dWith a second Cy Young Award, Corey Kluber has pretty much cemented his place in Indians history as the best pitcher of the 21st century to this point. Cliff Lee was but a glimpse of greatness before he moved on, and CC Sabathia was as much potential as real talent for most of his time in Cleveland. Really, both those pitchers' most indelible moments, aside from their Cy Young Awards, was in a different uniform. Lee's was that start in the '09 World Series against the Yankees, CC his plow-horsing for the Brewers. Kluber though, he had that run in the '16 playoffs and a pair of awards. So it's time to reassess - what about Corey Kluber, Hall of Famer?
Perhaps in the past it's just been hope and wishful thinking. But a second Cy Young puts one in rather august company. So there's something real forming here for Kluber. The first issue faced in considering this is, barring something unforeseen, Kluber isn't even eligible for the Hall yet. He'll need another few years of playing time, but he should reach that plateau in the final year of his Indians contract. He's been durable, and very good, for his entire career, only missing a couple starts a year at most. Which isn't too much to worry about, since pitching itself is body destruction. By being with the Indians for his entire prime, he'll further forge his place in Cleveland lore. It's that intangible something that raises the stature of a player, and getting into a big silly museum in upstate New York necessitates that little something as much as statistical accomplishments. Well, not as much as. But it’s something.
So let's think about this. Nine pitchers have won exactly two Cy Youngs. Of those nine, three - Bob Gibson, Gaylord Perry and Tom Glavine - are in the Hall, and each forged his own name in some way or other. Three more - Roy Halladay, TIm Lincecum and Johan Santana - are retired but not eligible. The last two besides Kluber, Bret Saberhagn and Denny McLain, are both curious cases. McClain had a hot couple years, but only pitched 10 years and aside from those two Cy Young years in '68 and '69 where he had a 2.37 combined ERA and led baseball in innings pitched both years, he was decidedly subpar. Saberhagen probably has an argument for the Hall, with two Cy Youngs, 59.1 WAR and a World Series MVP, but he was weirdly inconsistent. So of those not in the Hall, Halladay will probably get in, Santana a bit more of an outside shot but I think it’ll happen, Lincecum just wasn't good enough for long ehough, and the other two aren't in and likely won't sneak in. That gives us five of the eight besides Kluber that make it. Why can’t he be the sixth?
The crux of this is all about health. He's thrown over 200 innings each of the last four years, making at least 29 starts in each. He needs to put up some counting numbers, and luckily for him that will be easy in the modern playing environment. His 34.1 percent strikeout rate was a career high, but it's unlikely we'll see it fall off too much since strikeouts are up so much. He's got 1,246 in his career. Could he get to, say, 2,500? That's really the only traditional milestone that's in striking distance. He's unlikely to get 250 wins or whatever, he had such a late start. But if, over the next six years, he averaged 216 strikeouts a season, which would be his lowest total for a full season of work to this point, he'd hit that 2,500 K mark. With a consistently low ERA and some changing perceptions of what a starting pitcher is evolving, there could be a real path there.
Then there's the WAR, which among the new heads 60 is the barrier for Hall of Fame. For reference, Saberhagen had 59.1 in his career, and coupled with being inconsistent he's been doomed to the Very Good Place. Kluber is at 26.9 right now. Let's call it 27. He'd need 33 to get to the mark. if he could pitch to 40, a big if no matter the health of a pitcher to a point, that's 3.6 a season. Not too daunting. The real question is how Kluber will decline. Optimistically, you could say he'd be worth 25 or so WAR from 32 to 35. That's been done by 12 pitchers, but only four times since 1995 and before then not since 1971. Guys like Bob Gibson (35.5), Roger Clemens (29.7) or Curt Schilling (27.5) are a bit higher up on the greatness scale than Kluber, but Halladay and his 25 WAR in that span, that makes it seem more doable. If he could get to 52 WAR by the time his Indians contract ends, another eight over five years seems doable. And if he declines gracefully - figure a 7 win season in 2018, 6.5 in '19, then another 11.5 or 12 combined in the next two season, that gets him to 25. It's not a lot of wiggle room for ailment or ineffectiveness, but it's a narrow road map.
Putting that into real terms would be helpful, of course. What, exactly, does a 6.5 win season look like? The big key is innings, because WAR is a compiled stat. Kluber actually showed us this last year, when he earned 6.4 WAR. It’s not unrealistic to think he could throw 210-220 innings again in 2018 with a low 3 ERA and a strikeout rate in the high 20’s or low 30’s. If anything, that’s expected. The talent should be the thing that sticks around the longest, especially with how he’s changed and folded new pitches in over the years. Watch him come out with a murderous change-up in 2018 and open up a whole new can of worms. So if he can keep it over the 200 mark in innings pitched the next four years (again, certainly not assured), getting near 50 by 2021 is hittable. Even if he slowly steps back, and is hitting like 180 by 2020, that should keep the door open.
The biggest thing about Kluber that works for him is exactly what led to his second Cy Young. His best pitch is his breaking ball/slider/curve, and in 2017 he threw it 27.6 percent of the time, his highest rate ever. According to study done by Driveline Baseball, breaking pitches are less stressful to the arm than the fastball when thrown at their traditional speeds. Kluber relied on his own breaking pitch, which isn’t hard but is savage, to be great this year. Driveline showed that while it is more stressful on a per-mph basis, the lower velocity certainly offsets that. In fact, work cited in their own work points to fastball-heavy pitchers having arm trouble more often. Seems like just throwing real hard is a greater stressor than anything else. Perhaps this means a future of junkballing for Kluber. That study does raise many questions, and they try to address it, but it’s interesting to think of a future for Kluber that isn’t fastball based. He’d make these fastball hunting youngsters look the fool.
The surest path to the Hall for Kluber, because he got such a late start, is to make himself indelible to baseball in general. Do something spectacular. Win two more Cy Youngs, and do what he did in October 2016 again, but finish strong. Make it so you can't write the history of baseball without him. Baseball writers with Hall of Fame voting credentials seem to look for any reason to not enshrine players. But I think for the most part romantics at heart, some just more jaded and spurned than others. They want a narrative, a story to tell. Kluber has the rags to riches side of things going for him already. He just needs to make his name synonymous with greatness. He's taken steps down that path, he just needs to keep trodding this same trail.