Indians’ Kluber beat M’s King Felix on my AL Cy Young ballot — barely
They were almost inseparable. Heck, they pretty much were inseparable. But in the end, I voted for Corey Kluber over Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award.
The majority of the 29 other voters agreed with me — the Baseball Writers Association of America announced on Wednesday night that Kluber edged Hernandez to win the award for the first time.
I’m happy to explain why I made the choice I did, but I could just as easily make the opposite argument. Hernandez had a fantastic season, leading the AL with a 2.14 ERA and 0.92 WHIP (the lowest by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000).
Maybe that should have been enough.
Indeed, when Hernandez set a major-league record between May 18 and Aug. 11, making 16 straight starts of at least seven innings and two or fewer runs allowed, it seemed inevitable he would win the award.
So, why Kluber?
Because of the way he finished. Because he allowed fewer homers and had more strikeouts. Because he pitched in front of a much poorer defense, against comparable opponents.
That’s right, Hernandez wasn’t at a significant disadvantage pitching in the AL West as opposed to the AL Central. His opponents’ combined winning percentage was .508, according to STATS LLC. Kluber’s was .499. And Kluber’s opponents actually had a higher combined OPS (.709 to .703).
The difference in the support that Hernandez and Kluber received from their respective defenses was far more meaningful — and quite an advantage for Hernandez.
Hernandez’s Mariners were second in the majors in defensive efficiency, the rate at which batted balls in play are converted into outs. Kluber’s Indians were 25th. The disparity in defensive runs saved between the clubs was smaller — the Mariners were 19th, the Indians 30th — but however you measure it, the Indians were not good.
We’re talking here about two of the leading groundball pitchers in the AL — Hernandez ranked second in that category, Kluber ninth. How is it, then, that Kluber allowed 37 more hits in a virtually identical number of innings? Defense was at least part of the reason. And even then, Kluber allowed just four more runs.
The big question for me was how much weight to assign to Kluber’s 1.73 ERA after the All-Star break, the best among AL starting pitchers. All games count the same, and Hernandez certainly wasn’t bad after the break, producing a 2.16 ERA that if not for a scoring change would have been 2.55.
That change occurred after Hernandez’s start against the Blue Jays on Sept. 23, one in which he lasted only 4 2/3 innings. He also had a sub-par start against the Nationals on Aug. 29 and failed to beat the Athletics on Sept. 13 despite allowing just two runs in seven innings. The Mariners lost that game in 10 innings, 3-2.
Those three games, of course, occurred while the Mariners were desperately trying to secure a wild card. Now, it’s unfair to single out three starts out of 34, particularly when Hernandez actually pitched well in one of them (and had slightly worse run support than Kluber overall). At the same time, Kluber’s stretch run was considerably more impressive, and his Indians also were in the race, finishing with just two fewer victories than the Mariners.
Even with a 2 2/3-inning clunker against the Tigers on Sept. 1, Kluber ended September with 56 strikeouts and seven walks. He had to be utterly brilliant to steal the award from Hernandez — and though you can argue it both ways, I believe that he did.
As for the rest of my ballot, I chose David Price third, Jon Lester fourth and Chris Sale fifth. Sale was one of three finalists and, as always, brilliant when he actually pitched. My problem with his candidacy is that he threw only 174 innings, more than 60 fewer than Hernandez and Kluber, more than 70 fewer than Price.
I know, I know — the award is for best pitcher, and the criteria does not include innings. But to me, a greater number of innings makes it more difficult for a pitcher to excel and offers his team greater value.
I had Price higher than most voters — he had an odd year by his standards, in part because he allowed a career-high 25 homers and finished sixth in the balloting. Still, Price must have done something right while throwing a league-high 248 1/3 innings — he had the best Fielding Independent Pitching mark of his career, and ranked sixth in the AL in that category. Lester was right behind Price in FIP in about 30 fewer innings.
Others were worthy of a place on the bottom of the ballot — most notably Max Scherzer, Garrett Richards and Phil Hughes. The big question, though, was at the top. I chose Kluber. I can’t argue with anyone who chose Hernandez.