Hindsight is 20/20. Is that how the saying goes?
The Cleveland Browns are emerging as one of the NFL’s trendiest teams. The Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James are about to embark on a “Championship or Bust” season. Yet, here I sit, content to reflect on the Cleveland Indians’ 2014 season.
Something must be wrong with me.
Or maybe not.
Perhaps a little bit of reflection could serve us all well. When looking back at the Indians, it’s easy to get caught up in the negatives.
The Tribe finished with a record of 85-77, a far cry from a year earlier when they finished 92-70 and captured the American League’s top Wild Card spot.
At times, this team was painful — incredibly painful, in fact.
While the Indians only actually finished 11th in runs per game and 13th in team batting average, those numbers do not tell the whole story. How many times did it appear as if this team was just a hit away, yet would then seem incapable of mustering the elusive key hit?
There’s no numbers that serve as proof, but the eyes tell you — this team’s offense drastically underachieved.
The eyes tell you same thing about the Indians’ defense. But in this case, the numbers do as well.
On the year, the Indians finished last in errors with 116. Advanced metrics paint a similar picture.
The team’s UZR of -72.4 was — you guessed it — last. Houston was 29th and their team UZR (-63.9) was almost a whole 10 points better. Defense is often overlooked in today’s game, but it would be nearly impossible to ever expect a team to compete with the defense the Indians fielded in 2014.
Defense is also the one major difference between this past year’s Indians and the Kansas City Royals, who recently clinched their first World Series berth since 1985.
Go up and down the rosters, player by player, position by position. Are these Royals really that much better than the Indians?
Conventional wisdom would say no. But the one separator is defense. The Royals finished first in UZR with 61.1.
If the Indians had fielded even an average defensive team, there’s a good chance that they might have qualified for the postseason. Heck, there’s a good chance the Royals would never even be in the position they’re in. An average defense combined with the Indians’ pitching staff is likely worth at least five more wins, which would be just enough for the Indians to surpass the Royals for the first Wild Card spot.
Of course, what use is it to look back at this anyhow? The season is over, and it’s certainly not fair to pick on the Royals, whose fans deserve this after decades of futility.
So instead of looking at the Indians’ failures in 2014, I’d like to talk about their successes, and their biggest success in particular — Corey Kluber.
With Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House, the Indians now seemingly have a rotation that should pay dividends for years to come. Teams long for young, controllable starting pitchers with front-of-the-rotation potential and between Kluber, Carrasco, Bauer and Salazar, the Indians now have at least four starters that fit that description.
The beauty with Corey Kluber is that the numbers do not do him justice. On the year, the right-hander went 18-9 with a 2.44 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 235 2/3 innings of work. He struck out an astonishing 10.27 batters per nine innings and posted a WAR of 7.3. There’s a reason this guy got the nickname Klubot — he was an absolute machine on the mound.
However, despite his success, it appears as if the “Klubot” phenomenon has not yet entirely caught on. While he remains a contender to win the American League Cy Young Award and ESPN even has him tabbed as the favorite, there remains a debate as to whether or not he will actually take home that honor.
Seattle’s Felix Hernandez remains a heavy favorite, and it’s easy to see why. Hernandez has a much-longer track record, and his season was outstanding nonetheless (15-6, 2.14 ERA).
However, Hernandez also pitched behind a Seattle defense that had the fewest errors in the American League. Quite the juxtaposition from the defense Kluber pitched behind, which finished last in the majors in that category.
Also in terms of FIP (fielding independent pitching), Kluber finished first in the American League with a 2.35. Hernandez was second with a 2.56.
The reality is that even Indian fans probably do not appreciate just how great Kluber was in 2014. Let’s hope that this column, and other future ones by fellow Cleveland writers, starts to drive home that point.
Since the Indians were never consistently contending in 2014, fans never got an opportunity to truly appreciate the spectacle that Kluber was putting on with each and every outing. Had Kluber’s performance come in 2013, there would probably be many more fans taking note, and he also would likely be guaranteed to win the Cy Young.
For reference, look no further than Ubaldo Jimenez and his 2013 season. During his tenure with the Indians, Jimenez was the subject of great scrutiny and rightfully so. The right-hander had been acquired in 2011 for the Tribe’s top two pitching prospects at the time (Drew Pomeranz, Alex White), and expectations were high.
Unfortunately, Jimenez never reached those expectations until the second half of last season when he went 8-5 with a 1.82 ERA, and recorded 100 strikeouts and just 27 walks to close out the season. Jimenez was the main reason the Indians made the postseason in 2013, and he was revered for that.
Yet, in reality, Kluber’s 2014 performance was better than Jimenez’s a year earlier. Significantly so, in fact.
Unfortunately, the Indians, and the team’s defense especially, failed to live up to expectations, which is why Kluber has not garnered more mainstream attention.
However, for an exercise, take your right hand and start to count your fingers. Can you name one hand’s worth of starting pitchers that you would definitely take over Kluber?
There are certainly some other enticing options (Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, etc.), but it’s a very hard question to answer, which is just further proof of how dominant Kluber was in 2014.
