Kluber building quiet Cy Young case
Tied for second in baseball with 5.3 Wins Above Replacement
On the surface, it might seem that Corey Kluber's attempt to follow up his 2014 American League Cy Young Award has been a disappointment. Last year, Kluber went 18-9; this year, he's 8-12. Last year, his ERA was 2.44. This year, it's 3.34. In a season where just about nothing has gone as expected for the Indians, Kluber's apparent step back would seem to be at the top of the list.
That's one way to look at it. Here's a more accurate one: In reality, Kluber's been nearly as good as he was in 2014, and he's actually got a sneaky case to make for a second consecutive AL Cy Young Award. Yes, we're serious.
That's a big claim, so let's back it up. It should go without saying to toss aside Kluber's win/loss record, because we live in the year 2015 and we know that pitcher records can be misleading at best and downright incorrect at worst. (Look no further than Nathan Eovaldi, who went from 6-14 in 2014 to 12-2 this year, despite the fact his ERA marks of 4.37 and 4.26 are essentially identical.)
Record aside, all of Kluber's important peripherals show a pitcher that's not only doing just about as well as he did in 2014, but is at or near the top of the AL in many categories.
Last year, Kluber struck out 28.3 percent of the hitters he faced and walked just 5.4 percent, a positive difference of 22.9. This year, he's striking out 27 percent while dropping the walk rate to 4.8 percent, giving him a nearly-identical difference of 22.3 percent. Kluber's home runs allowed per nine innings of 0.65 is up only slightly from last year's 0.53, and his Fielding Independent Pitching mark of 2.58, while up a bit from last year's 2.35, is the second best in the AL behind only Chris Sale.
It's OK if you don't care for FIP, a stat that is tied to the same scale as ERA and attempts to measure the pitcher only on what he can control, not what his defense and bullpen helps (or doesn't) with. But know that many of those within the game do, even if Kluber's ranks have changed slightly in the weeks since this was tweeted:
Based on the fact that Kluber ranks in the top five in the AL in all the categories mentioned, and that he leads all of baseball in innings pitched with 180 2/3, he's actually behind only the great Clayton Kershaw in Wins Above Replacement with 5.3.
So we know that Kluber's again been dominant, but it doesn't answer the obvious question. If he's been so good, why haven't the results been there? The wins are easy to explain, because Cleveland's offense just hasn't supported its ace. Of the 13 times he's allowed two runs or fewer, the Tribe has won just six of them. Kluber's average run support of 3.32 runs per game is 80th of 89 qualified pitchers, well down from last year's 4.35, which ranked 29th of 88.
The runs Kluber has allowed, however, are a bit more complicated, and the truth is that it's more likely a combination of reasons than any one thing. It's true that the defense behind him was problematic early in the season until Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor replaced Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez at third base and shortstop, respectively, but the 2014 Indians' defense was even worse, with a whopping minus-75 Defensive Runs Saved. It's not that Kluber was getting hit harder early on; his Statcast™ exit velocity in April was 88.12 mph, and it's been 88.61 mph since the All-Star Game.
Instead, a potential issue may have been an injury that affected the entire staff. Kluber lost catcher Yan Gomes to a knee injury in early April, after he'd gotten off to a good start (four earned runs allowed in 13 innings, with 17 strikeouts) pitching to the backstop who had caught all but two of his 2014 starts. Though backup Roberto Perez is well-regarded as a catcher, there were obvious adjustment issues, as their first five starts together came with an ugly 6.10 ERA, including at least four earned runs four times.
Since that stretch ended, Kluber has made 18 starts -- three with Perez, the rest with Gomes -- and put together a much more Kluber-like 2.78 ERA with 147 strikeouts in 136 innings.
Because of the top-level stats and the presence of elite AL pitchers like Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Chris Archer, Sonny Gray and David Price, Kluber may not have much of a realistic shot to back up his 2014 AL Cy Young Award. That doesn't mean he should be overlooked, however. What Kluber does was good enough to win last year, and it's more than deserving to be in the conversation this year.