Corey Kluber outduels King Felix again to win A.L. Cy Young
Indians ace becomes third Tribe pitcher to win the award in eight years
CLEVELAND—Corey Kluber took the mound at Progressive Field just like any normal game.
Two feet spread apart on the rubber, eyes fixated on his target…emotionless as he leaned back into his windup.
Only this time, it was different.
Five hours earlier, the team dealt rotation front-man Justin Masterson to St. Louis, leaving the 28 year old Kluber at helm of a pitching staff in his first full season in the big leagues.
He wouldn’t disappoint.
Needing just 85 pitches, Kluber outdueled Mariners ace Felix Hernandez by tossing a nine inning complete game shutout.
Fifteen weeks later, the two hard throwing right-handers were at it again, this time in a battle for the American League Cy Young Award. He wouldn’t have to go a full nine innings on this night, but once again came out with the victory, edging Hernandez by a mere 10 points to win the game’s highest pitching honor.
“I really wasn’t expecting it,” Kluber said. “Honestly, I was fully expecting Felix to win. I think with how good of a year he had and who he is and all the stuff he’s done in the past, I just assumed he was going to win. Obviously, I think it's one of those things where I would've been in no position to have any kind of argument if he would've won. He had such a great year."
With 17 first place votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), Kluber becomes the fourth Tribe pitcher to win the Cy Young award in team history, joining Gaylord Perry (1972), CC Sabathia (2007) and Cliff Lee (2008). It marks three winners in the last eight seasons for general manager Chris Antonetti and the organization.
“We thought Corey was the best pitcher in the American League this year with the way he pitched the entire season,” Antonetti said. “Not only the numbers he put up, but the environment he did it in. More than anything, the award is recognition of all of the hard work Corey has put in throughout his career.”
Acquired from the San Diego Padres in a three-team deal that sent former Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook to St. Louis in 2010, Kluber couldn’t have shined in a bigger way in 2014. The right-hander became the first Cleveland starter to win 15 or more games since 2008, and his 269 strikeouts were the most by a pitcher on the franchise in 44 years.
“I think for me the coolest part is having my name along some of the great players of the Indians,” Kluber said. “It’s humbling for sure, but it’s also a pretty cool feeling being mentioned in the same sentence for some of the things you did.”
Left off American League All-Star team in July, the 28 year old arguably became the game’s best pitcher during the second half of the season. His 1.73 ERA and 127 punchouts in 104 innings after the Mid-Summer Classic were tops in all of baseball.
“I think if there was any motivation in the second half it was team driven,” Kluber said. “The fact that we were right in the middle of a playoff chase, that’s the driving factor for all of us is to try and get to the postseason. That was a good distraction in a sense and it kept my mind off of it."
The team wouldn’t make it easy on him, dealing Masterson in late July in a move that could’ve derailed Kluber and his stellar season.
“What everybody doesn’t know is Terry [Francona] and I actually called Kluber into the office and we wanted him to lead the staff,” pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. “He was pitching really well, he knew he was going to be in the running for the Cy Young at this point, and then we added this extra layer of difficulty to his season by really kind of coaching him into the direction of being the leader of the staff.”
Like anything in front of him, the new Indians ace took the position as the staff leader and ran with it.
“For me, the most difficult part about that was, Masty was the guy that I always went to when I needed something,” Kluber said. I guess the toughest thing for me was kind of now being that guy that people would come to. I wasn’t really used to having that role, so kind learning how to handle helping other guys out and at the same time also asking for help was probably the biggest learning curve.”
In turn, it was his curve and the help of his teammates that would make the transition an easy one. Relying more on his sinker this season helped Kluber take that next step as a major league starter, as he held the opposition to a dismal .091 average when using the off-speed pitch.
“When I switched to that pitch instead of a four-seam fastball it really allowed me to command my fastball better and in turn made all my other pitches more effective,” Kluber said. “There have been a lot of people that have helped me out along the way. It’s an individual award, but there’s a lot of people on the team that helped you get there.”
One of those friends and teammates was catcher Yan Gomes.
“Yan is obviously a huge part of this,” Kluber said. “He doesn’t like to believe that but I think he’s a big part of the success that I’ve had. He makes all of our jobs easier as pitchers because he cares so much of being back there behind the plate.”
His battery mate couldn’t have been more proud for him either.
“It was unbelievable just watching it,” Gomes said. “I was so excited for him and his work ethic. Everything really showed how much he grew this year. He put it on himself to lead the staff, he wasn’t going to be a guy to do it vocally or standing up to anyone, he did it by example and I know a lot of guys followed him.”
It may be hard to believe, but Kluber did not make the Indians Opening Day roster in 2013. Battling and fighting his way into the rotation by the middle of the season set himself up to be successful this past season.
“I think 2013 was a big year for me as far as my confidence level,” Kluber said. “It kind of proved to me what I was capable of as a big league pitcher. I came into this year with a lot of confidence in myself and as the year went on, that kind of grew and it led to better outings.”
Fighting for a playoff spot down the stretch, Kluber couldn’t have capped the 2014 campaign on a higher note. The Tribe ace went 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA in his final five September starts, striking out at least 11 batters in his last three outings.
“Guys can put a lot of pressure on themselves, I think Kluber took it to the next level,” Gomes said. “Dominant doesn’t even explain it. These are games that we knew we were close and that just kind of shows the leadership a starting pitcher can have.”
Unlike Cleveland’s two previous Cy Young winners, the good news is this one will be sticking around for awhile. Kluber isn’t set to hit the free agent market until the 2019 season. Making a little over $500,000 in 2014, he is once again set to make the league minimum next year.
“He is exactly what you want out of a major league pitcher,” Callway said. “As far as his consistency and his work ethic and the way he goes about his business daily, there’s no better guy to watch than him. For him to do what he did and win the Cy Young with all those pressures and to 80 more innings than he’s ever had in his life, is really something special.”
Soon, Kluber will again have his feet spread apart, eyes locked on his target…emotionless as he leans in, this time to accept his Cy Young Award.
“I think the think we’re most encouraged about is that we’ll have Corey continuing to lead our staff for the conceivable future,” Antonetti said. “You can’t have a better guy setting a standard for your pitching staff.”
Follow Jim on Twitter @JBirdman27 or he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I didn't look it up, but I recall Lincecum going to arb for a 30 MM payday and settling pre-arb for a 20 MM.
Whatever....it's a cinch Kluber will cost more very soon.
just think at mid season he was having an almost All Star season but when he got snubbed, he really turned it on. Really incredible run from July 12th on. Only one bad start and only 3 starts where he gave up 3 runs or more.
Which arb number? No pitcher has ever gotten 8 figures as a first time arb-eligible. Kershaw got $7.5M his first time eligible. If I had to take a wild guess, assuming quality ace-like production from Kluber going forward, he would get something like 7M, 10M, 14M in his 3 arb years. Chris Sale is an excellent comp for Kluber, if we're looking at an extension.
Entering the offseason 2 years ago, Sale had 2.061 years of service time. Kluber has 2.074. Sale had established himself as an ace, top 5 starter in the AL. Kluber has done the same. Sale was a few years younger, but Kluber has the Cy Young which factors into arb prices. Sale made an all-star team and was 6th in the CY voting
Sale signed that offseason for 5 years and $32.5M, with 2 team option years at $12.5M and $13.5M. Despite the fact that was only 2 years ago, I think a $1M per season rate of inflation is fair, given the nature of contracts these days, we could reasonably say 5 years at $36-38M (Something like 1-4-8-11-13) plus at least one team option year for $13-15M would be a very fair deal for both sides.