Corey Kluber Rides Historic Pitch to Second Cy Young Award

What’s so remarkable about Corey Kluber’s second Cy Young Award, the receipt of which was announced Wednesday evening, is he won it despite missing a month of the season. At the All-Star break, it looked like Sale in a runaway, but Kluber found another level and produced one of the great Cy Young comebacks of all-time. That’s how dominant he was from the point at which he returned in June through the end of September following a trip to the DL with a back strain.

How good was Kluber?

Starting with that appearance against Oakland on June 1, Kluber struck out 224 batters (!). That’s 224 strikeouts in two-thirds of a season. That’s 224 strikeouts against 619 batters faced, good for an astounding 36.2% rate. He walked only 3.7% of those same batters.

The difference between Kluber’s strikeout and walk rate (K-BB%) from June to September was 32.5 points. To put that mark in context, consider: among all pitchers, only elite bullpen arms recorded Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen and Chad Green better marks for the season. (It should be noted that Chris Sale led MLB starters over the whole season with a 31.1-point differential. Kluber finished second to Sale among starters, with a 29.5-point mark.)

Kluber was excellent over that four-month span by traditional measures, as well, going 15-2 with a 1.62 ERA in his final 23 starts. So he pleased traditionally and analytically minded voters en route to securing 27 of 30 first-place votes.

How did Kluber get better? How did an already elite pitcher, one with his own appreciation society, become even more elite?

Whatever you want to label it, curveball or slider, Kluber’s breaking ball was responsible for much of Kluber’s success — basically as much as any single pitch from the 21st century.

Jeff Sullivan argued on Sept. 7 that Kluber’s breaker was the best pitch in baseball — and, by linear weights among pitchers who threw at least 60 innings, it finished as the best in the sport.

Here are the pitches worth 30-plus runs above average in 2017:

Kluber’s curveball: +37.3 runs
Justin Verlander’s fastball: +33.6 runs
Max Scherzer’s slider: +30.6 runs

Since 2007, only Clayton Kershaw’s fastball in 2013 (39.1 runs) was more valuable in a single season.

Of course, Kluber’s breaking pitch has been excellent for some time. The difference this year is that he began to throw it at a career-high rate. Kluber threw the breaking ball 19.8% of the time in 2016. In 2017? He upped the rate to 27.1%. During the last four months, he threw it at a 29.2% of the time.

See chart:

There appears to be some relationships tied to the pitch’s usage.

I wrote about the trend earlier this year in a feature for The Athletic in the midst of Kluber’s remarkable strikeout run. He’d struck out at least eight opponents in 14 consecutive starts, falling one outing short of Randy Johnson’s MLB record set between the 1999-2000 seasons.

Kluber didn’t believe his stuff was playing any differently when I explored his strikeout surge, and his breaking-ball movement was about the same as it had been in 2016 and 2015.

“I’m not sure it’s as much me doing anything differently as much as it is guys just don’t care about striking out,” Kluber said. “Batters used to believe striking out was a bad thing. They changed their approach with two-strikes, shortened up.”

“I think it goes hand-in-hand,” said Kluber of his breaking ball usage and strikeout rate. … Guys a lot of times don’t really make adjustments. They go up there swinging for the fences. More times more than not [the breaking ball] is the best pitch to take advantage of that.”

So Kluber turned batters’ aggressiveness against them. It will be interesting to see if batters adjust to Kluber in 2018, to see if he continues to increase his breaking-ball usage.

But there’s perhaps a dark side to his Cy Young chase and breaking-ball usage.

No one threw more pitches between June 1 and the close of the season than Klubot. And remember: this was a pitcher who threw 249 innings in 2016 between the regular season and postseason.

Despite missing a month, Kluber finished with 203 innings pitched. And who can blame him for wanting to be out there for 166 innings from June 1-Oct. 1: he helped his team to a historic winning streak, 102 wins, and the game’s top run differential. He also won the Cy Young Award, raising his 2021 and 2022 club options by $2 million each year.

