Has Corey Kluber Become a Cy Contender Again?

After bursting onto the scene last year in an award-winning way, Cleveland starting pitcher Corey Kluber was not the consistent and dominating force on the mound that many thought he could be in his Cy Young Award defense when the season began in an ugly fashion for both the Indians and their staff ace.

It has been a tough year at times for Kluber, especially when comparing the end results of his starts last season to this season. The Indians won 22 of his 34 starts last season while he was credited with an 18-9 record. This year, the team is just 9-16 in his 25 starts thus far.

Is Kluber to blame?

After 25 starts in 2014, Kluber was 13-6 with a 2.46 ERA. He had worked 171 2/3 innings, struck out 187, and allowed just 36 walks. He limited opposing hitters to a .231 average.

In the same number of appearances through Friday night’s one-hit gem over the Minnesota Twins, Kluber has tossed more innings (180 2/3), struck out more batters (193), and walked fewer (34), all while allowing the same batting average (.231) at the plate. He has reached double-digit strikeout totals in-game seven times, just as he did through the same number of starts last year. He has allowed just six more hits in those starts, including three more home runs, but somehow has surrendered 20 more earned runs to help inflate his ERA to 3.34 so far this season, still a strong effort and the second-best mark amongst starters on the Indians staff.

Despite extremely similar numbers across the stat sheet on his part, the opposing team has been able to cross the plate more this season. Then, when coupled with the abhorrent number of runs scored to support him on the mound, the problem has compounded significantly and cost the team a number of games that Kluber had pitched well enough for the Indians to win.

Last season, the Indians averaged 4.34 runs of support in games started by Kluber. This season, the mark falls to 3.32, the fifth-fewest runs of support in the AL. Four times this season alone the team has failed to score any runs in a game he started and another three times the Tribe gave him one run to work with. Not surprisingly, Kluber is 0-6 in those starts with one no-decision.

Will the recently improved results from Kluber be enough for the starter to seriously get back into the conversation for the game’s top pitching award?

His numbers certainly merit discussion on the matter, even though many detractors will get stuck on the archaic and outdated win-loss record as the first means to count Kluber out of consideration.

The Tribe’s top starter is the poster boy for why wins and losses no longer should carry the weight they once did. It was different when pitchers were routinely throwing seven, eight, and nine innings per night. Once bullpens became specialized, the statistic has become just another relic of old, a means to quickly and easily compare pitchers across the board with a stat that generally features some of the game’s best, while overlooking situations like that of Kluber, who has been cursed with a dormant offense for the majority of the season.

Kluber gets punished, from a wins and losses perspective, by the lack of offense supplied to him while displaying a proficiency for pitching deep into ball games while keeping his pitch count reasonable. Through 25 starts, he has completed five innings every time out and 21 of those times was on the mound to at least start the seventh inning. He leads the league with four complete games and has three complete game wins under his belt.

Even while tied for the league lead with 12 losses, Kluber still finds himself at the top of the more positive pitching stats in the game. He is 14th in the AL in ERA; 10th in batting average against; 7th in WAR amongst pitchers (3.4); 6th in quality starts (16); 5th in slugging percentage (.342), on-base plus slugging (.616), strikeouts per nine innings (9.61), and fewest walks per nine (1.69); 4th in on-base percentage (.274), WHIP (1.04), and grounders into double plays (17); and 3rd in strikeouts per walk (5.68). He is tied for the AL lead in strikeouts with Chicago’s Chris Sale.

He is the Major League leader in starts (25), innings, complete games, batters faced (714), and total pitches (2,620). A total of 73 qualified starting pitchers have allowed more walks than Kluber’s 34.