So, just how good was Kluber compared to some of the other Indians greats? Let’s take a look:
|1. Bob Feller, 1946||26||15||48||42||371.1||8.43||3.71||2.18||2.16||10.7|
|2. Sam McDowell, 1969||18||14||39||38||285||8.81||3.22||2.94||2.36||9.1|
|3. Bob Feller, 1940||27||11||43||37||320.1||7.33||3.32||2.61||2.91||8.4|
|4. Sam McDowell, 1965||17||11||42||35||273||10.71||4.35||2.18||2.20||8.3|
|5. Stan Coveleski, 1920||24||14||41||38||315||3.8||1.86||2.49||2.78||8.1|
|6. Gaylord Perry, 1978||24||16||41||40||342.2||6.15||2.15||1.92||2.49||7.8|
|7. Bob Feller, 1939||24||9||39||35||296.2||7.46||4.31||2.85||3.46||7.7|
|8. Herb Score, 1956||20||9||35||33||249.1||9.49||4.66||2.53||2.88||7.4|
|9. Corey Kluber, 2014||18||9||34||34||235.2||10.27||1.95||2.44||2.35||7.3|
|10. Mel Harder, 1935||22||11||42||35||287.1||2.98||1.66||3.29||3.23||7.2|
|11. Sam McDowell, 1970||20||12||39||39||305||8.97||3.87||2.92||3.17||7.2|
|12. Johnny Allen, 1936||20||10||36||31||243||6.11||3.59||3.44||3.53||7.1|
|13. Charles Nagy, 1992||17||10||33||33||252||6.04||2.04||2.96||2.71||7.1|
|14. Cliff Lee, 2008||22||3||31||31||223.1||6.85||1.37||2.54||2.83||7.1|
|15. Luis Tiant, 1968||21||9||34||32||258.1||9.20||2.54||1.60||2.03||7.0|
|16. Early Wynn, 1956||20||9||38||35||277.2||5.12||2.95||2.72||3.16||6.9|
|17. Addie Joss, 1908||24||11||42||35||325||3.60||0.83||1.16||1.66||6.8|
|18. CC Sabathia, 2007||19||7||34||34||241||7.80||1.38||3.21||3.14||6.8|
|19. Stan Coveleski, 1921||23||13||43||40||315||2.83||2.40||3.37||3.57||6.7|
|20. Stan Coveleski, 1919||24||12||43||34||286||3.71||1.89||2.61||2.43||6.6|
|21. Greg Swindell, 1988||18||14||33||33||242||6.69||1.67||3.20||2.82||6.6|
|22. Bob Feller, 1941||25||13||44||40||343||6.82||5.09||3.15||3.46||6.5|
|23. Sam McDowell, 1968||15||14||38||37||269||9.47||3.68||1.81||2.21||6.5|
|24. Mike Garcia, 1954||19||8||45||34||258.2||4.49||2.47||2.64||2.54||6.4|
|25. George Uhle, 1926||27||11||39||36||318.1||4.50||3.34||2.83||3.39||6.3|
|26. Gaylord Perry, 1973||19||19||41||41||344||6.23||3.01||3.38||3.62||6.1|
|27. Greg Swindell, 1991||9||16||33||33||238||6.39||1.17||3.48||3.01||6.1|
|28. Mel Harder, 1932||15||13||39||32||254.2||3.18||2.40||3.75||3.58||6.0|
|29. Gaylord Perry, 1974||21||13||37||37||322.1||6.03||2.76||2.51||3.22||6.0|
|30. Addie Joss, 1907||27||11||42||38||338.2||3.37||1.44||1.83||2.02||5.9|
|31. Jim Bagby, 1920||31||12||48||38||339.2||1.93||2.09||2.89||3.41||5.9|
|32. Mike Garcia, 1952||22||11||46||36||292.1||4.40||2.68||2.37||2.75||5.9|
|33. George Uhle, 1923||26||16||54||44||357.2||2.74||2.57||3.77||3.49||5.8|
|34. Len Barker, 1982||15||11||33||33||244.2||6.88||3.24||3.90||3.21||5.7|
|35. Charles Nagy, 1996||17||5||32||32||222||6.77||2.47||3.41||3.76||5.7|
|36. Wes Ferrell, 1930||25||13||43||35||296.2||4.34||3.22||3.31||4.27||5.6|
|37. Cy Falkenberg, 1913||23||10||39||36||276||5.41||2.87||2.22||2.40||5.5|
|38. Willie Mitchell, 1915||11||14||36||30||236||5.68||3.20||2.82||2.27||5.5|
|39. Clint Brown, 1932||15||12||37||32||262.2||2.02||1.71||4.08||3.88||5.5|
The above table includes the top 39 Indians pitcher performances ever in terms of FanGraph’s WAR. Every pitcher to ever have a 5.5 WAR season or greater is included.
Now, obviously it’s somewhat haphazard to compare Kluber’s performance to those from years much earlier as the game was incredibly different. However, make note of exactly where he lands on the list.
In terms of WAR, Corey Kluber had the ninth-best season ever by an Indians starting pitcher. Think of every great pitcher that the Indians have had in recent memory, and Kluber’s performance trumps it.
He was better than Ubaldo Jimenez.
Better than Justin Masterson.
He was better than Bartolo Colon.
Better than C.C. Sabathia.
Better than Cliff Lee.
Kluber’s performance was the best by an Indians pitcher since 1978 when Gaylord Perry went 24-16 in over 342 innings of work.
Overall, only five Indians pitchers have ever had a better season than the one just completed by Kluber: Bob Feller, Sam McDowell, Stan Coveleski, Perry and Score. Three of those five men are Hall of Famers, so it’s clear that Kluber is amongst some special company.
Time will tell how Kluber’s performance will be perceived in the future as it’s still only October, and we do not even know yet if he will indeed win the Cy Young Award.
However, it’s clear that it was special. Much more special than many people probably realize too.
His season was a nice consolation prize for a season that fell well short of expectations for the Indians. Next year, those high expectations will be back — for both the Indians and Kluber. Of course, that should be expected when you’re pitching at a Hall-of-Fame level.
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