Kluber Closing the Gap on Sale for AL’s Top Pitching Honor
Bob Toth | On 05, Sep 2017
Kluber was named on Sunday as the AL’s Pitcher of the Month for the second time this season, putting his August work on par with his efforts back in June when he won the award for the first time this season and the fourth time in his career.
His stats did not lie. He was 5-1 in the month with a 1.96 ERA and a 0.63 WHIP while limiting opposing batters to a .146 batting average.
The Tribe’s number one starter was one of 30 pitchers in the junior circuit to make six starts in the month and he was one of just four starters to earn five wins. Wins have certainly lost weight in recent years as a valuable metric for gauging a pitcher’s worth, but they can at times speak on one’s ability to stay on the mound deep in a game while keeping the score close. It can also be indicative of having a high powered offense protecting the starter. Sometimes, it is a little bit of both.
Case in point – two of the three other starting pitchers who tallied five wins in August did so while accumulating ERAs above four. Texas’ Martin Perez went 5-1 in his six starts, but posted a 4.19 ERA. Boston’s Rick Porcello, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner who has struggled this season, posted a 5-1 record as well in his six outings and did so with a 4.04 ERA.
The other starter to win five games in August was Kluber’s teammate, Trevor Bauer, who went 5-0 in seven games (six starts) with a 2.31 ERA (2.35 ERA in his starts).
Dylan Bundy had a great month for Baltimore, posting a 4-0 record with a 2.00 ERA in five starts while averaging 11.25 strikeouts per nine innings and earning a 1.4 WAR (fangraphs WAR, equaling Kluber’s 1.4 for the month). But in the process, he threw ten fewer innings, walked the same amount of batters as Kluber in the lesser workload, had a left on base percentage 11.5% lower than Kluber, and had a higher batting average allowed (.177 vs. .146) and a higher WHIP (0.81 vs. 0.63).
Where did Sale fit in to the August picture?
The Red Sox southpaw earned two wins and two losses in the month, suffering one of those defeats and a lot of damage overall in two contests against Cleveland. Fourteen of the 19 runs he allowed in the month, including a total of 13 earned, came in his two starts against the Indians. He made six starts overall and worked 37 innings, averaging 12.89 strikeouts and 1.95 walks per nine innings. His ERA was a plump (for him) 4.38, but his FIP was the second-best in the league for the month at 2.41 (just short of Bundy’s 2.30 and better than the sixth-ranked Kluber’s 3.01). It was good for a 1.3 WAR, helping him maintain his season lead among pitchers in the statistic over the second place Kluber, 7.5 to 6.0.
Taking a look at some of the Cy Young predictors out there, Kluber still trails on all fronts, but the gap is small.
The Tom Tango Cy Young points (Tango Tiger) gives Sale a slight 76.8 to 72.5 edge over Kluber. The formula used ((IP/2 – ER) + SO/10 + W) in this prediction hurts Kluber, as those starts that he missed while on the disabled list in May leads to a lower innings pitched total, fewer strikeouts, and the likelihood of fewer wins earned. Had Kluber performed at the level and pace that he has pitched all season long in those four to five missing outings, he would be up at least a half dozen points on the Red Sox starter.
The Tom Tango method has been a better predictor of the Cy Young voting since 2006 than some of the other metrics out there.
The Bill James Cy Young points formula (seen on ESPN.com as their MLB Cy Young Predictor) also favors Sale, but again by a small margin (155.9 to 154.2). This model puts slightly higher value on innings pitched and slightly less on strikeouts, but does factor in shutouts for the positive and losses to the negative. It also gives a big bonus for pitchers being on first place clubs, a moot point currently for both Sale and Kluber.
This model has nailed the Cy Young winner successfully eleven times in the last 12 awards given over the last six years (missing only the AL winner in 2015). Since 2002, it has accurately predicted 22 of the 30 winners, but obviously it has been far more precise in the last half dozen seasons.
Using Bill James’ Season Score also yielded a 249.4 to 245.9 advantage to Sale.
Now winning a pair of monthly pitching honors will not be the thing that pushes Kluber over the top in the Cy Young race, but the competition has gotten closer with another stellar month from the right-hander while Sale hit three separate bumps in the road in August in his pair of rough outings against Cleveland and a two-homer, four-run performance against the New York Yankees on August 19 (which was followed up by another rough outing against the Yankees to open September). While he is done with the Indians (for the regular season, at least), he still has roughly five starts or so remaining in the regular season, with potential matchups with Tampa Bay, Oakland, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and Houston looming, based on the current turns of the rotation. Three of those teams are entrenched in the AL playoff picture, and that four-game series against the Astros to close out the season could possibly affect playoff seeding.
Sale will also need to overcome career-long issues in September if he is going to hold off Kluber for the Cy. The month has historically been unkind to him, as his 9-15 mark in September/October games is the only month of his career that he has performed at a sub-.500 level. His 3.84 ERA is also the highest of the six months of the regular season playing calendar. He has not posted a winning record in September/October since 2010 – his first season in the Majors when he won two games and worked 12 times, all in relief. On the flip side, Sale has never had the opportunity to pitch with postseason aspirations in sight like he has with the Red Sox, so he is in uncharted territory with no track record to gauge his history in those circumstances.
Kluber, by comparison, is 16-7 in September/October starts in his career with a 3.83 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. He has won more games in that time frame than any other month of the season and his .696 winning percentage is the second-best mark of the six months. His ERA and WHIP are both heavily skewed by his performances in his first three big league seasons, when he went 6-2, but posted a 5.43 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP in those first 14 games (11 starts).
Kluber’s road to the Cy is a little harder to forecast, as the Indians are back to a crowded six-man rotation of Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Mike Clevinger, Danny Salazar (who returns from the disabled list for the start Tuesday night against Chicago), and Josh Tomlin (who was activated and pitched well in Sunday’s win in Detroit). Kluber will pitch Thursday in the series finale against the White Sox and sometime during the Tribe’s homestand in the middle of next week with the Tigers. After that, he may line up for a start against Kansas City on the 17th or in Anaheim against the Angels on the 19th, with another outing over the following weekend in Seattle before one more start against Minnesota or Chicago to close out the regular season schedule.
While Boston and Cleveland each work their way towards the playoffs and even a potential American League Division Series matchup, there is a little extra fuel to the continued rivalry between Sale and Kluber as the two go toe-to-toe from a distance in their silent pursuits of their league’s top pitching honor of the year.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images