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How Corey Kluber can win his second Cy Young Award

As unlikely as it might have been in the beginning of the season, Corey Kluber has a chance to win his second Cy Young award. Here's how it might happen.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Cy Young race in the American League is completely muddled right now. Formerly great pitchers and award winners like David Price are in misery-laden seasons, Justin Verlander got a slow start, and early front-runners like Chris Sale came back to Earth and having a minor mental episode. There’s no real clear guy that everyone is pointing to. Perhaps Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles, but relievers are at such a disadvantage in the voter’s eyes that he is the darkest of horses. In that spirit, it seems like now is as good a time as any to draw a road map toward Corey Kluber winning a second Cy Young Award.

It’s amazing to think that there’s a real possibility of Corey Kluber winning a second Cy Young. Two years ago it was amazing to think he could win even one. Coming off a very middle of the road 2013 season, he was simply untouchable from June on and won in another muddled field. A weird combination of traditionalists and saber-heads gave him the double nod because he had the lead over Felix Hernandez in both wins and FIP.  It was quite the anomaly. But now he’s here again, and has a shot to join the likes of Halladay, Gibson, and Glavine.

Tradition as a pathway to success

One way to really tip the scales in your favor is to lead in at least one or two of the pitching Triple Crown stats: wins, ERA and strikeouts. That might be an early nail in Kluber’s coffin. He’s three wins behind Boston’s Rick Porcello and Toronto’s J.A. Happ, both with 16 at this writing. He’s eighth in ERA, with Detroit rookie Michael Fulmer considerably in the lead at 2.25, 60 points below that of the second place Aaron Sanchez. Kluber is fourth in strikeouts, but 14 behind Chris Archer’s 177.

However, Porcello and Happ are on divisional foes, who also happen to play the AL East-leading Baltimore Orioles and the newly resurgent New York Yankees a bunch down the stretch. That’s not to say their teams won’t win, but with the way all those teams can launch homers and  hang runs on each other, many of those games could lead to a starter chased early. Meanwhile the Cleveland Indians play only 14 of their remaining 45 games out of the division, and six of those are against the Oakland Athletics and Miami Marlins. Not to say Miami can be slept on, but at least not having Giancarlo Stanton in the way helps a bit. Kluber definitely has a slightly easier road once every five days. As long as he avoids the Minnesota Twins.

As for the ERA title, there’s a chance Fulmer won’t make it there. It’s his rookie year, and teams will usually shut town their young pitchers before September. He's at 120 innings, meaning he needs 42 more to qualify. They'd have to give him six or seven more starts. Since this is the best young player the Detroit farm system has produced since Justin Verlander, and they need to at least hang on to contention for a few more years so those albatross deals they handed out don’t go stale on bad teams, I can see the Detroit Tigers ending his season at around 150 or so innings. They’ve been judicious with skipping his starts though, so he might make it into September. Even if he wins the ERA title, his only having thrown 160 or so innings is a major detriment to an award that goes to workhorses.

Sanchez will qualify, but he’s been moved to the bullpen full time for the Jays. Like Fulmer, he won’t have the 200+ innings most voters want out of a Cy Young winner, but he’ll have considerably have more than 162 innings, enough for the ERA title. What if he gets shelled in a single inning or two though? A couple runs in one inning, perhaps in consecutive games? These are possible things if it takes a bit to find his groove in the ‘pen. That could boost his ERA up to the 2.90 or so. If, along with Sanchez having a bit of trouble in the bullpen and not having the  seven and eight inning starts of shutout ball that can save a three run outburst, if Kluber can get his ERA solidly under 3.00, voters will take that plus his innings total, likely to crest 200 if he gets eight more starts (he’s at 24 right now) and value that over Sanchez’s better numbers. Just like Chris Sale in 2014.

The strikeouts are a tough one. Kuber will have more than 200, but he’d need multiple starts like that one last year in St. Louis when he K’d 18 St. Louis Cardinals to get anywhere near Archer. He’s striking out 25.3 percent of batters compared to 28.3 percent when he won the award, so maybe it’s just not in him. But like the other two parts of the Triple Crown, he doesn’t need to be first, since it’s likely impossible, but if he’s second or third in all three? That’s doable as long as he keeps this strong run going. It got him the award once, why not again?

His case in Saber-ville

Then there’s the other side of voting, the other half of what won him his first award.

In 2014, Kluber led the American League with a 2.35 fielding independent pitching. That, combined with a 7.4 WAR from Baseball Reference ( or rWAR, they use Runs Allowed per 9, or RA9, this will be important in a minute) and a 7.4 WAR from FanGraphs (fWAR for short, they use FIP to measure their WAR), he was far enough ahead of the other guys that he tilted the scales in his direction. Remember, he beat Hernandez with 169 voting points to Felix’s 159. He was 21 points ahead of Hernandez in FIP, and outpaced Hernandez’s 6.8 rWAR and 6.0 fWAR. Along with an edge in wins and being second in the league in strikeouts to David Price, the advanced numbers fell his way.

He’s doing the FIP thing again, now 3.01 after his outing against Chicago Tuesday night. That leads the league by 14 points, in front of Danny Duffy, and then in third is Aaron Sanchez at 3.29. The number itself isn’t as mind-bending as 2.35, but leading the league is leading the league. Carl Yastrzemski won a batting title with a .301 average in 1968. He’s also first in fWAR at 4.2, but that’s why his FIP is so important. Compare that to his rWAR, using RA9 as its backbone, where he’s only been worth 4 wins. That’s behind the leading Kyle Fuller’s 5.2 (He’s been so good!), and sixth in the league. Behind Jose Quintana, behind Verlander, behind Chris Tillman.

Which then brings up a philosophical question of sorts -- what is the role of the pitcher? Is it to simply allow the fewest runs? If that’s so, RA9 is important, but a pitcher can be penalized for having a worse defense. Admittedly, that’s not Kluber’s real problem, his real problem is bad luck through poor hit sequencing. Or more specifically, he’s much worse pitching with men on base than from the windup. Our own Matt Schlichting wrote on this back in June. He’s still very good, but not as dominatingly incredible. What Kluber does well is not walk people, keep the ball in the yard, and get strikeouts. He also gets a good amount of grounders, 46.4% of batted balls. But the K’s, the no walks and the low home run rate are why FIP likes him.

The point being, one WAR likes him more than the other. According to The Hardball Times, though, FanGraphs’ WAR is better at predicting future success. Whether this matters much if at all to people who vote, whether they even think about that, who knows. When there's a divergence like that in numbers between two sites, people will look elsewhere for confirmation though, and for the most part, Kluber will come out on top against his competitors.

The Roadmap

So that’s how Kluber can win the Cy Young. A bit of luck from the AL East bats beating up on Porcello and Happ so he can close the gap in wins, maintaining his strikeout rate or increasing it so it’s considerably more than 200, and get his ERA comfortably under three. Somewhere around 2.90 with a couple shutouts or 1-run complete games would help. Then, with the vote split between him, Zach Britton because you know someone is going to vote closer, Sale and Quintana but neither getting enough because their team stinks, and the Indians finishing in first, suddenly a pathway to a trophy emerges. It’s a lot of moving parts, and if he’s only pretty good and one of Porcello or Happ win 20 games, and some other unknowns fly in the way, who knows what could happen. Kluber's own teammates could get in the way, but that's just another moving part. The fact is, it's a possibility, and that’s more than any of us could even think of six months ago.