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Ranking Corey Kluber’s peak among Cleveland Indians greats

We are witnessing true greatness with Corey Kluber.

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

We can all agree that Corey Kluber is in the apex of his career. If not for a rain delay and a reportedly rousing speech from Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, he may well have had a World Series MVP to hang next to his Cy Young Award and Third Place Finisher trophies. He has been a rock in a turbulent rotation, a guiding light in these days of our lives.

While it’s certainly too early to start judging the “legacy” of Kluber as an Indian, it’s generally known that pitcher aging curves peak at 27 or thereabouts, and their effectiveness fades from there. Perhaps Kluber is a late starter so it will be a bit tweaked, but the point stands. Pitchers get worse as they get older, as we all do except for George Clooney.

The Indians have a history stuffed full of great pitching, both pre-integration and afterwards. It’s quite a pantheon to ascend to. But even if he’s going to be an Indian for many years hence, I wondered where this peak of his stood among these many greats.

To find out, I utilized Baseball Reference’s Play Index to hunt down some of the best pitched seasons in Tribe history. I bound it to be after integration, so 1947, because before that is Bob Feller’s peak. That is all but unassailable, as he threw in one year the number of innings some starters throw in two these days. It also cut out guys like Addie Joss, but that was almost fakeoball back then. Everyone hit .350 and pitchers with an ERA over 3.00 was grounds for firing. Which when you think about it doesn’t make sense, all that hitting yet still low ERA’s, but that’s the way it was. Anyway, from finding these seasons, I wanted to group three season “peaks” together, because that’s how long Kluber has been good for the Tribe, and generally how long a peak lasts anyway. Maybe another year or two, but three feels good to me. The findings were… interesting to say the least.

Over the last three years, Corey Kluber has pitched 672.2 regular season innings. Being that a 200 inning starter is so rare that his being projected by FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system to throw over that number is remarked on, defining him as a workhorse is apt. Two hundred today is like 250 or even 300 in the fifties. In that stretch, Kluber has struck out 741 and earned a 3.01 ERA, good for the era-adjusted ERA+ of 142. His Fielding Independent Pitching for this period is 2.84. Quite a leap from just being the most average pitcher ever one year prior (99 ERA+ is close enough to exactly average to not matter). That ERA+ is actually exactly Addie Joss’s career number, which speaks to Joss’s own dominance. But as for Kluber, he’s been simply excellent. In fact, to my study, a similar stretch of dominance has only been achieved three times since integration.

The first is Sam McDowell. After reading The Curse of Rocky Colavito, I was again reminded of all that was, and all that could have been with McDowell. There was a run for Sudden Sam from 1964-66 where he threw 640.2 innings with 727 strikeouts, a 2.53 ERA, 139 ERA+ and a 2.51 FIP. He was also 23 in 1966. He was excellent, dazzling, the second coming of Rapid Robert. But that’s not it for McDowell. Immediately after a dreadful 1967 where he led the league in earned runs(101) and walks(123), he had a three year run where he averaged 286 innings each year from 1968-70 and had a 2.58 ERA, 866 strikeouts, leading the league each season, and a 138 ERA+. Year of the Pitcher or no, he was excellent. Both before they raised the mound in 1968 and after. In fact, if not for that ‘67 season, he’d have led the AL in strikeouts for five straight years, and led all of baseball in K’s those last three years. Even with that one bad season he had a seven year stretch where he averaged 248 innings, 264 strikeouts, a 2.73 ERA and a 19 ERA+. He was incredible, yet could have been so much more. Certainly a member of Cleveland’s Pitching Olympus.

The only other guy after Jackie Robinson that had any kind of run like Kluber has had the last few years is Gaylord Perry. Brother of two-time Indian Jim, Perry was only with the team for three-and-a-half seasons, yet still had one of the most dominant three-year stretches the team has ever seen.

Whether you want to call it a peak or just another few excellent seasons in an incredible career, Perry dazzled from the drop. His first year he threw 342(!) innings with a 1.93 ERA, winning 24 games and a Cy Young. I don’t normally tout wins as a pitcher, but when you throw nearly a quarter of a season’s worth of innings, you earned those wins.

He did throw 29 complete games, and the Tribe stunk in 1970. Over those three years Perry averaged 336 innings a year, owned a 2.60 ERA and a138 ERA+ and threw 86 complete games. He also was a stinkball pitcher, using ointments and lineaments and general moistness to baffle hitters, which riles up some people who hate cheating in the Hall of Fame, but I like his guile. As to whether it was his peak, who knows. He was excellent in San Francisco before this run, very good in Texas and San Diego, and pitched till he was 44. He was a horse. Few were ever like him. In Cleveland he was uncommonly excellent.

Maybe I’m shoehorning Kluber into a place he doesn’t belong yet. Maybe creating this artificial three year stretch is unfair to others, and cutting out everything before 1947 is ignoring some greatness in Tribe history. After all, Herb Score was amazing his first couple years, earning a 2.53 ERA as a 23-year old in 1956. That resultant 166 ERA+ led all of baseball, as did his 263 strikeouts, 2.77 FIP and 5.8 hits per nine.

But the combination of getting hit in the head and injuring his elbow the next year cut his dominance short and he faded away toward the broadcast box. Luis Tiant was good, nigh unhittable for a season, but he never maintained it. Same with Cliff Lee, who was really only good for one amazing year (22-3, 2.54 ERA) that earned him a Cy Young. And CC Sabathia, who as an Indian was very good but mostly an innings eater. His one great season, 2007, earned him the hardware and a huge paycheck elsewhere. But he was never actually dominant in the long term, owning a 3.83 ERA, 115 ERA+ and 3.72 FIP in some 1500 innings as an Indian. He just showed promise for years. Promise realized in New York.

None of this is to say Corey Kluber is the best pitcher the Indians have had since Bob Feller. Just writing that feels strange and wrong. If not for his excellence on the hill, he’s the kind of guy you’d forget five minutes after meeting him. He’s different than the last two Indian Cy Young winners though in that he keeps going, keeps being great. Perhaps he just benefits in his standing in Tribe history from too many trades that sent great pitchers away before their time throughout the 60’s to the 80’s. But it’s certainly the most dominant three year stretch from a Tribesman since Feller, if only because of McDowell’s doughnut year in ‘67.

Kluber has been one of the best pitchers in baseball for three years though, of that I am certain. In the bounds of more than 200 innings, 140 or more ERA+ and a 2.90 or fewer FIP, only seven Indians have done ever it for one season. Kluber is the only to average better than that over three. Among his contemporaries, Felix Hernandez has never had a three year run like this, falling just short on ERA+. Justin Verlander never had the FIP to stack with Kluber even in his MVP years. It gets to be a little semantic, but deep down this proves something.

For all his lack of hype or flash, Kluber is forging for himself a nice little spot in the Cleveland sports pantheon. Sure it’s unfair he’s a robot. But there’s no rule specifically banning that, and the Indians are reaping the benefits. Whether we want to recognize it or not, this is what a true ace and elite starter looks like.