But did Kluber wear down because of the chase? Was there something off with Kluber at the end of the season? Or did he simply prove he’s human? Did his unenviable lull in production came at the most inopportune of times?

Kluber suggested there was something wrong after his Game 5 ALDS loss against the Yankees.

“I don’t feel like I need to get into details right now,” Kluber told reporters — including this author — after Game 5. “I was healthy enough to go out there and try to pitch.”

Later, the Indians offered more specifics, saying it wasn’t his back that had cost him a month on the DL but rather an issue finding his release point. And Kluber’s release point had changed at the end of the season:

Was the release-point issue just one of those things? Or was it tied to fatigue?

It would have probably been difficult for the club to rest Kluber as he efficiently and historically buzz-sawed his way through opposing lineups. Then again, we live in an age where workload is monitored closely — and, as noted above, no pitcher threw more pitches after June 1.

What we do know for certain is this: Kluber rode one of the great pitches we’ve ever seen for four remarkable months and was deserving of a second Cy Young Award. But Kluber was already looking ahead on Wednesday night.

“All we can do is look forward to next year,” he said to MLB.com after winning, “and try to have a better finish.”





A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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timthezaj
4 years ago

Wow Kluber had a 36.2 strikeout percentage by cherry picking the best part of his season and almost tied a strikeout streak. It’s not like chris sale had a 36.2 strikeout percentage for the entire season while playing in a much harder division, and actually tied a strikeout record for the second time. And he pitched for the whole season. It’s ridiculous that he didn’t get more than three votes.

JMerts
4 years ago
Reply to  timthezaj

I agree. I love Kluber, but Im still a little dumbfounded that Sale was snubbed – let alone so unanimously. I wonder how much of a difference the innings count made here, since despite missing a month, Kluber was only about 10 IP behind Sale for the season. Even still, 300+ Ks in today’s game, in the AL East, while pitching to righty-heavy lineups at Fenway half the time, deserved a whole lot more love from the voters.

Joe Joemember
4 years ago
Reply to  JMerts

FIP isn’t seen as real even though strikeouts, walks, and homers actually happen. ERA is seen as real and it is. However, pitchers are in less control of those numbers in just a year. Kluber wins ERA by a landslide. Kluber wins Cy Young by a landslide. Looking at BR WAR leaderboards is always weird to me, but voters tend to vote more in line with rWAR.

Two great pitchers. One award. I dislike that I even pay attention because they are a coin toss to me who was better.

stever20member
4 years ago
Reply to  JMerts

He only had 13/32 starts at Fenway- so a hair over 40% at home. And in the August/September portion of the schedule-the melt down part- he only had 4/11 home starts.

stever20member
4 years ago
Reply to  JMerts

You also said that he plays in the AL East…. Well did a bit of looking and the 2 worst teams in the AL offensively this season were… Tampa and Toronto. And look at that- Sale faced those 2 teams a whopping 10 times(to 2 for Kluber). Chicago and KC were the next 2 worst- and Kluber saw them 7 times(to 2 for Sale). So wouldn’t say that being in the AL East is as helpful as you might think. This wasn’t like even 2 years ago where 4/7 top offenses in the AL were in the East.

emh1969
4 years ago
Reply to  timthezaj

I was more surprised that Severino easily finished ahead of Carrasco. Looking at their stats, it’s hard to see why.

For the voters that prefer traditional stats, Carrasco’s 4 extra wins should have balanced out Severino’s better ERA (plus Severino gave up 9 unearned runs vs 0 for Carrasco).

For those that prefer WAR, Carrasco had a 0.1 WAR lead in Baseball Reference’s version whereas Severino had a 0.2 WAR lead in Fangraph’s.

