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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