Corey Kluber as a Cy Young Candidate

A little over a week ago, we discussed Felix Hernandez as a candidate for the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. We can make this pretty simple: if you have a pitcher who might indeed qualify as the league’s MVP, that guy’s going to be your Cy Young frontrunner, because the MVP voting includes everybody and the Cy Young voting includes only pitchers. Absolutely, if the voting were to take place right now, Felix would claim the Cy Young, because he’s having one of the better seasons in a hell of a long time. He just concluded an impressive consecutive-starts streak that set a new baseball record.

But the season isn’t over yet, and because the season isn’t over yet, Felix doesn’t have the award locked up. Plenty can happen in the weeks ahead, and Corey Kluber has been making a charge that’s drawn him more and more attention. Over Kluber’s last five starts, stretching back to July 24, he’s allowed a total of three runs, without a single dinger. In three of those starts he’s struck out ten batters. Kluber’s the Cy Young frontrunner in a league in which Felix isn’t the Cy Young frontrunner, so it seems worthwhile to spend a little time talking about Kluber’s award case and his chances. As impossible as it seems, Kluber could emerge looking like the best starter in the league.

Why the odds are against him

This isn’t hard. Felix Hernandez currently owns a 1.99 ERA. That is an ERA that begins with a 1. Corey Kluber currently owns a 2.41 ERA. That is an ERA that begins with a 2. Felix’s ERA is just barely in the 1’s, and Kluber’s ERA is in the lower half of the 2’s, but voters just aren’t going to be able to ignore an ERA of 1.xx. That’s automatic, and even if Felix’s ERA were to climb in the weeks ahead, that’s still a 42-point gap that Kluber would need to at least mostly overcome, because the voting pool continues to vote a lot like the voting pool you imagine.

And while Kluber has a good record of 13-6, Felix has a better record of 13-4, with people having paid attention to his quality starts in which he wound up with a no-decision. Posts like this get kind of messy; you have to talk about how people vote, and you also have to talk about how people maybe ought to vote, and there’s only so much overlap. For our purposes, the records are completely irrelevant, but the records will have an effect on the voting results and Felix plays for a better baseball team. Kluber can’t win this if he has a worse ERA and a worse record. There’s just no precedent for that happening.

Let’s say some voters take a quick glance at some more advanced leaderboards. Felix leads Kluber in WAR by 0.6. He leads in RA9-WAR by 1.4. He leads in Baseball-Reference’s WAR by 0.6. That’s Felix’s case: he’s been the league’s most valuable pitcher. Nowhere can you find that Kluber has a lead.

Making the best case for Kluber I can

To make a current case for Corey Kluber, you have to consider areas the voting pool is unlikely to consider in depth. That is, you have to consider elements over which Kluber doesn’t really have any control.

Felix and Kluber have both started 26 games. Felix has thrown six more innings, but Kluber has faced ten more batters. They’re exactly tied in strikeouts. Felix has six fewer walks. Felix has allowed seven fewer earned runs, and six fewer total runs. We can start by pointing out that Felix has started half the time in a more pitcher-friendly ballpark than Cleveland’s. Felix isn’t Chris Young — he isn’t engineered to get the maximum benefit out of Safeco’s dimensions and air — but pitcher-friendly is pitcher-friendly. And speaking of pitcher-friendliness and unfriendliness, we’ve got to look at team defenses.

Felix has allowed fewer hits than Kluber, and that’s shown by a large separation in BABIP. But, by UZR, the Mariners have had a better defense than the Indians by 90 runs. By DRS, the difference is 85 runs. Some measures call the Mariners roughly average, and some say they’ve been better than that. All agree that the Indians have been a defensive disaster, and there’s no reason to think Kluber has been immune to that. To some extent he’s been hurt by the players behind him, and that’s going to change his runs-allowed total. Even if you stop short of plugging in a number, this is something that reduces the gap between the league’s top two starters.

