Can Corey Kluber Repeat His Cy Young Season?
Before last season, Corey Kluber was an unheard of pitcher trying to win a spot in the Indians' starting rotation. But less than a year later, he's one of the best pitchers in the MLB, having won the AL Cy Young over Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale.
The once unheard of prospect pitched himself to among the best starters in the MLB, posting a 2.44 ERA, 2.35 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and 2.57 expected fielding independent pitching, based on a 10.5 percent fly ball rate, (xFIP) with 7.3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), good for best in the major leagues.
Kluber had never thrown more than 150 innings in a season before 2013, yet he won the AL Cy Young and was arguably the best pitcher in the MLB not named Clayton Kershaw. Kluber averaged 10.27 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.95 walks per nine , and 0.53 home runs per nine in 235.2 innings. He left 78.6 percent of runners on base, while holding opponents to a .232 batting average. His ERA-, which adjusts for park and league factors, was 66, meaning Kluber was 44 percent better than the average MLB pitcher.
One could sing praises for Kluber after what was an absolutely spectacular season, but the real question is can he repeat it? Will Kluber be a one-hit wonder, or will he continue to pitch among the best in baseball?
With absolutely nasty stuff, Kluber was top five in the MLB in swinging strike percentage while having two pitches with plus-12 pitch values. Based on this, Kluber will continue to pitch like an ace, barring any injury or unexpected setback. No statistics screams a huge regression for Kluber either, but after a spectacular year, some regression has to be expected.
Kluber left 78.6 percent of runners on base last season and he can be expected to regress a bit towards the league average of 72 percent. His home run to fly ball ratio, 7.4 percent in 2014, can also be expected to regress to the league average of around 10 percent. So between home run to fly ball ratio and left on base percentage regression, Kluber cannot be expected to pitch as well as he did last year, since both of those numbers were well above the league average.
But, on the other hand, Kluber pitched with the worst defense in the MLB behind him.
The Indians were last in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) at -72.4 and last in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) at -75. That means the Indians defense gave up a 75 more runs than they should have. Replacing Asdrubal Cabrera, who had a -6.9 UZR and -7 DRS in 820.2 innings last season, with Jose Ramirez, who had a 7.0 UZR and 4 DRS in 498.2 innings last season, and eventually the number-four prospect in the MLB in Francisco Lindor, will greatly improve the Indians defense.
Finally, while Kluber was lucky in terms of posting better-than-average left on base percentage and home run to fly ball ratio, he was unlucky in terms of batting average on balls in play (BABIP). While the league average is around .300, Kluber's was above that at .316. And while his career mark is .326, with only two full seasons in the MLB, it can be expected to regress a little bit towards the league average, especially with an improved defense behind him.
Coupled together, these four factors suggest a regression for Kluber -- but not a huge one. He had a spectacular season, and repeating it is unlikely, especially considering Kluber has never pitched over 150 innings in a season before. However, a huge regression would be unexpected and unlikely.
Our projections will be out in early March, but until then, Streamer projections peg Kluber at 192.0 innings next season with a 3.21 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 4.0 WAR. Streamer projects Kluber to average 9.21 strikeouts per nine innings, 2.24 walks per nine, and 0.78 home runs per nine -- all regressions from his 2014 numbers. Streamer projects his left on base percentage to regress closer to the league average and, similarly, his BABIP to regress closer to the league average as well. Put together, Streamer projections predict a significant regression for Kluber but not a catastrophic one. He's still pitching like an ace, according to Streamer projections.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections, on the other hand, are a little more generous. ZiPS projections predict Kluber will pitch 206.3 innings with a 2.97 ERA, 3.03 FIP, and 4.8 WAR, less significant drops than Streamer projects. ZiPS projections have Kluber striking out 9.89 per nine innings, 1.92 walks per nine innings and 0.70 home runs per nine innings. Similar to Streamer, a drop in Kluber's BABIP putting him closer to .300 is projected.
While ZiPS projects a less significant regression than Streamer, both project a drop of about two or three wins above replacement. After a spectacular season, a regression is to be expected from Kluber, but even that much of a drop would still have put Kluber among the top 20 pitchers in the MLB last season. So while Kluber will probably not repeat his Cy Young season, he can still be counted on for his second season as the Indians ace, pitching again like one of the top-20 starters in the Majors.