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Historical Kluber, Lede to nowhere and Yellow Ledbetter: While We’re Waiting

Corey Kluber Cleveland Indians
Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Most of you probably clicked this expecting to find Andrew “The Rock” Schnitkey’s normal “While We’re Waiting” take. Instead, you get me, debuting here at Waiting For Next Year, writing a column that I’ve enjoyed reading over the past several years. If my name looks somewhat familiar, you probably remember me as the Managing Editor at Indians Baseball Insider for several years, or the co-founder and Managing Editor of Everybody Hates Cleveland. If my name doesn’t look familiar, I’m a guy who likes to write, and am more than ecstatic to be filling in for “The Rock” for my debut piece here at WFNY. Let’s wander around, shall we?

What if Corey Kluber wins a second Cy Young?

With a weary narrative prevalent in a loud social media, Corey Kluber continues to ride the turbulent waters of Cleveland Indians baseball as though he were canoeing Lake Erie on a calm, summer day. In a two-week period that saw Yan Gomes, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco officially exit stage left for the remainder of the regular season or more, Kluber is on the precipice of doing something that no other starter in the history of the Indians’ organization has ever done before: win his second Cy Young Award.

Ponder that for a moment.

In the history of a franchise with names like Bob Feller and Addie Joss and Bob Lemon and Early Wynn and Stan Coveleski and Sam McDowell and Gaylord Perry and CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, the name Kluber is climbing up the ladder of historical significance in four full seasons of starting. With a second Cy Young Award for the current Tribe ace, where would he stand on the pantheon of organizational starting rotation greatness?

It’s hard to believe that in such a short time, Kluber could be considered one of the Indians’ best all-time, but it’s getting pretty hard to ignore. No, he’s not a Hall of Famer as of yet, and I’m pretty sure a second trophy for the mantle doesn’t include him in that discussion, but when you clear the mind of that discussion, things get pretty interesting.

While Kluber and a second Cy would certainly be historic, let’s not forget that the first Cy Young Award wasn’t given until long after most of the Indians’ great starters were dead, retired, traded or past their prime. Hall of Famers Joss, Feller, Coveleski, Lemon and longtime starter Mel Harder fit into this category. You could make a case that all but Harder would have won such an award at one point or another, had there been one to give, so you can’t hold that against these all-time greats. Again, all but Harder are in the Hall anyways, so let’s just take them out of the current conversation. They’re going to rate ahead of Kluber.

he’s in rarified air in baseball history, and has spent the better part of four seasons pitching in this land of greatness.

Regarding longevity, I’m not sure that Kluber can touch Harder in a historical sense, even with a second award. While I think there’s a day we can argue that, and while I equally think that Kluber is far more dominant than Harder ever was, I am going to exclude him in this pure discussion simply because this is an extremely informal conversation, and I suspect we’ll have some years to discuss that very thing. Honestly, on the mound, Kluber is better, but Harder is a hard pitcher to judge, because he pitched for a really long time. Call him the “Don Sutton of the Indians,” but with two 20-win seasons. Of course, his 3.0 lifetime K/9 leaves a little something to be desired…but…for another day.

Since the Cy Young Award era began, there have been three Indians winners other than Kluber: Gaylord Perry in 1972, CC Sabathia in 2007, and Cliff Lee in 2008. Past those three, two other starters come to mind that enter the discussion who could have, and should have won the award: Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant, both Indians’ starters in the 1960s. You can certainly argue some others in the equation, but remember, if Kluber simply wins a second Cy Young Award, he’s in rarified air in baseball history, and has spent the better part of four seasons pitching in this land of greatness. That alone puts many pitchers below Kluber.

It’s also important to note that there are certainly different eras in baseball that can play a part in all of this discussion, but in this cursory look, we’re going to avoid most of that talk. Sure, acknowledge the dead ball era of the pre-1920s and understand that the 60s went from a pitcher-dominant era that forced the league to lower the mound in 1969; the year after the “Year of the Pitcher.” That said, we’re almost going to ignore understanding that Tiant and McDowell may have missed chances at the Cy Young because of the overabundance of some of the greatest pitchers of all time.

The fact is that Kluber hasn’t won his second quite yet, and he may not win it at all. Would that take away this entire conversation? It could? Multiple Cy Youngs in any era is a big deal, and while Kluber will remain exceptional, that singular award could tilt the balance of power just enough to keep other guys ahead of him for now. Of course, the stoic righty certainly has several years ahead of him in which he can make a much more clear case as one of the Tribe’s all-time best.

What we’re doing here instead is trying to focus on the simple fact that Kluber, as unassuming a top Major League starter as you’ll ever watch, truly may be one of the Indians’ greatest starters…right now. While many are focusing on blowhards and click bait, let’s not miss the true brilliance that is right in front of us.

So how good is Kluber? Let’s just use some common sense for a moment.

If you knock out the Hall of Famers that I already mentioned and understand that the era prior to 1960 is defined by those pitchers that are clearly going to be ranked ahead of Kluber, even with a second Cy, you essentially don’t have to talk about any other starters prior to 1961. There are names there, like Herb Score and Vean Gregg and Wes Farrell and George Uhle and Jim Bagby Sr. and others, but I think when talking significance, ability and era, all can be discarded in the impact capacity for a variety of reasons.

So, if we use our parameters to figure out where Kluber stacks up after the all-time greats in the organization, our bookends are going to be 1960 until today, making the conversation much easier. For posterity’s sake, let’s back up through time, and look at some of Kluber’s contemporaries, before bolting several eras to where our real discussion arrives.

Since the year 2000, you can probably argue that there are three pitchers in the “Who’s the best” argument, and that’s Sabathia, Lee and Kluber. Kluber has already been better than Cliff Lee. The only argument that can be made regarding Sabathia, if Kluber wins a second, is longevity, which will come in to play with more than one starter.

Look, Sabathia was a horse on the mound, and he was most certainly an ace, but at his best, he couldn’t touch Kluber’s dominance. In Kluber’s three full years as a starter for the Indians, he’s never had an ERA over 3.49, a FIP over 3.25 and an xFIP over 3.46. In Sabathia’s eight full seasons with the Tribe, he only had two full seasons with an ERA below 3.49, a one full season with a FIP under 3.25, and one full season with an xFIP below 3.46. Kluber’s worst WAR season is this current season, sitting at 4.9 with three starts remaining. With the Indians, Sabathia had two full seasons with a WAR above 4.9, and one of those seasons was 5.0. Kluber will likely pass that this season. My point? Kluber, overall, is a much better pitcher. If he can manage to compete at this level for a couple more seasons, this ceases to be a question. I would argue another Cy makes the point moot.

I’m not trying to bog down with numbers, and I’m honestly not trying to put down Sabathia. I’m just trying to note how extraordinarily dominant Kluber has been over the past three seasons. When you combine all of those numbers with Kluber’s career 9.48 K/9 and 2.09 BB/9, and compare them to Sabathia’s 7.4 K/9 and 2.94 BB/9 with the Indians, you can see that Kluber stands out ahead of Sabathia. If longevity is your argument for Sabathia being the better pitcher, it gets pretty thin after a second Cy Young award, and another year or two as a competent starter for Kluber. I’d argue that he doesn’t need the longevity with the second award, just via his dominance in every single start.

If, like me, you put Kluber ahead of Sabathia and Lee (and you really should), then our pathway to our real discussion starts to get easy. In the 90’s, it begins and ends with Charles Nagy and Bartolo Colon. While I loved Nagy, he was simply the de facto ace because the Indians couldn’t manage to develop anyone better, nor sign a starter who wasn’t past his “ace prime.” And, while Colon was a really good pitcher for the Indians, his ERA/FIP data is marginal at best. He did have a season in which his K/9 was 10.15, but his walk rate was never below 3.34. Again, this isn’t a knock on Colon, who I love, just to notate that at his best with the Indians, Kluber was far superior over a longer period.

If you continue to back up into the 1980’s and then 1970’s, there really aren’t the names there worth discussing until you get to Gaylord Perry. Greg Swindell and Tom Candiotti come to mind, but just checking out their fangraphs stat lines clarifies that while good, they aren’t Kluber-level.

Enter Gaylord Perry in the 1970’s, and Luis Tiant and Sam McDowell in the 1960’s. You could likely also include a guy like Sonny Siebert, but he was never really the ace of the rotation. For the sake of the discussion, let’s leave him out.

Here are the numbers for Kluber, Perry, Tiant and McDowell, with the Indians.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-18-46-pm

And here’s where you realize that Corey Kluber, with a second Cy Young, really enters some rarified air.

The easiest comparison is with Perry, who pitched in only three less games than Kluber, and only had one more start. There’s an obvious difference in eras, as Perry’s 96 complete games and 1,130 IP dwarfs Klubers 10 complete games, and 877 IP. Because of that boost in innings, Perry does have Kluber in several stats, and in his Cy Young season, he pitched an incredible 342 2/3 innings. Where it gets interesting and comparable is when you see that Kluber’s FIP, BB/9 and K/9 dominate Perry, a Hall of Famer. Remember, Perry’s career spanned 22 seasons and 314 wins, but his best seasons were arguably with the Tribe. Is he better than Kluber if Kluber adds to these stats over the next three starts, and if Kluber wins another Cy Young? It’s certainly arguable, but I’d put Kluber ahead of him, by a vaseline swipe.

“Sudden” Sam McDowell, arguably one of the most under-rated pitchers in the history of baseball.

Like Perry, Tiant’s complete games and innings pitched are far superior to Kluber’s, and while Tiant never won a Cy Young, he certainly could have won it in 1968, when he went 21-9, with a 1.60 ERA and an incredible 2.04 FIP. For those counting at home, that was the season in which Denny McClain went 31-6, when pitcher wins reigned supreme. Again, Kluber has him in FIP, BB/9 and K/9, and you can make a case that like with Perry, Kluber’s isolated dominance is far superior.

