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Putting Corey Kluber's season in historical perspective

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The Klubot just had one of the best seasons ever by an Indians pitcher. Who else is high on that list?

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

When an Indians regular season comes to a close without a playoff birth, one is left with mixed emotions. Maybe a part of you actually wanted the year to end once they were out of playoff contention so you could move on and forget that the defense ever happened. Maybe you wanted this year to end because you're really excited about Francisco Lindor being the shortstop.

For other, different reasons, though, you want it to keep going. Maybe you want it to keep going so Michael Brantley can break the team's single season hits record. Or maybe you want it to keep going so that the Corey Kluber Experience never has to come to an end.

Kluber, this year, was amazing. I don't need to tell you that. He had one of the better Indians pitching seasons in recent memory and is a legitimate candidate for the Cy Young Award. Whether or not he wins it is something we'll have to wait more than a month to find out. What I'd like to figure out now is where Kluber's season ranks in Indians history.

I'm sure you've been peppered with Kluber stats and facts over the last couple weeks, but just as a refresher course, let's run through some of the basics:

  • 235.2 innings pitched, most by a Tribe pitcher since C.C. Sabathia in 2007. Before that? Charles Nagy, in 1992.
  • 2.44 ERA is the lowest since Gaylord Perry in 1972 and 45th-best in Indians history.
  • 2.35 FIP is the lowest since Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell in 1968 and 30th-best in Indians history.
  • 269 strikeouts are 6th-best in Indians history and the most since McDowell in 1970.
  • 22.9 K%-BB% is the best in Indians history. His 5.27 K/BB is 3rd-best.
  • 11.9% swinging strike rate is the highest by an Indians pitcher since PITCHf/x data began being tracked in 2007.

That's all pretty remarkable. But some of those numbers aren't the best way to compare pitchers across different eras.  Cleveland Indians franchise history dates back to 1901 and includes the dead-ball era, which wasn't even the same game as what's played today. If you only look at the live-ball era, from 1920 to the present, Kluber's spot on the ERA leaderboard jumps from 45th to 11th. His spot on the FIP leaderboard goes from 30th to 6th.

We've got WAR, which attempts to account for changes in production across different eras. We could just sort the leaderboards by WAR and find that by runs allowed (RA9) WAR, Kluber's season ranks 30th in Indians history and that FIP-WAR puts him 9th. From this, one could reasonably conclude that Kluber had at least top-25 pitching season in Indians history, maybe as low as 30th or as high as 10th, depending on how you want to look at it. But WAR is a counting statistic, and there's something else that makes it tough to look at WAR across generations to compare pitchers: Innings pitched.

This year, David Price led the MLB in innings pitched with 248. In 1920, there were 35 pitchers who threw that many innings and the leader, Pete Alexander, threw 363. Today's pitchers never have the opportunity to match the innings pitched totals of generations past because teams now use five-man starting rotations, and this makes it tough to use WAR to accurately compare pitching across generations.

It's not impossible to compare pitchers though. There are stats like ERA- and FIP-, which scale production relative to the league average, where 100 is average and every point below it is better than average. We can also scale down the unreachable innings pitched totals so that everyone is on a similar playing field. The maximum number of innings you'll see a pitcher throw these days is about 250, so I used that for the cap.

I used the FanGraphs leaderboards to pull data from every qualified Indians pitching season since 1920. For any pitcher who threw more than 250 innings, I scaled their total down to 250. This is sort giving them a little more credit than they deserve, as it assumes they would all be in the top 1% of their season's innings pitched leaders (while some of them were outside the top 10-15% for their season), but I think those guys should still get some bonus for their longevity, so I'm comfortable with this method.

