Which one of these does not belong?
The obvious answer is, of course, Cleveland Indians right-hander Corey Kluber, but in the midst of historically dominant seasons from both Hernandez and Kershaw as they make potential claims on MVP awards in each league, Kluber is nipping at their heels while enjoying a breakout renaissance. Still, the public perception of Kluber’s dominant season is mixed at best, and there is real question about whether he can maintain this torrid pace moving forward, even with the statistics backing up his improvement.
First, the 28-year-old Kluber has put together an incredibly successful “traditional” profile of stats during the 2014 season. Through 26 starts, Kluber has accumulated an impressive 2.41 ERA in 179.1 innings, and with 197 strikeouts against just 38 walks, he has been able to maintain a very positive 1.07 WHIP for his trouble.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Kluber currently ranks (as of this post) sixth among all MLB pitchers in ERA (third in the American League), second in strikeouts, and in the top 20 in WHIP, lending a bit of traditional credence to his success. At the same time, Kluber hasn’t received the same sort of Cy Young, or even MVP, attention that the aforementioned Hernandez and Kershaw have garnered, and while that has something to do with length of track record, it also speaks to the thought that he will simply regress.
However, a more “advanced” look at the numbers from Kluber shows that he has firmly established himself as a dominant pitcher that isn’t simply benefiting from luck. For example, Kluber’s ERA of 2.41 matches closely with both his FIP (fielding-independent pitching) of 2.38 and xFIP (“expected” FIP) of 2.69 to alleviate any concerns about garnering an unhealthy balance of luck. This has been the case dating back to the majority of the 2013 season as well, as the big right-hander finished with a FIP (3.30) and xFIP (3.10) that were already approaching “star” range from a starting pitcher that eats innings.
In general, the mark of a superstar is the ability to maintain a superb strikeout-to-walk rate while keeping the ball in the ballpark, and Kluber has been able to accomplish both. He has produced 5.18 strikeouts per every walk issued, and any time that a starting pitcher can approach 10 strikeouts per 9 innings without putting batters on base via the free pass, quality things happen. Kluber’s home run rate has been on the “fortunate” side this season, as he has issued only 0.50 home runs per 9 innings with 6.8% of fly balls leaving the yard, but even with slight regression (as built in by the advanced metrics), he would be dominant.
Perhaps the most intriguing step in Kluber’s ascension to stardom will be monitoring his workload. The 2014 season has been marred by high-profile arm injuries to pitchers like Cliff Lee and Masahiro Tanaka (among others), and because Kluber has already thrown a career-high in innings (by a wide margin), some perceive him as an increased risk for trouble. Still, starting pitching is an art form that comes with implied risk, and Kluber’s delivery and/or mechanics do not necessarily indicate that he is “due” for a serious injury.
The “WAR” statistic has become incredibly controversial, as it measured every player in Major League Baseball by the amount of wins produced when compared to a replacement-level player. In short, it is an all-encompassing metric that measures overall value. While it shouldn’t be taken as gospel, both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference (who both produce their own version) rank Kluber as one of the top three pitchers in baseball this season (along with Hernandez and Kershaw), and FanGraphs actually ranks Kluber ahead of Kershaw, even during an absolutely outstanding season for the Dodgers ace.
Because pitchers are innately more volatile than position players, it is always more difficult to project a player as a long-term superstar. However, Kluber has established himself with an utterly dominant season at the age of 28, and unless we choose to make the assumption of injury, there is no reason to think that severe regression is coming. He may not be the dominant pitcher over a decade that Felix Hernandez has proved to be, but the Cleveland Indians just might have a perennial Cy Young contender in the form of Corey Kluber.