And there’s no way we’re getting out of this without mentioning pitch-framing catchers. Good pitch-framers have an effect on numbers we long thought to be fielding-independent. Kluber has mostly pitched to Yan Gomes, and Gomes is fine behind the plate, but Felix has almost exclusively worked with Mike Zunino, and Zunino rates as outstanding. Remember that, on the year, Felix has allowed six fewer runs than Kluber has. According to Baseball Prospectus, Felix’s catchers have been worth +6.6 runs in his starts. By the same source, Kluber’s catchers have been worth +0.4 runs in his starts. By raw extra calls, Felix has gotten 22 more. These numbers are a little bit theoretical, and they might not do a perfect job of stripping away the pitcher’s role in getting his own calls, but there’s reason to believe Zunino has helped Felix get strikeouts and avoid walks. It’s a further reduction of that gap. It might even erase the gap entirely. The framing difference is estimated to be six runs. The runs difference is observed to be six runs.

How Kluber can win this

Unfortunately for Kluber, if he cares about these things, voters aren’t going to think about things like pitch-framing effects. They are aware of park effects and they might factor defense in a little bit, so that’s something, but really, Kluber needs to out-perform Felix down the stretch. He needs to shrink that ERA gap, and he could use a higher wins total. These points are obvious, but I’ll note that Kluber has already been better since the All-Star break. His 0.76 ERA is half of Felix’s remarkable 1.54, and Kluber’s doubled Felix’s WAR. If what’s happened since the break were to keep up, Kluber would finish with a very strong case, and all that requires is for him to continue keeping an ERA under 1.

It’s worth noting that Felix struggled to finish 2011. He struggled again to finish 2012, and last year Felix’s ERA over his last eight starts was close to 6. I’m not comfortable thinking of that as a pattern, but it would only take one or two bad starts on Felix’s part to give Kluber his necessary boost. Kluber needs to out-perform Felix any way he can. That could be by being more better, or by being less worse.

At this writing, Kluber is the No. 2 contender behind the King, who’s the far-and-away favorite. But, the Dodgers are the far-and-away favorite in the NL West, and our playoff odds page gives the Giants a 10% chance at first place anyway. Kluber probably has a 10-20% chance of winning the Cy Young, and considering the main guy against whom he’s contending, that says a hell of a lot about Corey Kluber’s 2014 season.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


43 Responses to “Corey Kluber as a Cy Young Candidate”

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  1. Sandy says:

    Fun fact–Corey Kluber has not allowed a single home run the entire second half of the season.

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  2. Benzedrine says:

    Let’s admit it, Carson called this before anyone else in baseball.

    +38 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. t says:

    “Nowhere can you find that Kluber has a lead.”

    As far as I know Kluber leads in number of societies dedicated to ballplayers.

    +39 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. Babyspittle says:

    I was hoping we’d see a kluber article, since he’s been on such a great run.

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  5. Cave Dameron says:

    What about Chris Sale? 2.12 ERA and more k’s, less BB’s/9 than Kluber.

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    • badly hurt by the innings gap

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      • Cole Hamels says:

        But he has more strikeouts.

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        • Phil says:

          But less innings means less opportunity for earned runs, walks, hits, etc. When the innings gap is close you can overlook these things but when the gap is so large it becomes more problematic.

          Plus, there’s the obvious fact that durability and the ability to pitch a lot of innings for your team is a valuable skill/trait in and of itself.

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  6. Phantom Stranger says:

    I think the narrative is simply too strong for Felix to lose the Cy Young, unless his era just blows up in the final month.

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  7. Cory S. says:

    .261
    .305

    That’s Felix’ and Kluber’s BABIP.

    Kluber is doing it with a terrible(!) defense behind him. Give him the award.

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    • Dino says:

      I think some people have said that Kluber’s higher BABIP is the result of his less than stellar fastball, which allows more hard contact.

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      • Timmy says:

        Less than stellar? Huh?

        Kluber touches 96 WITH movement. His fastball is every bit as good as Felix’s, if not better.

