Kluber Among Top Candidates in Strong 2016 American League Cy Young Award Race

In 2014, Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber went 18-9 with a 2.49 ERA and 269 strikeouts. Those numbers in what was his breakout season earned Kluber the American League Cy Young Award.

This year, Kluber toted the same exact 18-9 record in the regular season. His ERA was a little higher, at 3.14, yet still was among the best in the A.L. and he struck out 227 batters that he faced. He may have even won more games if not for exiting his final start early and missing his final turn in the rotation.

With comparable numbers to that 2014 campaign, it now remains to be seen if The Klubot can take home this season’s hardware as the league’s top pitcher again. There are some major differences between that magical year for Cleveland’s No. 1 starter and this year.

Two years ago, the race seemed to be a two-man showing as it was widely assumed the trophy would go to the Indians ace or Seattle’s top starting pitcher Felix Hernandez. King Felix finished second in the balloting among the voting sports writers.

This year, the competition seems much more competitive. Kluber is again one of the favorites. However, there are at least three other hurlers who could have serious hopes of claiming this year’s Cy Young Award in the A.L.

For Kluber, one thing going in his favor was that he was the unquestioned leader of a starting rotation that helped guide the Indians to the playoffs and now the American League Championship Series. Of course, this is a regular season award, voted on before the playoffs, so Kluber’s strong postseason work is not able to be taken into account.

However, he was the glue of a starting five that seemed to be crumbling around him. As the Tribe’s No. 2 and 3 starters, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, went down with injuries in September and were lost for the stretch run and playoffs, Kluber remained his masterful self. As long as the Indians were still able to rely on their ace, it gave the team and its fans hope that all was not lost in a promising season.

Kluber certainly deserves credit for being the one member of Cleveland’s rotation, billed as one of the best in the preseason, to actually pitch at or above his expectations. Without Kluber, the Tribe rotation would have been in complete disarray in September and a late-season collapse may have even been a possibility with the Tribe not even getting into the playoffs.

However, Kluber is not alone when it comes to excellent pitchers who helped get their teams into October baseball. Toronto’s J.A. Happ is on the other side of the diamond in the ALCS as the Blue Jays oppose the Indians. The Tribe just vanquished Boston and Cy Young hopeful Rick Porcello in the American League Division Series. Both Happ and Porcello won 20 games this season. Happ was 20-4; Porcello was 22-3. They were the only two pitchers in the A.L. to win that many contests. Happ, at 3.18, and Porcello, at 3.15, both had an ERA almost as good as Kluber’s.

Unlike Kluber, Happ was in a healthier and strong rotation and was not even thought of as his team’s best pure pitcher. He will probably take a hit in the voting for that.

Porcello, however, was the ace of the Red Sox starting five. Free agent acquisition David Price did not get it going until the second half of the season. Meanwhile, the rest of Boston’s rotation was up and down and suffered injuries, much like Cleveland’s starting five. Porcello, at times, seemed to be the Sox’s best or only chance for a win carried by the starting pitcher some weeks. It felt that way with Kluber in Cleveland at times in the season’s final two months.

Another comparison for Porcello to Kluber is that Porcello came out of nowhere. When Kluber won the Cy Young trophy in 2014, he was a solid starter, but never considered dominant or elite. He had only been in the league for two full seasons before that. Conversely, Porcello had seven seasons, prior to this one, under his belt. He was a good, but not great, starter each of those years. He opened some eyes in his eighth year at the age of 27. A guy who won double digit games six times before the age of 26, this was Porcello’s best campaign and perhaps the one that puts him on the Major League Baseball map for good.

If you believe a reliever should win the award as some do, then Zach Britton is strongly in the conversation. The Orioles closer was a key figure in helping Baltimore get one of the AL’s Wild Card spots. He saved a league-high 47 games. He surrendered all of four earned runs in 67 innings for a ridiculously low 0.54 ERA. He had a season for a closer the likes of which even the great Mariano Rivera rarely had.

Where Kluber has a leg up on this competition is in the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) category. This has become an important state of late. His is, by far, better than the three others in this conversation. Among MLB pitchers, Kluber was second at 6.45. Of the trio of pitchers that seem to be in the Cy Young Award discussion, Porcello was next all the way down at 5.04.

However, if the modern-age voter takes WAR as a major statistic, it could open the door for a fifth pitcher and former Cy winner and A.L. MVP to enter the race for this season’s CYA. Detroit’s Justin Verlander led all of baseball with a 6.61 WAR. His traditional numbers were not too shabby, at 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA. The ERA mark was second in the American League behind Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez, at 3.00.

Verlander, however, is the one guy with a real shot at the CYA to have not helped pitch his team to the postseason. The Tigers lost in their Wild Card bid on the final day of the regular season. Verlander was a big reason Detroit even managed to remain in contention all summer, despite numerous rotation injuries and ineffectiveness of its own. However, with so many qualified pitchers for this award, voters probably favored the ones who were major parts of postseason teams.

Happ is hurt by having such strong rotation mates around him. The A.L. ERA leader was in the Blue Jays starting five, as was nine-game winner Marco Estrada, who had a fine 3.48 ERA of his own.

Britton, even pitching one inning most nights, would have a real shot in other years. However, with worthy starting pitching candidates for the league’s top pitching prize, he does not seem worthy, as great as he was this year.

That leaves Kluber and Porcello as the likely favorites to land the 2016 A.L. Cy Young Award. They seem close. Kluber led in WAR by a lot and slightly in ERA. Porcello won four more games. Both pitched in rotations decimated by pitchers suffering injuries and battling long bouts of struggling periods. Both helped lead their teams to division championships, with breathing room to spare.

Kluber is helped in that he was already in the national spotlight before this season. The voters were already aware of his greatness. Porcello, however, is entering his prime already at 107 wins and may enter the national spotlight with his first CYA. It is tough to pick against Kluber, but Porcello had one of those kick-down-the-door and make-people-take-notice types of seasons. Porcello will likely win, but it would not be a shock if Kluber got his second trophy in three years either.

Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

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