Can Kluber Oust Lee as Cleveland’s Most Recent Cy Winner?
Bob Toth | On 02, Nov 2014
An impressive and very much unexpected and dominant 2014 season has thrust Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber’s name to the top of the list in the race for the American League Cy Young Award.
If Kluber is honored with the award when it is announced on November 12th, he will become the first Indians pitcher to be recognized with the pitching prize since Cliff Lee won 22 games in 2008.
When comparing their two seasons, many of the statistics tip in Kluber’s favor. Lee led the way with more wins (as his 22 wins that season are tied for the second-most in baseball in the last dozen years), fewer losses, a better winning percentage, and fewer walks surrendered. Kluber made more appearances, had a better ERA, logged more innings, and struck out 99 more batters than the lefty Lee.
It is interesting that Lee would be the man unseated in Cleveland history as the most recent pitcher to win the award, because his path to Cy Young candidacy, like Kluber’s, was somewhat similar and difficult.
Both were acquired in midseason trades. Both were minor league prospects at the time. For Lee, his acquisition was overshadowed by the two other names he came to Cleveland with in the Bartolo Colon trade – Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips. For Kluber, he was thought by some to be a low-end trade filler in what otherwise looked like a Jake Westbrook salary dump. Both pitchers showed moderate success through the minors. Both were not even thought to be the aces of their pitching staffs when their respective seasons started.
Kluber was not in the Major League mix at the beginning of last season after 15 games pitched over the previous two seasons. At the end of Spring Training prior to the 2013 season, he was optioned to Columbus. When he was given an opportunity to return to the Majors, he took advantage in his second relief appearance with a solid four innings replacing Scott Kazmir on the mound after his short start in a 19-6 win in Houston. With four strikeouts and two hits allowed in four innings, he jumped into the rotation eight days later and remained the rest of the season, with the exception of the month he missed with a finger injury.
He finished the season 11-5 with a 3.85 ERA, including a 4-0 mark in September after returning from the disabled list. He struck out 136 in 147 1/3 innings and walked just 33.
From a statistical sense, the numbers looked good, but they were nothing that assured him to be a potential front-of-the-rotation arm and future staff ace.
The path to a Cy Young Award took a different direction for Lee.
Lee debuted briefly in 2002 and became a regular rotation arm for the club in 2004, winning 14 games despite a lofty 5.43 ERA in 33 starts. By 2005, he was earning Cy Young votes behind an 18-5 season with a 3.79 ERA and a league-best .783 winning percentage in 202 innings. Those numbers fell off the next season, when he finished 14-11 with a 4.40 ERA for a disappointing Indians squad that finished 15 games worse in the win column after narrowly missing the playoffs in ’05.
He began his 2007 season on the disabled list with a right abdominal strain. He returned a month later, but never looked right. After winning two of his first four starts, he dropped four straight decisions and struggled to get through the middle innings of the game. He rebounded in June, winning three decisions in a four game stretch, but with the Indians in the playoff hunt, he dropped four straight ugly July games, allowing 26 runs over 20 innings (11.70 ERA) while striking out eleven batters and walking ten.
He was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo, where he concluded his minor league season at 1-3 in eight starts, before returning to Cleveland for four September relief appearances. He was notably left off of the playoff roster, just two seasons after his fourth place finish in the Cy Young vote.
The next season, Lee was just about as dominant as could be.
Lee was hot right out of the gate, winning each of his first six starts and taking a tough no-decision after nine scoreless innings in an eventual loss on May 12th against Toronto.
He was hit hard in three of his next four outings, yet walked away with a 3-1 record despite an ERA of 6.56. He had a WHIP of 1.89 in that stretch and opposing hitters blasted him for three home runs and a .346 batting average.
By mid-July, he was locked in again and won eleven decisions in a span of 12 games. He had just seven starts of four earned runs or more allowed in 31 outings, had four complete games and two shutouts, and had zero starts that he did not reach at least the fifth inning and just three in which he did not throw a pitch in the sixth inning or beyond. He struck out 170 and walked just 34 in 223 1/3 innings.
Lee took home 24 of 28 first place votes that season to give the Indians consecutive Cy Young winners.
When comparing the seasons of Lee and Kluber, Lee had far more Major League opportunities earlier in his career to show a pattern of pitching prowess. He was already an 18-game winner prior to his struggles on the mound.
What Kluber did this season was take full advantage of his slot in the Indians rotation. He seems to have cemented himself in as a frontline piece to be locked up long term prior to arbitration, a la Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, and Jason Kipnis last offseason.
He did not, however, look sharp when the 2014 season started.
Through his first four starts, he was 1-2. He allowed 15 runs, 14 of which were earned, in 23 1/3 innings. His 5.40 ERA was matched with a .337 batting average allowed, and his 34 hits and six walks led to a 1.71 WHIP.
A complete game four-hitter over Kansas City on April 24th ignited what would be a season-long stretch of dominance. His eleven strikeout performance in that game was the first of eleven outings with ten or more strikeouts. Lee did that just twice in his award-winning season.
Kluber was 4-0 in May, pitching into the seventh inning in all six starts. He struck out 60 batters in 43 innings and posted a sub-1.00 WHIP. The only loss the Indians took in a Kluber start that month came via a three-run home run in the ninth inning in Cleveland by the White Sox off of reliever John Axford on May 4th.
He was 1-3 in June, but lost a pair of games by two runs or less, including being on the losing end of a 1-0 decision in Los Angeles against the Dodgers when his offensive mates mustered just one hit for the second straight game. In the other loss, he was charged with three unearned runs, courtesy of the league’s worst defense.
He was perfect in July, posting a 4-0 record and 1.54 ERA in five starts. He struck out ten batters three different times that month and threw four quality starts, including a complete game three-hit shutout against Seattle. The wins continued on into August, when he extended his personal winning decision streak to six straight games with another ten strikeout effort.
He did falter some at the end of August, losing three straight games, but followed his shortest outing of the year (two and two-thirds innings in a 12-1 loss to Detroit on September 1st) with a complete game five-hitter over the Chicago White Sox. He won five straight games to end the season, ending it with three straight starts with eleven Ks or more, striking out 39 batters and walking just five in 23 innings when the Indians needed wins the most.
If Kluber were to win the Cy, and his numbers are certainly deserving, he would become just the fourth Indians pitcher to do so since voting on the award began in 1956 and the third in the last eight years.
Gaylord Perry was the first Tribe player to win back in 1972, the 18th year of the award being given and the seventh year after it was given to a deserving representative from each league. That season, Perry’s first with the Indians, he was 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA in 41 games. He threw 342 2/3 innings, struck out 234 batters, and led the league with a career-high 29 complete games. He had five shutouts and in his lone non-start, earned the save in relief. He did this in his eleventh MLB season and was 34 at season’s end.
It was another 35 years later before another Clevelander was selected for the top honor. C.C. Sabathia took home the nod in 2007, when his 19-7 record and 3.21 ERA helped to push the Indians deep into the postseason before falling heartbreakingly short in the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox.
Prior to Sabathia winning in 2007, the last Indians pitcher to finish higher than fourth in the voting was Jose Mesa, who finished in second place in 1995 with two first place votes. He lost out to Seattle’s Randy Johnson.
It is an honor alone for Kluber to be in consideration for the Cy Young Award, but it would be nice to see one of the few bright spots of the 2014 campaign recognized for his supremacy on the diamond over the course of the season.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer