Cy Young Favorite Corey Kluber Has Taken over Best-Pitcher-in-Baseball Throne

Jacob ShaferFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 12: Starting pitcher Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians pitches during the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field on September 12, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Attention all big league hitters and potential postseason foes: The Klubot is fully activated.         

After posting a 4.19 ERA in April and making only one start in May because of a balky back, Corey Kluber has remorphed into the ace of the Cleveland Indians staff. More than that, as the Tribe streak toward the playoffs, he's assumed the mantle of best pitcher in baseball.

That's a bold statement in a world where Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Chris Sale exist. Kluber, however, leads all pitchers with 1.9 WAR over the past 30 days, according to FanGraphs' calculation.

On the season, his 6.9 WAR is second only to Sale's 7.6, which is especially impressive considering he missed nearly a full calendar month.

Sale is squarely in the American League Cy Young Award mix after reaching the 300-strikeout plateau in a 9-0 win over the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday at Oriole Park. For a time, the Boston Red Sox southpaw seemed destined to waltz away with the hardware.

Dueling aces...
NameIPSOWAR
Corey Kluber (CLE)191.22526.9
Chris Sale (BOS)209.13007.6
Clayton Kershaw (LAD)163.01944.5
Max Scherzer (WAS)191.12535.6
Source: FanGraphs

Kluber, though, has come on strong and is now the nominal favorite to set a second Cy Young alongside his 2014 prize. Sale's body of work is noteworthy, but Kluber is finishing the 162-game marathon at a speed-of-sound sprint.

He's third in baseball in strikeouts (252) and second in opponents' batting average (.188). He's won 14 of his last 16 decisions and sports an 0.87 ERA with 37 strikeouts and one walk in September.

Keep mining the stat sheet, and the absurd numbers keep popping up. But you get the idea. There are studs, and then there are Studs. Kluber is in the capital "S" club.

NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 28:  Corey Kluber #28 of the Cleveland Indians in action against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 28, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Indians defeated the Yankees 6-2.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Imag
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

OK, fine, here are a few more retina-melting figures, courtesy of FanRag Sports' Evan Davis:

"Kluber has struck out 37 percent of the batters he has faced since June 1 while walking less than 4 percent. He has only allowed 0.76 home runs per nine innings. His xwOBA in April and May was at a poor .342; it’s been .219 since he got back to the big leagues.

In fact, Kluber’s strikeout rate and xwOBA allowed have led all of major league starters from June 1 onward. He's been the best strikeout pitcher, the second-best walks pitcher and has been the best contact pitcher in that time frame."

You don't need to know what xwOBA is to understand that's impressive—though, if you're curious, it's an advanced metric that uses Statcast data to determine expected on-base average with defense removed from the equation. 

Writing for The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal suggested Kluber should get MVP consideration.

"He's doing it effortlessly," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said, per Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "We talk about it on the bench. You used to watch Michael Jordan play when he was the best, and you looked up and you were like: 'He's got 40 points? I didn't even realize that.' The other night, Kluber's got 12 strikeouts, and it didn’t even seem like that, just because he's so comfortable out there."

As Kepner noted, Kluber and Jordan don't share much in the personality department. Jordan was an outspoken competitor and might still be the most famous basketball player on the planet nearly 15 years after his final retirement. 

Kluber is stoic and even-keel—hence the Klubot nickname. Even after ripping through the postseason last year and posting a 1.83 ERA with 35 strikeouts in 34.1 innings, he's barely a household name among casual fans. 

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Speaking of his 2016 postseason: If his recent performance is any indication, Kluber could be poised to top it this October.

Inevitably, any pitcher looking to sling a team over his back and carry it to a Commissioner's Trophy will get compared to Madison Bumgarner. In 2014, you'll recall, the San Francisco Giants left-hander came as close as any player can to single-handedly winning a championship.

The Indians don't need Kluber to do that per se. They have the sixth-highest scoring offense in baseball, another top-tier starting pitcher in Carlos Carrasco and a bullpen fronted by the two-headed monster of closer Cody Allen and lefty Andrew Miller.

Still, for a franchise toting MLB's longest active title drought (68 years), an extra-strength Kluber would be a massive boon.

He's already arguably baseball's best pitcher. Now, imagine he vanquishes Sale and the Red Sox in either the division series or the American League Championship Series. Then let's say he hurls his way past Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers or Scherzer and the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

The debate wouldn't be over, but his case would be even stronger than it is now.

The Klubot is fully activated—and it's time to see how far he can go.

                                 

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of MLB.com and FanGraphs.