite a finger injury that cost him a month of action in August.
To see the 28-year-old post numbers this season that merit Cy Young Award discussion is almost unfathomable when looking at his age and career path. Not bad for a Double-A prospect that was the Indians haul from San Diego in the three-team Jake Westbrook trade back in 2010.
How could someone claim a Cy Young Award who was not even voted into the Midsummer Classic?
Kluber was deserving to be an All-Star, regardless of whether he was named to the team or not. His numbers were certainly deserving of recognition, but he was left off in part as a result of a tainted Final Vote process that pitted fans in substantially larger cities (Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston) against Cleveland fans. Not being a recognizable household name did not help his cause any.
At the unofficial midway point of the season, Kluber was 9-6 in 20 starts. Four earned runs in his final start of the first half versus the Chicago White Sox pushed his ERA back over the three-mark to 3.01. It did nothing to detract from his numbers though. He struck out 142 batters in 131 2/3 innings while walking just 32. He had four games of double-digit strikeout performances. He had four quality starts with at least six innings pitched, three earned runs or less allowed, six strikeouts, and no walks. He had nine quality starts of six innings or more, three earned runs or fewer, six strikeouts or more, and one or fewer walks.
Despite his record, the Indians were 12-8 in those first half appearances.
The last AL Cy Young winner who was not an All-Star during his season?
That would be Kluber’s biggest competition in Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, who not only made the All-Star Game this season with an 11-2 record and 2.12 ERA at the break, but started the game for the American League team. Hernandez previously won the Cy in 2010, beating out David Price and C.C. Sabathia with a 13-12, 2.27 ERA season that featured six complete games. He led the league that season in starts, ERA, and innings pitched and was second in strikeouts and WHIP.
Hernandez does have a bit of luxury pitching in the pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. The Indians got a taste of that home-field advantage on June 29th, when he blanked Cleveland on one hit over eight innings in a 3-0 shutout. He heads into play on Sunday with a 9-3 record with a 2.16 ERA at home in 16 starts, compared to a 5-3 record in 17 starts on the road with a recently-adjusted 2.21 ERA. His final start this season? At Safeco Field.
He also has the benefit and advantage of pitching in front of the American League’s best defense. The Mariners entered play on Saturday night with a .986 fielding percentage. They have committed the fewest errors in the American League (82) and the second-fewest in all of baseball. Kluber’s Indians have committed 116 through Saturday night, leading all of baseball with the most errors and worst fielding percentage.
He has not been the same pitcher down the stretch for the Mariners when they needed him the most, which could factor in Seattle falling short of the postseason themselves. In his final 13 starts, he posted a 2.71 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to bat just .207. He earned a 3-4 record, due in part to low run support, and the team was 7-6 in his second half starts.
Hernandez enters his final outing of the season with a 14-6 record in 33 starts. Ten different times he has completed eight innings on the mound and three times appeared in the ninth inning, although he was unable to complete any of those starts. He is first in the AL in WHIP, second in ERA, fifth in strikeouts per nine innings, sixth in strikeouts per walk (less than just four-hundredths of a point behind Kluber), and seventh in walks per nine innings. His 241 strikeouts are fourth in the league and eleven in back of third place Scherzer. Depending on the number of innings he logs in his finale, he could leapfrog Kluber for second in the AL in innings pitched, as he trails the Tribe’s starter by five.
Hernandez has struck out ten or more batters in six different games, including a season-high 15 against Tampa Bay on June 8th, and has registered 27 quality starts, tied with Oakland’s Jon Lester and one ahead of Kluber. A scoring change by Major League Baseball over the weekend, erasing four earned runs last Tuesday against Toronto and instead charging the starter with an error on a dropped bunt, lowered his season ERA to 2.18, just one-hundredth of a point behind Chicago’s Chris Sale.
Sale just so happens to be the biggest competition for Kluber and Hernandez in their Cy Young pursuit.
The Chi-Sox southpaw has been right in the Cy Young picture in each of the last two seasons, finishing sixth in the voting in 2012 and fifth last season.
This season, on a disappointing White Sox club, Sale has been superb, posting a 12-4 record with a league-leading 2.17 ERA in 26 starts. He notched 174 innings on the season with two complete games.
