Regardless of how one feels about the Wild Card era, it does allow pitchers to have memorable postseason runs. Before 1994, and especially in the time when the postseason consisted of only the World Series, that was more difficult to do. It is one thing to have a great series, but it is another to do it through multiple series over the course of a month. Even though a postseason run of five to six games started and 30-40 IP is a microscopic sample size, it seems to leave a longer lasting memory in the minds of fans. Being the pitcher who will take the ball in Game 7, he now has a chance to leave a long-lasting memory in the minds of baseball fans.
Things were looking bad for Cleveland when it was announced that Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco would not be playing in the postseason. Salazar did surprisingly pop up, but he pitched only one inning and walked two batters. Corey Kluber is doing everything he can to make up for their loss, and he is succeeding.
While Kluber has been in the league since 2011, this is his first time ever pitching in the postseason. Through five games started and 30.1 IP, he’s struck out 29.2 percent of batters faced, held opposing batters to a .250 OBP, and allowed only one home run. What is truly ridiculous about Kluber’s postseason is his 0.89 RA9! He even got a base hit!
In the Wild Card era, Kluber’s minuscule RA9 is the lowest ever among pitchers with at least four starts in a postseason. If we lower that to three starts, the leader is Matt Cain in 2010 with a 0.43 RA9. He allowed a lone run in the three turns he received.
A disclaimer before I go any further: There is no easy way to compile individual postseason seasons for players. A list of career performances can be done through the Play Index, but there is no way to do separate seasons for playoff performance only.
Here are a few examples of some epic postseason performances and how they compare to Kluber’s playoff run. The criteria was at least four starts in the Wild Card era with a sub-2.00 RA9. It should also be noted that Randy Johnson and Madison Bumgarner each pitched in relief for one game.
A few things jump out here. The strand rates are all absurdly high. Stranding runners is not a skill, and pitchers tend to have strand rates in the 70-75 percent range. It is a small sample size fluke, to be sure, but a pitcher needs that kind of luck to allow so few runs. With the exception of John Smoltz in 1991, Kluber is the sole pitcher in that group to not have a comically low BABIP. We do know that pitchers have some control over their BABIP, but not to the degree of having a .232 BABIP or lower. The career BABIPs of the pitchers listed above are nowhere near what they posted in the table above. It takes a whopping 2,000 balls in play for a pitcher’s BABIP to represent his true talent. Even when a pitcher throws over 50 innings in a postseason, as MadBum did in 2014, he allows only ~150 balls in play. That is how one can get a flukishly low BABIP of .180.
That Kluber is accomplishing what he is without the luck of an obscenely low BABIP is impressive. His walk rate is the same as it was in the regular season, and his strikeout rate is only slightly higher. The big factor working in Kluber’s favor is his 3.3 percent HR/FB ratio, which is less than a third of his career rate. Since HR/FB data only goes back to 2002, we can’t do a full comparison with the table above. We do know, however, that Bumgarner had a 4.6 percent HR/FB in 2014, which is roughly half of his career rate.
A starter cannot accomplish such a dominant postseason run without a lot of luck on his side. Still, history shows that you have to have the true talent of an ace or close to it to in order to pull off a World Series run with a sub-2.00 or even a sub-3.00 RA9. That definitely describes Corey Kluber.
Andrew Miller deserves a ton of credit for what he has accomplished, but Kluber has dominated in a more difficult role. I am not saying that Kluber has had the best postseason run ever. That is a debate for another time.
If Kluber blows it tonight, sadly nobody will remember how amazing he was in the four stars prior. However, if Cleveland wins it all, he will be a big reason why, and his 2016 postseason will go down in history. That might even get the Klubot to crack a smile!
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Luis Torres is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.