Where things get murky is when you look at “Sudden” Sam McDowell, arguably one of the most under-rated pitchers in the history of baseball. Again, McDowell dominated in longevity, as well as complete games and innings. Overall numbers don’t really do us good here. Where it’s hard to put Kluber ahead of McDowell is in dominance. Over McDowell’s 11 years with the Tribe, his K/9 was an insane 9.2, and while his walk rate was way above Kluber at 4.6, it’s hard to argue McDowell’s dominance over such a long period of time. His career Indians’ FIP of 2.93 is lower than Kluber’s current 3.02, and while Kluber’s 269 strike total of 2014 is impressive, McDowell has two seasons over 300, and four total seasons over Kluber’s 269 K’s.

Now, McDowell never won the Cy Young Award, and he seemed on track to make it to the Hall of Fame before injuries and alcoholism reared its ugly head. McDowell could have won in 1970, going 20-12, finishing third that season. But this is where the rubber meets the road for me, and longevity beats Kluber’s potential second Cy Young award, should Kluber win. I’d give McDowell the edge here, simply because his numbers were so similar, but over a much longer period of time. McDowell was arguabley as dominant, and was hurt because he pitched in an era dominated by some of the best starting pitchers of all-time. It’s close, but I’d give the nudge to McDowell, ahead of a two Cy Young Kluber.

But, I’m not going to lie…those awards really make the conversation a fun one, and over a beer or two, I’d likely contradict myself.

In the end, the simple point is that if you look at some of the all-time great Indians’ pitchers, a second Cy Young award puts Kluber in a pretty elite conversation. Hell, if we’re to be fair, he’s probably in that conversation already.

So if you’re counting at home, the rankings, in no certain order, would look something like this:

Top Tier:

  • Bob Feller
  • Addie Joss
  • Bob Lemon
  • Early Wynn
  • Stan Coveleski

The Mix for the next level:

  • Sam McDowell
  • Mel Harder
  • Corey Kluber
  • CC Sabathia
  • Gaylord Perry
  • Luis Tiant
  • Cliff Lee
  • Mike Garcia
  • Sonny Seibert

Where does he fit in the mix for me? I’d put him right next to McDowell, knocking on the door to greatness.

So, I wrote this lede the other day…

With the Indians a whisker’s length away from a postseason berth in 2016, Cleveland’s resident Chicken Little, the Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes, has clearly been hit in the head by far too many acorns. While Hoynes declared that the Tribe’s “postseason dreams ended before they began,” and that the team was “eliminated from serious postseason advancement before they even got there….”

I then realized that enough had been written about that, but damn, I loved the hell out of that lede.

Anything can happen in the post-season…

The Kansas City Royals are the current World Series Champions. They won last year’s World Series thanks to clutch, smart hitting, just enough starting pitching, and a dominant bullpen. No, that’s NOT how this Cleveland Indians’ team was built to win this year, but, you know, if you squint your eyes just enough, isn’t that what we have right now?

In a brief Twitter conversation with T.D. Dery during the Indians’ opening walk-off win against Kansas City, we discussed the way hitters have stepped up in the absence of Michael Brantley. Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis and Mike Napoli are guys that are giving this team far more than I think most casual fans thought for the entire season, and let’s not forget that Francisco Lindor is playing his first full season. If Lonnie can somehow continue to play over his head, and if we can continue to see Roberto Perez playing at his current level, this gets really fun, really fast offensively.

The rotation is anchored by Kluber, who is arguably the best American League pitcher. If you just plug in any of the four or five guys that the Indians will use as starters after Kluber, in Bauer, Tomlin and Clevinger, you realize that the bullpen better be pretty damn special.

But isn’t it?

Trading for Andrew Miller becomes supremely important, and I would argue that this bullpen can carry the load through a World Series run. No, it’s not perfect, but boy is it good. The key will be avoiding overuse, and the reality is that with a couple of really bad starts, a depleted pen could really hurt this team. But if Bauer pitches against good starters the way he has this season, and if Tomlin can continue looking crisp, it could get fun, and by goodness, we’ll actually get to see the games played, instead of declaring the death of our team before October. You know, I’ve seen a lot of baseball since 1983, so I know everything, and I have to tell it like it is.

The music of the day…

Just before Josh Tomlin’s final warm-up pitch, as the Indians were about to kick off their final three-game series against the Kansas City Royals, I heard Pearl Jam’s Yellow Ledbetter piping through the Progressive Field speakers. It’s always been one of my favorite tunes, and makes me think of fall. There’s nothing like a little melancholy from a band that bled it back in the 90s, when this cult classic showed up as one of the great B-Sides of all-time, opposite Jeremy. If you haven’t heard it, you should. If you have, enjoy.