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Corey Kluber was taken by the San Diego Padres in the 4th round of the 2007 draft, following so he didn't exactly come from nowhere, but he also wasn't especially highly touted. The Indians acquired him in 2010 in exchange for the final two months of Jake Westbrook's contract, at a time when Westbrook's ERA was 4.64; point being it didn't exactly take a king's ransom. At no point was he ranked in the top 25 of either team's prospects by Baseball America. His Triple-A numbers in 2012 were a nice improvement from what they'd been in 2011, but they weren't anything special, and in a dozen starts for the Tribe that season he looked like a guy who might not mind having to fill in as the 5th starter if a couple guys got hurt, but not much more than that.
Sure enough, early in 2013 a couple other options dropped out, and Kluber was put into the rotation, and while his 3.85 ERA may not have seemed like anything special, his 3.30 FIP was the best on the team among the five primary starters. FIP is more predictive than ERA, so there was reason to think coming into this season that Kluber was quite a good pitcher, but most Tribe fans still viewed him as only the 3rd or 4th best starter on the team.
More from LGT on Kluber
More from LGT on Kluber
Kluber didn't survive the 4th inning in his first start this season. He gave up 5 runs, all earned. He also walked more batters than he struck out.... That wouldn't happen again all season. On April 24th Kluber pitched what would have been a shutout, if not for a Nick Swisher error. Kluber recorded 11 strikeouts, the first of 11 times this season he reached double figures.
At the end of April Kluber's numbers were still modest, but in May he posted a 2.09 ERA, with 60 strikeouts in 43 innings, and he never really slowed down from there. Kluber's second half numbers look like something from a video game: A 1.73 ERA, 127 strikeouts in 104 innings, against only 19 walks and just 4 home runs. In late July he pitched only the 7th Maddux in franchise history, and he capped off his season by winning American League Pitcher of the Month honors for September.
In the last 40 years, only Cliff Lee's 2008 season has a compelling argument for having been as good as Kluber's 2014 was for the Indians. This season, only Seattle's Felix Hernandez has a compelling case for having been as good, which makes the two of them the only plausible Cy Young candidates (apologies to Chicago's Chris Sale, who was awesome, but pitched 60 fewer innings).
Here are some of figures one might use to compare Kluber and Hernandez:
Kluber also gave up two fewer home runs, which should count for a bit, and picked up three additional wins, which shouldn't count for much of anything, but probably will with some Cy Young voters.
Looking those numbers over, things are awfully close. When you look at factors such as how relievers did when entering a game for these guys in the middle of an inning (which impacts the starter's ERA), things are very close. The same is true when you look at the strength of each pitcher's opposition. Kluber faced a weighted OPS of .739, Hernandez of .729.
When you look at the things a pitcher has the most control over (strikeouts, walks, and home runs), Kluber was a bit better (as evidenced by FIP), and because Seattle has a somewhat better ballpark for pitchers than Cleveland, Kluber's edge is actually a bit bigger than that even, almost exactly the same size as Hernandez's edge when you factor in everything that happened (with ERA).
Taking all these numbers together, the margin between the two pitchers is very thin. Is there anything else that might be used to give one guy a boost above the other? Why yes, yes there is...
The Indians had probably the worst defense in baseball this season, and that makes a pitcher's job far more difficult. Raburn was charged with an error there, so that run wasn't charged to Kluber as earned, but a better fielding team makes more plays, and some of the plays a bad team doesn't make don't get charged as errors*.
*Two late-season scoring changes both went against Kluber. The Tigers got an error changed to a hit, added 3 earned runs to Kluber's tally weeks after the game ended. Then the Mariners got 4 earned runs removed from Hernandez's count. Undo those changes, and Kluber's ERA would have been 2.33, Hernandez's would have been 2.29. Almost the entire ERA difference between those two exists because of scoring changes.
I wouldn't call anyone who votes for Felix a fool, because the margin between these two pitchers is really thin. When you look at everything available to us though, and factor in what we can factor in, I really do think Kluber was the American League's best pitcher this season, and I hope the BBWAA sees it that way too.