        Lastly, the quality of one’s fastball has zero impact on his BABIP. Not sure why anyone would make that suggestion but it’s highly bizarre.

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        • Nate says:

          Felix’s fastball has been worth 9 runs per 100 pitches. Kluber’s has been worth -6.

          #EmpiricalEvidence’d

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        • abc says:

          How can you definitively say the quality of one’s fastball has zero impact on a BABIP? That’s a far more bizarre statement than the one you’re criticizing.

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        • Kirk says:

          The fastball has a lot to do with BABIP and hard contact. Velocity is not even close to the end all be all of how good a fastball is, either.

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      • Timmy says:

        Josh Collmenter has a career BABIP of .279 yet has one of the worst fastballs in the history of the game.

        So, yeah…

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        • Cole Hamels says:

          Could it be that higher fastball (like Chris Young) causes more pop-ups and therefore a lower BABIP, even though those fastball are more like to be clobbered?

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        • Matt says:

          Sure. Fastballs that get clobbered for HR aren’t even reflected in BABIP. HR’s aren’t in play.

          I’d be interested in slugging % on balls in play to at least capture doubles and triples. Seems like it would be more insightful than BABIP – at least in terms of how hard a guy is hit, so to speak.

          Does anyone know if there is a stat like that? Or if there is a BA on balls hit or SLG% on balls hit?

          Thanks!

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        • Grant says:

          That wouldn’t be able to factor in things like defense and park effects.

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    • croggs says:

      That’s a really low BABIP for Kluber (historically). He’s always under performed his peripherals, I’m guessing in large part because of his high BABIP. I think I’ve heard someone mention, possibly Eno, that he had a problem of being “wild” inside the strike zone, and throwing some fat pitches before this year.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Why should Felix be punished for playing with a good defense, again?

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      • Dan Greer says:

        On the flip side, why should he be rewarded for it? ERA isn’t an honest enough measure by itself to conclude one pitcher is better than another without context – ballpark and defense DO matter.

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  8. Zack Murphy says:

    Agree, that Felix had this semi-wrapped up a month ago. And agree that Sale has a more compelling case.

    Kluber is special, but < Felix this year. Only way Kluber gets into the conversation is a perfect game AND Felix blows his ERA AND Felix loses some games to ruin the record (which matters to voters).

    They're not booing – they're saying Kluuuuuber.

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  9. Name says:

    Bring back CKS!

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  10. PackBob says:

    Don’t forget strength of lineups faced!

    As an opinion poll award, just as long as it is not based on wins.

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  11. ceelanks says:

    Felix has five great pitches. Kluber two. No comparison.
    Prediction: Kluber soon loses feel for curve and becomes replacement level.

    -9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • FXXX says:

      How about your Felix gets losing his velocity and becomes burst?

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      • Joey says:

        You’re right! Felix’s fastball velo has been trending down for a while, yes!

        But also! Since 2007, Felix’s K/9 has gone up literally every single year and his BB/9 has trended down every year save ’09, when it ticked up by a whopping .06 per 9 before continuing its tumble downwards.

        Felix is weird and very good at baseball.

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  12. Luke says:

    Kluber’s defense definitely blew at least one W for him. I’m referring to the infamous Ryan Raburn spike.

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  13. frug says:

    Kluber can’t win this if he has a worse ERA and a worse record. There’s just no precedent for that happening.

    Dontrelle Willis had a lower ERA and more Wins than Chris Carpenter in 2005 but Carpenter still won the award. (Admittedly, Carpenter did have a higher winning % though).

    That said, I don’t disagree with your overall point.

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  14. Phil Hughes says:

    I beat him today.

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  15. Green Mountain Boy says:

    Can someone PLEASE explain to me why HR aren’t counted in BABIP??? This is intuitively stupid to me. Who are the best if we add this in???

    And while I’m at it, WHY do RPs not get a hold when they enter a tied game and leave with the game still tied? Given the high(er) leverage of the situation, that makes no sense to me either.

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