The problem for Sale, and something that should be taken into consideration, is that the ace of the Southside’s staff will finish with seven to eight fewer starts this season than others in the mix. Sale was limited in April and May, missing 33 games and roughly a half dozen starts during that span. He was 3-0 with a 2.30 ERA when he hit the 15-day disabled list with a flexor muscle strain in his left arm following a season-high 127-pitch effort against Boston. It was the first DL trip of his career.
The White Sox will finish in fourth place in the AL Central with a sub-.500 record, nowhere near the division race that was fought by Detroit, Kansas City, and Cleveland.
Outsiders also in the Cy Young mix include Scherzer, who was 18-5 in 33 starts for Detroit, and Lester, who split a 16-11 season with a 2.46 ERA in 32 starts between Boston and Oakland. Scherzer, who won the award last season, is tied with Kluber for the lead in wins, is second in strikeouts per nine innings, third in strikeouts, fourth in WAR amongst pitchers, fifth in innings pitched, and ninth in ERA. He added 22 quality starts and seven double-digit strikeout performances.
Now, the case for Kluber.
He was 11-2 with a 2.38 ERA in 17 starts against teams below .500, helping the Indians to beat the teams they were supposed to beat. He was just 7-7 with a 2.51 ERA against teams with records of .500 or better in his remaining 17 starts, but two of those outings were complete games and one was a shutout.
His efforts on the mound kept the Indians in the race. He reached the fifth inning in all but two starts. He took the mound in the sixth in 30 of his 34 games. Twenty-six times he was on the mound for the start of the seventh inning. He allowed more than three earned runs in just five starts. He was charged with zero earned runs in eight starts. He logged a total of 26 quality starts of six innings and three or fewer earned runs over the course of the year.
Kluber leads the AL in wins, starts, and strikeouts and is second in innings pitched. His strikeout total is tops in all of baseball, better than names like Price, Scherzer, Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw. His home runs per nine innings rate of 0.535 is fourth-best in the league. He faced 951 batters, second to just Price in the entire MLB, and threw 3,500 pitches, including 2,364 for strikes, good for 67.5% of his pitch count.
His fielding independent pitching (FIP), a statistic that measures a pitcher’s effectiveness at preventing home runs, walks, hit by pitches, and inducing strikeouts, came in at 2.35, best in the AL and second to only the Dodgers’ Kershaw, who is a near shoe-in for the NL Cy Young Award.
His wins above replacement (WAR) comes in at 7.4 and is the highest amongst AL pitchers. He trails only Mike Trout (8.0) of the Angels for the AL lead overall and Kershaw’s 8.1 for the best in the game. It is the highest WAR by an Indians player since Jim Thome posted a 7.4 in 2002. It is better than Cliff Lee‘s 6.8 in his 2008 Cy Young season and Sabathia’s 6.4 in his season in 2007. It is the highest mark by an Indians pitcher since Gaylord Perry earned an 8.6 in 1974.
Now, a historical perspective.
Kluber became the first Indians pitcher since at least 1914, and possibly all-time, to end his season with three straight double-digit strikeout performances.
His 269 strikeouts are the most by an Indians pitcher since Sam McDowell struck out 304 in 1970. The total is the sixth-best performance in Cleveland history, trailing Bob Feller’s 348 in 1946, and McDowell’s seasons in 1965, 1968, 1969, and 1970. His 10.27 strikeouts per nine innings is the third-best mark in team history, trailing McDowell’s 10.71 in 1965 and 10.42 in 1966.
His 5.08 strikeouts per walk are third-best as well, trailing Sabathia’s 5.65 in his Cy Young Award winning season in 2007 and Greg Swindell’s 5.45 in 1991.
His 18 wins this season are the most by an Indians pitcher since Lee won 22 in 2008. Lee would win the Cy that season as well.
Kluber was so good this season that, on a team that led the known world in errors, he did not commit a single error from the mound.
By trying to make a case against him, I think I may have actually strengthened his case that much more. Hernandez, Scherzer, Lester, and even Weaver have been good and are deserving consideration. But none have done what Kluber has done, and he did so with less support.
The season that Kluber has had on the mound is one of the more statistically impressive seasons in Cleveland Indians history, and that is saying something with the high profile pitchers (think Feller, McDowell, Perry, Luis Tiant, Sabathia, and Lee, just to name a few deserving candidates) who have suited up to represent the city.
It is already a shame to see such a dominating performance on the mound fail to get his team into the playoffs. It would be a travesty if his efforts failed to earn him some hardware. Corey Kluber is deserving of and should be this year’s American League Cy Young Award winner.
Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak