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Second Thoughts Game #117: Cleveland 3, NY Yankees 0

Second Thoughts Game #117: Cleveland 3, NY Yankees 0
Corey Kluber (Photo: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
August 10, 2014
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After another Corey Kluber start, MLB.com's Jordan Bastian brings yet more awe-inspiring statistics showing Kluber's mastery of the game. Corey Kluber has set a single-season club record with six games of 10+ K and one or fewer walks. Kluber became the sixth Indians pitcher to record seven or more outings of 10+ K, and Kluber is the first to do so since Dennis Eckersleyin 1976.

As a brief FanGraphs leaderboard-sorting confirms, Kluber - in 2014 - possesses one of the most effective combinations of finesse and bat-missing in Indians' history. The percent of plate appearances that end in a strikeout (K%) is regarded as the most efficient way to measure whiffs; likewise, the percent of plate appearances that end in walks (BB%) faithfully measure command. K%-BB% demonstrates how large the gap is between the two - namely, how extreme a pitcher's mix of command and stuff truly is. Corey Kluber's 2014, at 21.4 K-BB%, is the largest single-season gap in Indians history. As this season progresses, the conclusion becomes inevitable: Indians fans are seeing in Kluber something that they have never seen from any Indians pitcher in the history of the franchise. There's no hyperbole there, and that comes as a tremendous shock to anyone who can recall that Kluber was the trade return for a half-season of Jake Westbrook.

That Cleveland is seeing something new is undeniable; to say that they are seeing the best pitcher season in Cleveland history is quite another. The shifts in gameplay that result from the great baseball schisms - the lowering of the mound, the dead ball era, integration, the 1994 strike - make it unfair to outright state that a pitcher of one era is objectively better than a pitcher of a different era. Arguing in favor of one or another as an objectively better pitcher, between eras and devoid of context, might be an interesting argument to have for argument's own sake, but one that is either exceedingly complex or best conducted while not taking oneself seriously.

However, what can be measured with reasonable confidence and without substantial pain is dominance within a year. Consider, for instance, 2008 Tim Lincecum - a pitcher chosen because he was extremely good that year, because it puts distance between any possible emotional reactions to 2013 or 2014 players, and because there will be more than enough Sabathia/Lee comparisons in the coming paragraphs to more than make up for their omission here.

There is no deception in saying that, because 2008 Tim Lincecum led the major leagues in raw strikeout total, K/9, and K/PA, Tim Lincecum was by far the NL's most dominant strikeout pitcher. If one assumed that the NL/AL difference between the pitcher and DH manifested itself in a perennially predictable fashion on strikeout environments - and for the most part, they do - one could amend the previous statement to say that Lincecum was the most dominant strikeout pitcher in the entire major leagues in 2008.

In a parallel vein, one could likewise say that Tim Lincecum's 2.62 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 2008 was the best in the majors; likewise, if one assumed that AL and NL home run/strikeout/walk environments varied predictably by league and home park, one could in turn assume that one could create a hypothetical league average mark based on those two factors. 2008 Lincecum's 'FIP minus' (FIP-) compares him to the NL average FIP, adjusted to what that pitcher's ERA/FIP would have been in AT&T Park - the fact that Lincecum's 2008 FIP- was 60 states, intuitively, that Lincecum's FIP was 60% of league average. In turn, his FIP- of 60 would imply that, given neutral luck and defense, Lincecum's ERA would have been 60% of this park-and-league adjusted  average. Without applying the park adjustment, FIP- was an excellent estimator of Lincecum's actual ERA in 2008; 60% of the NL average ERA of 4.41 was 2.64 - exceedingly close to his own ERA of 2.62, and yet closer when considering the park adjustment of the slightly pitcher-favored AT&T Park.

In short, FIP is a measure of how well a pitcher is executing those tasks that lead to run prevention, setting aside matters of defense and luck; FIP- is a measure of FIP relative to league average. In Kluber's case, FIP- becomes an extremely interesting tool, particularly as it comes to comparing him to Indians greats of the past. A one-to-one comparison of Kluber's strikeout numbers to Bob Feller's strikeout numbers fails to account for the wildly divergent circumstances under which they played, but to compare the two by their FIP- numbers is to compare how dominant each pitcher was relative to their contemporary pitchers. This question of relative dominance largely eliminates the relativism inherent in comparing different eras.

As of the end of Saturday's game, Kluber's 187 strikeouts, 36 BBs, and 10 home runs are simultaneously an absurd collection and have earned him a FIP of 2.43 and FIP- of 65 (which, depending on day-to-day league performance, is subject to change plus or minus one point). Using the former is to ignore the differences in run environments and hitter qualities among years; the latter, however, is entirely fair. Returning to the Lincecum comparison, 2008 Lincecum's FIP was higher, but his FIP- was lower; this reflects the fact that scoring was markedly higher in the mid-to-late 2000s than it is in the 2014 game. It is using the park, league, and season-adjusted FIP- and ERA- that one can attempt to situate Kluber's dominance within Indians' seasons past, with the obvious caveat that Kluber has thrown only 171.2 innings and only 25 starts, with nearly one third of the season remaining.

That caveat aside, Kluber's performance is among the most dominant in the history of the franchise in terms of FIP outcomes. Given the depths in which the 2014 Indians' defense has spelunked, being inarguably deficient, arguably the worst in the league, and perhaps even among the worst of the past decade, ERA should not be trusted as a metric of Kluber's effectiveness - even if, at 2.46, it's uncannily similar to his 2.43 FIP. In spite of the defense, Kluber's ERA- of 65 would put him in a 6-way tie for 20th on the all-time Indians single-season ERA- leaderboard stretching back to 1901 - a leaderboard that likely intrigues ones of people. By this metric, Kluber's earned run prevention would still be among the thirty most dominant seasons in Indians history in spite of playing in front of a defense defined by its stoic surveillance of passing baseballs.

Yet nearly all of those whose ERA- rankings are more dominant than Kluber's 65 ERA- were helped by their defense; of the 25 Indians ERA-qualified Indians' pitchers with a 65 ERA- or better, 19 have an FIP- that is ten or more points higher, indicating that a substantial amount of the pitcher's earned run prevention was as a result of defense; none of which is to say that these pitchers' ERAs did not improve the team's likelihood of winning, merely that a large share of those pitchers' ERA is as a result of the virtues of the fielders playing alongside them - a virtue intrinsic to the team but extrinsic to the actual pitcher. In many ways, assigning responsibility to Gene Barden for his excellent 1948 60 ERA- (2.43) despite a FIP- of 99 (3.92) would be akin to stating that the Cavaliers' Mike Brown being awarded 2009-10 Coach of the Year was independent of the fact that LeBron James was on his team.

Instead, focusing on FIP- numbers throughout the years, Kluber's 2014 FIP- situates him among the most dominant pitching performances in Indians' history at 6th all-time. The top 5 ERA-qualified Indians season in terms of FIP- are below, to show where it is Kluber falls. Notable in his absence from this top five is Bob Feller, whose best FIP- season was 66, below Kluber's current clip.

5) Len Barker, 1981: 64 FIP-, 19.2 K %, 7.0% BB%, 0.41 HR/9

While his 1981 season involved a perfect game, and while Barker's 64 FIP- was without question dominant, it's not entirely true that Barker's 1981 season represents one of the most viciously dominant seasons by an Indians' pitcher in history. Having only played 103 baseball games the entire season due to the 1981 strike, Barker's season canonot be completely compared to the other great dominant seasons on the list, but in the same sense, neither can Kluber's. Nevertheless, Barker's campaign was intriguing because, in spite of being outside the top 5 in K%, BB%, and HR/9 among pitchers with 100+ IP, Barker's 64 FIP- was third in the majors. Barker did nothing exceptionally, but because he lacked any critical flaws (whereas Steve Carlton was slightly more walk-prone, Nolan Ryan substantially more walk-prone, and Fernando Valenzuela marginally more homer-prone), Barker's 1981 made history. It's merely shocking that his ERA did not reflect this fact: the gap between his 3.91 ERA and his 2.46 FIP remains to this day the largest gap between ERA and FIP of any ERA-qualified Indians season.

4) Luis Tiant, 1968: 62 FIP-, 26.8 K%, 7.4 BB%, 0.56 HR/9

1968 is regarded as the Year of the Pitcher, as it was in response to pitcher effectiveness in 1968 that baseball lowered the mound for the following year. In the year when pitching was at its zenith, the Indians' own Luis Tiant has an argument for being the first among equals. Not only is his 62 FIP- objectively stirring, it was also the lowest mark in the majors in 1968. In terms of those actions a pitcher can take to impact his own fortunes, Luis Tiant executed; unlike Barker, however, it was predominantly on the back of an extremely formidable strikeout rate that he achieved these heights - achieving a strikeout in 26.8% of all his plate appearances, Tiant's strikeout prowess was the highest in the game in '68, a full percentage point higher than the second-highest K% (25.8%), Cleveland's own Sam McDowell, and 3.7% higher than the third-highest K%, a pitcher who went by the name Bob Gibson. Tiant's walk rate was likewise better-than-average at 7.4%, and even his 0.56 HR/9 - only marginally better than the league average of 0.68 - could not move him from the top of the list in 1968.

3) Sonny Siebert, 1965: 61 FIP-, 25.7 K%, 6.2 BB%, 0.67 HR/9

Sonny Siebert never had much of a chance at the major league strikeout title in 1965. The biggest obstacle was named Koufax. Sandy Koufax proved to be an obstacle not merely because of what he actually accomplished - his 1965 season was, to that point, the single-season record for strikeouts in the 20th century - but because his 335.2 innings pitched represented a full 147 more innings than Siebert threw in 1965. Siebert's aggregate stats, as a result, did not approach the historic heights of Koufax's '65 season, which are unreasonable standard for any pitcher in MLB history, Koufax included.

Noting with extreme caution that Koufax's '65 combined durability and effectiveness in terrifying and unprecedented forms that Siebert did not and could not imitate, the rate stats remain frighteningly comparable. Siebert's K% was third in the majors that year - well behind both Koufax (29.5%) and McDowell (29.1%), but still exceptionally high. Likewise, his walk-prevention was good enough that his K%-BB% on the year was second in the majors behind only Koufax - coupled with a home run rate well below the AL average of 0.85, his FIP- made him the second-most effective per-inning pitcher in the majors. Siebert's role in 1965 was limited relative to the 40-start standards of the day, but when given the opportunity to pitch, Sonny Siebert was one of the best in the game. Yet in 1965, he was surpassed in per-inning effectiveness, not by Sandy Koufax, but by his own teammate, who holds the two most effective seasons in Indians history.

2) Sam McDowell, 1965: 60 FIP-, 29.1 K%, 11.8 BB%, 0.30 HR/9
1) Sam McDowell, 1969: 59 FIP-, 23.9 K%, 8.8 BB%, 0.41 HR/9

Sudden Sam takes the two most dominant seasons by FIP- in Indians history. Given that he led the AL in strikeouts five times between 1965 and 1970, any two years he managed to suppress either home runs or walks would inevitably be exceedingly effective years, but the differences between how he achieved these dominant marks is a testament to why comparisons of raw numbers can prove dangerous. His 29.1% K% in 1965 represents an incredibly high number, a number that only Clayton KershawYu Darvish, and Chris Sale of today's game can top. Indeed, his 10.71 K/9 in 1965 represents the fifth-highest mark of any ERA-qualified pitcher from 1946 to 1993. McDowell's 1965, even in spite of Ubaldo-like free pass struggles, executed one task so very,very well that all deficiencies were overwhelmed, and in a season wherein Sandy Koufax set the 20th-century record for single-season strikeouts, it was McDowell who was the most effective by inning.

It comes as something of a surface-level surprise, then, to see that McDowell's 1969 is, in fact, more dominant. The reason for this is not because McDowell was more effective as a pitcher than he was in 1965 but because the rest of the league pitchers had been so completely set back by the lowering of the pitcher's mound that McDowell, even at reduced effectiveness, was harmed less by the change than most pitchers. McDowell's K% was the highest in the AL and third-highest in the majors, his walk rate exhibited uncharacteristic sufficiency, and his 0.30 HR/9 was dramatically better than the AL average of 0.85 HR/9. McDowell's 1969 relative to his own league-best 1965 helps make the argument as to why comparing different eras is exceedingly problematic, and why comparing levels of dominance within those zeitgeists is a discussion that need not become mired in squabbling.

Yet considering the five seasons that fall better than Kluber in Indians history in temrs of FIP-, one notices: all five of those pitchers had arguments that they were the best pitcher in the majors. In only Tiant's case did the ERA reflect the dominance that the pitcher showcased, and that in the most pitcher-favored year in the last half-century.

C.C. Sabathia did not make this list, nor did Cliff Lee. Their contributions to Indians' history vis-a-vis their mid-2000s performances are among the most dominant performances in Indians history, without a doubt - by FanGraphs WAR, Cliff Lee's 2008 was the 11th-best pitcher season in Indians' history, and Sabathia's 2007 the 17th-best. Given the proportion of starts placed upon pitchers of the 60s relative to the starters of the past twenty years, one might well make an argument that contributing even as much value as did Sabathia and Lee requires per-inning effectiveness well beyond what was required of 60s pitchers. Perhaps there is something to this argument: Cliff Lee's 2008 has the 8th-best FIP- of any Indians season, Sabathia's 2007 the 14th-best and his 2006 the 19th-best.

Given all of that, however, given even the skyrocketing standards to which an average pitcher is held, Corey Kluber has rocketed ahead of that foreboding curve and remained dominant in a way that no Indians pitcher has done in over 30 years. Corey Kluber is 28, and he is not guaranteed to bring a slew of Cy Youngs to this Indians team. There's no guarantee he finishes this season at the same surgical pace that he's carried to date. But Corey Kluber is locked up through the end of 2018 and is posting one of the most dominant pitcher seasons in Indians history. In or out of the chase, if one can't enjoy Corey Kluber, the Manziel promise train announces that it's about to depart. It'd be a shame if one missed it.

John can be reached on Twitter at @JHGrimmHe can also be reached by e-mail at john.h.grimm@hotmail.com.

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