Advanced metrics confirm Kluber as the right choice
It’s almost comical looking back at it.
In 2010, the Indians acquired Corey Kluber in a three-team deal that sent Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and Ryan Ludwick from the Cardinals to the Padres. San Diego would give the Indians a 24-year old pitcher still trying to navigate through Double-A, and fans and pundits alike weren’t thrilled with the trade from the Indians perspective.
The fans were upset as Westbrook was beloved in Cleveland. He was a workhorse in the middle of the rotation for close to a decade. He was by all means a good guy, someone who had taken less money to stay just a few years earlier. Most writers and analysts didn’t consider Kluber much of a prospect, and therefore labeled the trade as a salary dump. Of course, the Indians had the audacity to send out cash to facilitate the trade and thus minimized the cost savings the deal provided, upsetting people even more.
At the time of the trade Kluber was in the midst of a solid year at Double A, but at 24 he was old for the league and hadn’t had much success since being drafted. For an advanced college pitcher, he struggled mightily in his first turns in High-A and Double-A.
After the trade he would struggle again in his first taste of action in Triple-A. By that time he was going on 26 years old and didn’t appear to have much of a future as a starter, if at all. Kluber would return to Triple-A the following year and begin an extended period of success that put him on the map and culminated with the Cy Young award on Wednesday.
In the past I’ve covered the changes that Kluber made to his repertoire around this time that allowed him to reinvent himself. Still, even after his breakthrough season in 2013, there was only muted optimism of his ability to turn into a solid major league starter.
Those worries seemed reasonable after an April in which Kluber posted a 4.14 ERA in 37 innings. That month ended up being the only blemish on his season, as he never posted an ERA over 2.89 in any month the rest of the way. His second half was one of the more impressive of recent memory with a 1.80 FIP and 10.99 K/9 rate in just over 100 innings. All of this while his BABIP was still over .302, which can almost assuredly be blamed at least partially on his defense. That’s something we’ll get into later.
Considering his track record, or lack thereof, it’s been easy for people to proceed with caution when it comes to evaluating Kluber’s success. In fact, it appeared to me that the best argument that could have been made for Felix Hernandez to win the Cy Young is that he’s been a better pitcher – key word, been. In Kluber’s own words on his chances of winning against Hernandez, he had this to say:
“I guess I just assumed that who he was and how good of a year he had, and all that kind of stuff, would get him more votes.”
Most certainly a player’s pedigree or name recognition has had a bearing on these types of awards in the past, as has some writer’s refusal to branch out and consider advanced metrics when evaluating candidates for their various awards. In the antiquated stat world in which some writers have existed, ERA (or worse, wins) was king for evaluating a pitcher’s performance. Of course, ERA has its limitations in reflecting a pitcher’s true performance – like how good his defense is.
Hernandez’s 2.14 ERA bested Kluber’s 2.44 mark by a good margin. However, Kluber pitched in front of perhaps the worst defense in the major leagues. Using FIP, a fielding adjusted ERA measure, Kluber’s checks in at 2.35 while Hernandez’s mark rises to 2.56. This is even before noting that Hernandez pitches roughly half of his games in one of the more pitcher friendly parks in baseball.
That’s not all, WAR (wins above replacement) is a sabermetric statistic that gives a snapshot of a player’s contribution to a team in terms of wins added. A ‘replacement level player’ is essentially what it sounds like - an interchangeable player that could be replaced with hardly any cost or effort. It symbolizes a control or base line measure for performance to evaluate others against. Kluber’s WAR of 7.3 led all major league pitchers. Hernandez checked in at 6.2, third best after Kluber and Clayton Kershaw, the National League Cy Young winner. This shows a decent sized gap between the two pitchers.
The most impressive stat of all is Kluber recording 269 strikeouts on the season. That’s the third highest number of any pitcher in the last decade. His 10.27 K/9 rate was his highest at any level since A ball in 2008 and it was a sizable jump from his 2013 rate in the majors (8.31). His walk rate, the most troublesome area of his minor league career, has improved each of the last four seasons. His home run rate, the second most troublesome area of his minor league career, has improved each of the last three seasons.
This shows something that might be unthinkable at this point; Corey Kluber could be getting even better.
Next season he’ll lead one of the younger and more talented rotations in the majors. In just three years he’ll have gone from Triple-A depth starter and borderline prospect to one of the best pitchers in the league. There’s upside for even more with better infield defense. Truly, Kluber’s rise is one of the better stories out of the organization in years.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Baseball Writers Association of America used to hand the Cy Young Award to whichever pitcher had the best combination of name recognition, ERA, and wins. At least, that was the perception of many. On Wednesday, by awarding Corey Kluber the American League Cy Young, they showed they’ve made progress on their antiquated methods. They awarded the best pitcher.
That pitcher being Corey Kluber is as much of a shock to Indians fans who’ve followed his career as it was to the rest of the baseball world who barely knew who he was until the last couple of months of the season.
The next chapter should be even better.
What are your thoughts of the Indians FO hiring Clint Longenecker from Baseball America? He is the 4th person the Indians have hired from Baseball America? Does that mean that there improving there scouting dept?
I am very impressed with your sports knowledge and the way you put your knowledge to type.
I could only imagine what your writing would hold if you wrote about your favorite team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Congratulations very proud that you are my nephew.