So what’s the reasoning for putting Severino over Carrasco? I’m not saying it’s a bad choice, I just don’t understand why Severino dominated the 3rd place voting when there’s no discernible difference between him and Carrasco.

sadtrombonemember
4 years ago
Reply to  timthezaj

Sale and Kluber were basically the same value of pitcher, except Sale pitched more. I don’t think this was a huge oversight on the part of the voters to pick Kluber over Sale, but I do think that Sale’s struggles down the stretch were (unjustifiably) salient for the voters.

stever20member
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Totally think his struggles down the stretch were a huge reason why. But I don’t see why the last 2 months shouldn’t have an impact at all. I mean- those 2 months made it where the ERA race went from 2.37 Sale-2.90 Kluber to 2.90 Sale-2.25 Kluber. Or the FIP race went from 1.92 Sale-2.47 Kluber(with Sale having a 33.2 IP lead) to 2.45 Sale-2.50 Kluber(with Sale only having a 10.2 IP lead).

For those that say the whole season should matter- and Kluber shouldn’t be given a pass for the first third of the season, why exactly should Sale be given a pass for the last third of the season?

sadtrombonemember
4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

I don’t know what the voters were thinking with Kluber and his early-year struggles. But I don’t really care when you were good and bad over the course of the year. Sale just pitched a little more than Kluber did, which is why Sale was more “valuable” in terms of total season production despite similar rate value (SIERA has them 2.58 for Sale vs. 2.68 for Kluber).

I don’t care that much either way, but I think the reason why Kluber got all the votes (instead of a more logical 50/50 split) was because voters over-weight recency.

stever20member
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If 10 innings is your biggest thing going for you in the award, you don’t have much of a case. And that’s the #1 thing that people bring up repeatedly when defending Sale.

End of the day, a lot of voters still think a pitchers #1 job is run prevention. And Kluber was ahead of Sale there by almost 2/3 of a run. It’s tough to see a guy in Sale’s position this year ever winning the award. If your ERA is .65 worse than the other guy, with only 10 innings difference- you are never going to win. And the vote difference is going to be about as large as it was this year.

bosoxforlifemember
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

It is most certainly a recency bias but that is appropriate because the leverage increases as the season moves into August and September. With very little to choose between them, Kluber’s superior performance in the last third of the season carries enough weight to tip the balance in his favor.

sadtrombonemember
4 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Let me know when a win in August counts for more than a win in May, and I’ll come around to your position.

isavage
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

“Sale and Kluber were basically the same value of pitcher, except Sale pitched more.” You say this so conclusively, but there is ample argument that they were not the same in value. If you’re looking at fWAR, sure, they were about the same. Sale led by 0.4 WAR, because he pitched a few innings more. Now fangraphs’ own writers would generally say fWAR is less than ideal because it removes too much (context, quality of contact) that you wouldn’t want to completely ignore for the purpose of a backwards-looking award, and it might be best to split fWAR and fangraphs’ RA9 WAR. By RA9 WAR Kluber leads 8.5 to 7.3. Baseball reference uses something like RA9 WAR but I think they have something in the calculation for team defense, and there Kluber led 8.0 to 6.0. So Kluber had a large lead in ERA, and 2 of 3 common WAR measurements. The 3rd WAR measurement they were essentially equal. Not sure why we need to get into narratives of “who finished stronger”. There’s a good case that they both pitched very well but Kluber had an overall better performance.

sadtrombonemember
4 years ago
Reply to  isavage

I don’t understand why some people love RA9-WAR so much. It is a team statistic, not an individual one. The problems that we have with wins are the same problems with RA9-WAR (although not as severe).

If you have a statistic that effectively isolates individual performance, you should use that one. Using RA9-WAR (and to a lesser extent, bWAR) is like saying “okay, we have this good measurement but there are two inferior measurements with more error involved, and those tell a different story.”

I just don’t get it. I mean, I get why regular old fans prefer ERA, but not why otherwise statistics-savvy fans like a seriously flawed measure so much.

(Note: I strongly prefer SIERA to FIP, but FIP is leagues better than RA)

stever20member
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

the problem though is to a lot of voters, there isn’t a statistic that isolates pitchers. It sure isn’t FIP to them. I think they view FIP as more of a predictive thing- what should have happened- instead of a resultant thing- what actually DID happen. Yes, Strikeouts, Homers, and Walks did happen. But so did other stuff- and a lot of that other stuff is directly related to the pitcher.