Something amazing happened in the seventh inning of Monday night's Tigers-Indians game: Corey Kluber was pitching for the Tribe, and you expect amazing things to happen all the time when he pitches, but this was truly crazy.
Kluber was in the midst of a difficult seven-pitch at-bat with one of baseball's grand old men, Victor Martinez. On the seventh pitch, Kluber threw a ridiculous curveball that moved like a moth in the wind and ended at Martinez's knees. The hitter swung and hit a ground ball to first base, and Edwin Encarnacion smothered it. Kluber ran over to cover first, received a good throw and stepped on the bag for an out.
And then it happened -- Kluber smiled.
It was almost impossible to believe. Kluber never smiles. Everybody knows that. Not smiling is his thing. He's the Klubot, the unmovable force, the Buckingham Palace guard of pitching. But whatever it was -- the absurdity of the cold weather, some remark that Encarnacion or Martinez made, a flashback to the "Anybody want a peanut" scene in "The Princess Bride" -- something broke him up. For a moment, the dominant right-hander looked just like anybody else.
Then the smile faded, the "Terminator" look returned, Kluber stepped back on the mound and he threw a "Bugs Bunny" changeup to Mikie Mahtook, who flew out to end the inning.* * * * *
Let's talk numbers: As our own Andrew Simon tweeted, over the past 26 starts (dating back to June 1 of last year) Kluber has pitched 189 1/3 innings. And he has been absurdly good -- his ERA over that stretch is 1.62. His record is 16-3.
In fact, with the help of Tom Tango, we looked back at the best 26-game stretches of the century so far. Yes, "26-game stretches" are a little bit awkward, but they are long enough to generally rule out flukiness. If you are Kluber-esque for 26 consecutive starts, there's a pretty good chance that you are all-time great material.
There have been eight 26-game stretches since 2000 where a pitcher maintained a 1.70 ERA or less. Here are those stretches in order of dominance:
9. Zack Greinke (Aug. 30, 2014 to July 26, 2015)
13-2, 176 1/3 IP, 124 H, 153 K's, 31 BB, 1.58 ERA
Will Greinke end up in the Hall of Fame? It's a trickier question than you might think no matter which side you happen to be on. Greinke's 2009 season with Kansas City is one of the best over the past quarter century, but this was his most dominant stretch.
When Greinke first came up, people often compared him to Greg Maddux; it's not a fair comparison -- nobody can compare to Maddux -- but it is fair to say that he shares the Hall of Famer's tendency to rarely seem overpowering even while he is.
Video: Greinke's scoreless streak reaches 43 2/3 innings
Speaking of Maddux, I have to share this crazy statistic with you: Kluber has not given up more than four earned runs in any contest during his 26-game streak. That seems impressive to go 26 straight games without giving up more than four, so I decided to look it up: What is the longest modern streak for consecutive starts without allowing more than four earned runs in a game? Here they are from the past 40 years:
5. Jake Peavy, 47 starts
4. Kyle Hendricks, 48 starts
3. Tyson Ross, 49 starts
2. Jake Arrieta, 52 starts
Those are really good, certainly -- look at Ross get in there! You already know who No. 1 is, but wait for it.
1. Greg Maddux, 106 starts
Yes, that's right -- 106 starts. He did not allow more than four earned runs in a game from July 1991 to June 1994. Maddux is the master.
8. Roger Clemens (Sept. 19, 2004 to Aug. 7, 2005)
12-4, 177 1/3 IP, 118 H, 169 K's, 50 BB, 1.42 ERA
Yes, this was the old Clemens, who has become hugely controversial because of the performance-enhancing drug allegations. But the truth is that by this point in his career, he had simply figured out pitching. Clemens' strikeout-to-walk ratio is the least impressive of the nine pitchers on this list, but he only gave up seven home runs and very few hits. He simply knew how to get people out. People's strong feelings about Clemens have made it easy to overlook just how brilliant he was on the mound.
7. Johan Santana (June 25, 2004 to May 6, 2005)
20-3, 186 1/3 IP, 103 H, 234 K's, 34 BB, 1.69 ERA
It seems likely that everyone will too quickly forget just how good Santana was with the Twins. He was the best pitcher in baseball for a handful of years, and this was his most extraordinary stretch. You just could not hit Santana's fastball-slider-changeup combination; it was particularly his changeup that left hitters shaking their heads. By the way, Minnesota went 23-3 over those 26 games.