For WAR, we're going to use a combination of bWAR (RA9) and fWAR (FIP). Neither is perfect, but both have merit, so we'll use an average of the two. Same with ERA- and FIP-, I simply averaged the two together. You'll find those two on the far right of the table, which, for the sake of brevity, I've cut to just the top 15:

Year Name IP K% BB% ERA FIP ERA- FIP- bWAR fWAR E-/F- WAR/250
1968 Luis Tiant 258 26.8% 7.4% 1.60 2.03 53 62 9.6 7.0 58 8.0
1956 Herb Score 249 25.7% 12.6% 2.53 2.88 61 73 8.5 7.4 67 8.0
1946 Bob Feller 371 23.0% 10.1% 2.18 2.16 65 66 12.2 10.7 66 7.7
2008 Cliff Lee 223 19.1% 3.8% 2.54 2.83 59 67 8.3 7.1 63 7.7
1939 Bob Feller 296 19.8% 11.4% 2.85 3.46 63 81 10.4 7.7 72 7.6
1940 Bob Feller 320 20.0% 9.1% 2.61 2.91 65 75 11.0 8.4 70 7.6
1965 Sam McDowell 273 29.1% 11.8% 2.18 2.20 63 60 8.0 8.3 62 7.5
1972 Gaylord Perry 342 17.4% 6.1% 1.92 2.49 60 73 12.2 7.8 67 7.3
1920 Stan Coveleski 315 10.7% 5.2% 2.49 2.78 64 76 10.2 8.1 70 7.3
1956 Early Wynn 277 13.8% 8.0% 2.72 3.16 66 79 9.2 6.9 73 7.3
2014 Corey Kluber 235 28.3% 5.4% 2.44 2.35 66 64 7.0 7.3 65 7.2
1936 Johnny Allen 243 16.0% 9.4% 3.44 3.53 69 75 7.2 7.1 72 7.2
2007 CC Sabathia 241 21.4% 3.8% 3.21 3.14 73 73 6.7 6.8 73 6.8
1969 Sam McDowell 285 23.9% 8.8% 2.94 2.36 78 59 6.2 9.1 69 6.7
1992 Charles Nagy 252 16.6% 5.6% 2.96 2.71 75 69 6.3 7.1 72 6.6

No longer do you have 12-WAR pitcher seasons from the 40's distorting the top of the leaderboard. Kluber's season is separated from the top Indians pitching season of all-time by no more than a win, which seems much more realistic for what is actually attainable in this generation of baseball.

I've got this table sorted by WAR, which puts Kluber 11th. But WAR figures aren't meant to be exact down to the decimal, especially not when looking this far back. Looking at the table above and considering the disparity in their ERA- and FIP- figures (E-/F-), I'm definitely willing to give Kluber the edge over Perry, Covelski, Wynn the two Feller seasons from 1939-40. That moves Kluber up to sixth and gives us this set of Indians pitcher seasons, truly elite by both ERA/FIP and WAR. The half dozen best season, I think:

Year Name IP K% BB% ERA FIP ERA- FIP- bWAR fWAR E-/F- WAR/250
1968 Luis Tiant 258 26.8% 7.4% 1.60 2.03 53 62 9.6 7.0 58 8.0
1956 Herb Score 249 25.7% 12.6% 2.53 2.88 61 73 8.5 7.4 67 8.0
1946 Bob Feller 371 23.0% 10.1% 2.18 2.16 65 66 12.2 10.7 66 7.7
2008 Cliff Lee 223 19.1% 3.8% 2.54 2.83 59 67 8.3 7.1 63 7.7
1965 Sam McDowell 273 29.1% 11.8% 2.18 2.20 63 60 8.0 8.3 62 7.5
2014 Corey Kluber 235 28.3% 5.4% 2.44 2.35 66 64 7.0 7.3 65 7.2

It's hard for me to see world where Luis Tiant's season in 1968 isn't the greatest Indians pitching performance of all-time. Then you've got '08 Cliff Lee and '65 Sam McDowell kind of in a class of their own, and then there's a group with Herb Score from '56, Feller in '46 and this year's Corey Kluber.

Maybe you give a little more credence to Kluber's FIP rather than his ERA due to perhaps the worst defense in team history behind him. Do that, and you can bump him over Score and Feller and cement him in at #4 behind '68 Tiant, '08 Lee and '65 McDowell. This isn't an exact science, but there's a reasonable argument that Corey Kluber just had one of the five best pitching season in Indians history, and we should count ourselves lucky to have witnessed it.