As it stands, Kluber is not in the top ten in the AL on ESPN’s Cy Young Predictor. Using various other predictors, he does not favor well either. His 73.5 Cy Young points using Bill James’ method places him 31st amongst AL pitchers, several spots behind teammates Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco. That formula places weight on wins and losses as well as whether or not the team is in first place in their division or not. The Tom Tango Cy Young points method has him a far more favorable eighth in the AL. That formula, looking more closely at innings, earned runs, strikeouts, and with less weight associated with wins, has been better at assessing award winners over the last decade.

The early frontrunner, or so it would seem, would remain to be Houston’s Dallas Keuchel, who appears the number one option across the board in all three methods. The lefty, who the Indians saw to start the season, has been a driving force to the resurgent Astros. Heading into Sunday, the Space City’s young squad leads the American League West by two and a half over the Los Angeles Angels. Keuchel himself leads the AL in a handful of pitching categories.

With 14 wins, he is tied for the MLB lead. His 2.36 ERA is third-best in the AL and fifth overall. He trails just Kluber in innings pitched by nine, but has allowed 20 fewer hits and 22 fewer earned runs this season. His 151 strikeouts tie him with Salazar for sixth in the AL and he is sixth, just one-thousandth of a point behind Salazar, with a .213 batting average allowed. His 1.01 WHIP is third-best in the league, trailing two other Cy-worthy candidates in Sonny Gray and Chris Archer. Keuchel trails Kluber and Mark Buehrle in complete games, but is tied for the MLB lead with a pair of shutouts. His ground ball to fly ball out ratio is well and above all other pitchers in the AL. He has been steadily solid this season and was recognized for his strong first half with his starting nod in this year’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Also benefitting Keuchel is the ever-increasing likelihood that the Astros return to the postseason for the first time since being swept in the World Series by the Chicago White Sox in 2005. They remain on pace to win their division for the first time since taking the NL Central in 2001.

The situation for Oakland’s Gray is similar to Kluber in that he is playing on a team whose postseason hopes are merely dreams at this stage of the season. His 12 wins are fifth-best in the AL and his 2.06 ERA leads the league and is third-best in all of baseball. He is fifth in the league in innings pitched (161 2/3), tenth in strikeouts (136), and first in both batting average allowed (.198) and WHIP (0.96). He, like Keuchel, trails Kluber with three complete games, but is tied with Keuchel with two shutouts.

Gray ranks in second on all three predicting measurements considered here.

Former Indians farmhand Archer has built on a solid 2014 and is on pace to shatter most personal career bests this season. He has already toppled his previous strikeout high of 173 with 190 this year, all in 40 fewer innings pitched. He has matched his best of ten wins, also set last season. His ERA of 2.62 is fifth-best in the AL, his batting average (.206) and WHIP (1.00) second, and his strikeout total third behind Kluber and Sale.

The Rays, however, are stuck around the .500 mark, a half dozen games out of the divisional race and a game and a half out of the AL Wild Card chase. He is tenth on the Bill James list, eighth on the ESPN predictor, and fourth on the Tango tracker.

David Price does not even appear on the ESPN rankings in the AL, one clogged by three closers on the list and just ten pitchers deep. In his final season before cashing in to a bank-breaking contract in free agency this offseason, he parlayed a strong start on a disappointing Detroit Tigers team into a serious chance at playing in October after his trade to the Toronto Blue Jays. He is 11-4 on the season with a 2.41 ERA, fourth-best in the league. He is third in innings pitched (168 1/3), fourth in strikeouts (162), and ninth in WHIP (1.09), while always seeming to make his way onto the final balloting for the award. Going 30-16 in his career in the final two months of the season with a sub-3.00 ERA never seems to hurt his cause. So far in August since joining the Blue Jays, he is 2-0 with a 1.61 ERA.

Price is third on both the Tango list and the Bill James list in the AL.

Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, the man thought by some to have been slighted last season when Kluber was given the award, once again finds himself at the top of the win column in baseball with 14. His 3.11 ERA is his highest mark since 2011, but certainly is nothing to scoff at. He has made 23 starts, has thrown a pair of complete games, each shutouts, and has logged 150 2/3 innings. His walk rate is a bit elevated, when compared to his last few seasons, and is sitting around his career average, while his strikeout rate is down nearly one per nine innings. He was still an All-Star for the sixth time in seven years. The one year he was not in the Midsummer Classic in that stretch was ironically the season he won his one and only Cy in 2010, going 13-12 with a 2.27 ERA on a 61-101 Mariners team.

ESPN ranks him third on their predictor, while he is fourth on the Bill James point list. He is seventh on the Tom Tango list, one spot above Kluber.

Sale may be on the outside looking in once again. He missed his first start of the season, but found an unbelievable groove in mid-May, when he notched eight straight double-digit strikeout performances and ten of 12 starts through early July. He is tied with Kluber for the strikeouts lead in the AL, in two fewer starts, and could eclipse the 200-mark for the third straight season in his next start. His ERA is elevated higher than others on this list, in large part to a pair of seven-run outings in back-to-back starts July 30th and August 4th.

Sale is next on the list after Kluber on the Tango points at number nine, while 22nd on the James’ list and not in the top ten of ESPN’s rankings. Working against him is a 15-15 career record in August/September/October with a 3.35 ERA.

For time sake, honorable mention tips of the cap to Houston’s Scott Kazmir and Collin McHugh, New York’s Nathan Eovaldi, and a slew of closers for the seasons they have put up as well.

Kluber played his best ball down the stretch last year and with back-to-back complete game efforts and a beautiful one-hit effort over the Twins on Friday, he may be heating up for another strong run. In his last two outings, he has allowed just solo runs in each on four total hits while striking out 17 and walking two. He has done so with a cost-controlled 99-pitch average between the two outings. He continues to flirt with no-hitters as well, looking to become the first to do so for an Indians team since 1981. He has allowed three hits or fewer in five starts this season, and in his other one-hit outing this year, held the St. Louis Cardinals hitless into the seventh inning on May 13th while striking out a team-record-tying 18 batters in just eight innings.

Last season, he was 2-2 in August, but in five starts allowed just eight runs (2.10 ERA) while striking out 43 batters in 34 1/3 innings. In his final six starts, he was 5-1 with a 2.09 ERA, striking out 56 in 43 innings. His strong finish may have given him the edge he needed to eek past King Felix to claim the award for the third time in eight seasons for an Indians pitcher.

Is he going to repeat? Chances are, no. The odds are just too stacked against him, especially with the Indians not legitimately in any of the playoff races at the present time. He has, however, gotten his name back on the radar and, after the start to the year that he had with the Indians losing each of his first seven starts while he posted an 0-5 record with a 5.04 ERA, that in and of itself is a mighty accomplishment. In general, how a player finishes the year seems more important than how he starts it or if he trips up a little along the way (as Kluber did last June when he was 1-3 in six starts, despite a 2.89 ERA).

Anything is possible, though. The Indians have played better baseball since the break and several trades cleared some dead weight from the clubhouse. Kluber has finally gotten some consistent run support (30 runs over the last four starts to be exact and 39 over his last six) and the staff as a whole continues to pitch well. There are still six-plus weeks to make (or break) a case for any of these arms, and stranger things have happened in professional sports.

Photo: AP Photo/Jim Mone

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. My problem with Kluber especially in the 1st half of the season is that he was always giving up runs in the early innings. The starting pitcher needs to hold the opposing team scoreless until his team scores because it is so important to play with the lead.The way the game is today it often takes a shutout to win 1-0. There have been a bunch of 1-0 games this year. I remember Toronto beating Tampa 1-0 in 12 Innings. And Tampa won a game 1-0 when the Tampa pitcher hit a home run. A while back NY and STL played 18 innings. The first 12 were scoreless. They both scored in the 13th and the Mets score 2 in the 18th to win it. 15 of the 18 innings were scoreless. So many fans want to yell about the hitting in a low scoring game but baseball is not like it was in the 90’s.

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