Video: KC@MIN: Santana completes first shutout
6. Clayton Kershaw (Sept. 21, 2013 to Sept. 8, 2014)
20-3, 190 1/3 IP, 125 H, 228 K's, 29 BB, 1.56 ERA
Well, wait for it: We'll see Kershaw again.
5. Corey Kluber (June 1, 2017 to April 9, 2018)
16-3, 189 1/3 IP, 114 H, 251 K's, 27 BB, 1.62 ERA
The thing about Kluber is that he always seems in complete control. Maybe it's because he displays so little emotion. Maybe it's because Kluber has a curveball that seems to operate in its own gravitational universe. Whatever it is, the Tigers on Monday seemed entirely beaten more or less from the first pitch.
There's something else fascinating about Kluber -- something that is true about the greatest pitchers: He plays off umpires the way Frank Sinatra played off the microphone. Sinatra famously said that his voice was not his instrument, it was the microphone; he knew precisely how to use it, how far to keep it from his mouth, when to get closer, when to pull back, etc. I was thinking about that while watching Kluber throw all of these borderline pitches, right on or off the corner, a millimeter from a ball or strike call. He challenges umpires by throwing those sorts of pitches over and over and over again -- just on the corner, just over the plate, just off the corner, just off the plate.
And every time an umpire calls one of those pitches a strike -- especially a strike three -- the batter loses his mind with the thought bubble bursting, "Well, if that is a strike, what chance do I even have up here?"
As Sinatra sang: It's the summer wind.
4. Randy Johnson (July 5, 1999 to May 16, 2000)
15-5, 208 1/3 IP, 142 H, 276 K's, 48 BB, 1.51 ERA
You will notice that Johnson threw the most innings -- he averaged eight innings per start and threw a complete game in 11 of them. He did not get enough credit for that; The Big Unit was virtually indestructible. Here's one for you: the left-hander completed 100 games. You can wager that Johnson will be the last pitcher to ever reach triple digits in that category; Kershaw, for comparison's sake, has 25.
3. Clayton Kershaw (July 8, 2015 to May 23, 2016)
18-2, 197 2/3 IP, 119 H, 249 K's, 20 BB, 1.32 ERA
Twenty walks, that's just ridiculous. Sure, it's all absurd beginning with the fact that Kershaw is the only pitcher with two of these streaks. The southpaw just attacks from the first pitch of every at-bat. His ERA this year -- even as he looks for his first win -- is 1.89. If Kershaw manages to keep it below 2.00 all year, it will be his third such season, tying him with Sandy Koufax for the most sub-2.00 ERA seasons since the Deadball Era.
2. Pedro Martinez (Aug. 24, 1999 to July 28, 2000)
20-3, 193 IP, 110 H, 285 K's, 30 BB, 1.21 ERA
The way Tango pulled out this list was he looked for pitchers who has a sub-1.70 ERA for 26 consecutive starts. With Martinez, it's different -- he essentially had 26 of these streaks. That's because he had a 52-game stretch where his ERA was sub 1.70: From Aug. 3, 1999 to May 30, 2001, he had a 1.58 ERA. That's basically superhuman stuff, especially when you consider that it was at the height of the offensive era and that he was pitching half his games at Fenway Park. I remain convinced that over a five- or six-year period, Martinez was the best pitcher in baseball history.
Video: BOS@NYY: Pedro fans 17 Yanks in a one-hit victory
1. Jake Arrieta (June 21, 2015 to May 3, 2016)
22-1, 190 IP, 96 H, 184 K's, 39 BB, 0.85 ERA
And there it is -- the craziest 26-game stretch in baseball this century. How the heck did Arrieta do it? He didn't quite average a strikeout per inning. He walked more than most guys on this list. But here's the thing: He was flat unhittable. Arrieta allowed four home runs during the entire stretch -- yeah, four. Batters hit an unfathomable .147/.203/.210 against him. They simply could not get any sort of solid wood on the ball; it was like trying to hit one of the agents in "The Matrix."
Video: Arrieta tosses no-hitters in consecutive seasons
The Cubs went 24-2 over this stretch, the best run for any of these premier hurlers.
Arrieta has not been quite the same pitcher since then, but realistically no one could keep up that pace. For 26 games, he was the best pitcher who ever lived.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.