Eight and a third innings pitched. Seven strikeouts. No walks. Eight hits. Two runs. That is the pitching line from Corey Kluber's latest dominant start, a win over the Twins. This effort fits in well amongst the crowd of excellent starts Kluber has given Cleveland this season. A season in which he should be strongly considered for the American League Cy Young Award.
WAR is a useful metric for determining the top candidates for the award. Doing so demonstrates that there are really five options:
Any one of these players can have a reasonable case made for them being the winner. Fellow writers Neil Weinberg and Steve Martano have made strong cases for Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale, and now here is the case for Corey Kluber.
Kluber has amassed 212.2 innings pitched. He has struck out 26.8% of the batters he has faced, while only walking 5.4% of them. His 2.45 ERA and 2.55 FIP are outstanding. However, if you have read the other AL Cy Young articles on the site you know that all of this is true for the other guys on the list as well. For a quick refresher let's focus in on the statistics of these three players.
This is a real mix of bests and worsts across categories. Sale looks pretty good on a rate basis but there is that sticky issue of the innings pitched. Felix looks good from a runs-allowed standpoint but his FIP suggests he has been somewhat fortunate. Kluber falls in the middle on many of these categories, so what makes him the choice?
First, innings pitched. There is simply no way around it: innings pitched matter. Kluber's 212.2 IP is close to Felix and well ahead of Sale. Yes, Sale has pitched fewer innings because of an early season injury, and not because of a bunch of clunker outings, but those innings are still missing. He has 7 fewer starts than Kluber and Hernandez. Given his IP/GS rate he would need every bit of those 7 starts to match Kluber, and 8 to match Felix. We really do not know how Sale would hold up over another 7-8 starts. He could continue at his current masterful rate, he could blow up and never again get out of the first inning, or something in between. Our best estimate of what to expect can be derived using rest of season projections. Using Steamer's rest of season projections here are how these three guys stack up when matched to 219 innings pitched:
The new ERA and FIP rates are calculated using Felix's IP so his rates do not change, but the other two guys do. The result is that Felix takes over as the ERA leader, and Kluber now has the best FIP. As I said earlier innings pitched matter. Sale has been excellent for the White Sox, just not as often as Kluber and Felix have been for their teams. You should note that even after adding 56.0 innings of projected performance to Sale, his numbers are still remarkable, just not to the point where he is the clear rate statistic leader. Kluber is looking pretty good here.
What about that ERA? Just as innings pitched matter and in my mind impact Sale's case for being named the Cy Young winner, allowing runs matters and affects Kluber. After accounting for innings pitched, Kluber's FIP suggests that he should have the best ERA of the group, but he actually has the worst. What is driving this? Well the other guys have outperformed their FIP to a greater extent than him, which is related to team defense and batted ball rates. Felix gains a sizable benefit from pitching in Seattle with that defense behind him. Seattle's 72.7% defensive efficiency is second best in the big leagues and much better than Chicago's (69.7%; 23rd) and Cleveland's (69.3%; 25th). So Kluber and Sale should get a bump here. Interestingly, Felix and Kluber have given up a very similar number of batted balls this season (574 and 577 respectively). Yet, Felix' BABIP is .259, while Kluber's is .307. So, despite similar balls in play, Kluber has had ~28 extra base-runners to deal with, at least partly because of his defense.
You can watch the whole play, in all its glory here.
Yes, that is an unearned run and therefore not directly relevant to the ERA conversation, but wow! What do you think Kluber is thinking/feeling at the end of that video? Probably sadness. In any case you cannot really fault him for having a higher ERA with that kind of defense behind him, can you? Well perhaps a little bit. After all he has some control over the types of batted balls that are sprayed at his defense, and Kluber's line drive rate (21.0%) is higher than either Felix (17.6) or Sale (18.5). Line drives go for hits more often than ground balls or fly balls. So his slightly higher ERA cannot entirely be attributed to the bad luck of having a poorer defense behind him. Sale's higher strikeout rate helps protect him against the ineptitude of the White Sox defense but again that issue of innings pitched comes up for him. Regardless, Felix has an advantage over Kluber and Sale that contributes to his much larger ERA-FIP differential.
Felix supporters may counter this last point by suggesting that he has had to face the Angels and A's, top run-scoring teams, while Kluber and Sale reached their heights by feasting on the mediocre American League Central. Seems reasonable, except that Baseball Prospectus' quality of opponent data tells a different story. Kluber has on average faced opponents with a .716 OPS, while Felix has battled opponents with .710 OPS and Sale has taken on opponents with a .699 OPS. Now, OPS is not necessarily the best statistic, so take it with the necessary grain of salt. If we look at a better statistic like True Average, we find that Felix has faced opponents that are .003 points better than Kluber, who has faced opponents that are .003 points better than Sale. The main point in all of this is that the differences are not really that large, and as such somewhat refute the idea that Felix has had the more difficult path.
There is no doubt that this is a difficult selection to make, but in the end I'd select Corey Kluber. Amongst the pitchers I suggested as candidates, Kluber has thrown the second most innings and been the best pitcher in those innings. While you can't fault Felix for having a great defense, or Sale for throwing fewer innings, those are important aspects of evaluating starting pitchers and should probably be integrated into the decision making process for handing out a pitching award.
Kluber has been a bright part of Cleveland's 2014 season in which they almost ran down another wild card berth. The good news for Cleveland fans is that Mr. Kluber is under team control through 2018. Hopefully he can continue to be the strongpoint of their rotation that he has been in this Cy Young-worthy 2014 effort.
. . .
Chris Teeter is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.