It was a foregone conclusion that Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw would win the National League Cy Young award Wednesday night, which he did unanimously. Far less expected was that Cleveland’s Corey Kluber would edge out Seattle’s Felix Hernandez by just 10 points to win the award in the American League. Kluber received 17 first-place votes to Hernandez’s 13 and 169 total points to Hernandez’s 159. Coming into 2014, the 28-year-old Kluber had a lifetime 4.32 ERA and had never even qualified for the ERA title. This year, he posted a 2.44 ERA (152 ERA+) in 235 2/3 innings while striking out 269 batters and leading the AL with 18 wins.
The key to Kluber’s season was a change in his repertoire that he made two years ago while in Triple A. At the time, he was in his second full season with Cleveland's organization after being acquired from the Padres in the three-team deal with St. Louis and San Diego at the 2010 trading deadline. Under the eye of Columbus Clippers’ pitching coach Ruben Niebla, Kluber ditched his four-seam fastball in favor of his sinker and introduced a cutter. The results weren’t immediate. Kluber did pitch well in Triple A after making the change in late May of that year, but was lit up in a late-season call-up (5.14 ERA in 12 starts), his first extended major league opportunity. But as his comfort with and command of his new repertoire improved, so did the results.
When injury and poor performance created a vacuum in the Cleveland rotation in early 2013, Kluber was sucked back up to the majors. He pitched well enough to stay and even improved as the season wore on, solidifying his place on the team with a 3.07 ERA, a 4.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio and nearly a strikeout per inning in 16 starts from May 15 until a sprained middle finger forced him to the disabled list in early August. Nonetheless, when this past season began Kluber wasn’t expected to be much more than a league-average innings-eater. In fact, that was considered upside for a 28-year-old who had thrown just 214 2/3 major league innings with a career ERA+ 11 percent below league average.
Kluber’s 2014 campaign started poorly, as he was touched up for five runs in just 3 1/3 innings by the A’s in his season debut. On April 24, he held the Royals to one unearned run while striking out 11 in his first complete game of the season. After one more rough outing to finish the month, Kluber flipped the switch in May, and from then on he went 16-6 with a 2.13 ERA, 5.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 234 strikeouts in 198 2/3 innings over his final 28 starts, 23 of them quality.
The longer the season went on, the better Kluber got. In a 10-start stretch from June 25 through Aug. 15, he made nine quality starts, allowed one run or fewer eight times, struck out 10 men five times and went 7-1 with a 1.19 ERA. Then came the finishing blow. With the Indians battling for a wild-card spot race that would ultimately elude them, Kluber went 5-0 with a 1.12 ERA over his final five starts, completing seven innings in all five and at least eight innings in four of them while striking out 39 batters over the final three, including a career-high 14 in consecutive starts.
As great as Kluber was this past season, he was not clearly better than Hernandez. The 2010 AL Cy Young winner led the league in ERA (2.14) and WHIP (0.92) and set a major league record with 16 consecutive starts of at least seven innings and no more than two runs allowed. However, when one takes into account the quality of the defenses behind them (the Indians were 25th in park-adjusted defensive efficiency; the Mariners were first) and the run scoring environments of their home ballparks, a fair argument could be made that Kluber was every bit as good as Hernandez.
Meanwhile, Kershaw's Cy Young award, his second in a row and third in four years, was a given. He missed all of April due to a teres major strain that he readily blames on the long plane ride back from the Dodgers’ season opener in Sydney, Australia, but he was dominant once he debuted. He wound up leading all qualified major league pitchers in the following categories: ERA (1.77), ERA+ (197), WHIP (0.86), K/9 (10.8), wins (21), winning percentage (.875), complete games (6), fielding independent pitching (1.81), quality start percentage (89 percent), mega-quality starts (min. 8 IP, max 1 R: 11), Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player (6.1) and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (8.0, tops among all players, both hitters and pitchers), as well as 36 other things listed here.
That’s not all. Kershaw’s ERA+ was the best by any pitcher since rotation-mate Zack Greinke posted a 205 mark in his Cy Young season of 2009 with the Royals. Kershaw's ERA and WHIP were the lowest since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 and 0.74, respectively, in 2000 (in fact, Kershaw’s 0.86 WHIP was the first below 0.90 by a qualified pitcher since then). His strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio were the highest in the National League since 2004, when Oliver Perez struck out 10.97 men per nine and Ben Sheets posted an 8.24 K/BB. Those peripherals helped make Kershaw just the third qualified pitcher since 1972 to post a fielding independent pitching mark below 2.00, joining Dwight Gooden in 1984 (1.69) and Martinez in 1999 (1.36).
In major league history, there have been just three qualified pitching seasons in which the pitcher in question had an ERA+ of 190 or better, a WHIP of 0.90 or lower and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.00 or better. Greg Maddux did it in 209 2/3 innings in the strike-shortened 1995 season; Pedro Martinez did it in 217 innings in 2000; and Kershaw did it this year in 198 1/3 innings.
But wait, there’s more, specifically the accumulated greatness of Kershaw’s last four seasons. With this award, he joins Maddux, Martinez and Randy Johnson, three of the greatest pitchers of all time, as the only men to have won three Cy Youngs in four years; Maddux and Johnson won four in a row while Kershaw finished second in 2012, his lone non-Cy season since 2011. Kershaw’s 197 ERA+ this year follows his 194 mark from last year. Prior to that, there hadn’t been consecutive seasons in which the major-league-leading ERA+ had been 190 or better since Martinez did it himself in 2002 and '03.
Then there’s this: With his 1.77 ERA this season, Kershaw became the first pitcher ever to lead the major leagues in ERA four seasons in a row. Ever. It didn't happen in the Deadball Era, or in the 19th century or at any other time. Ever. The last pitcher to lead his league in ERA four years in a row was another Dodgers lefty, Sandy Koufax, from 1962 to '66.
Speaking of Koufax, in 2014, Kershaw topped Koufax’s single-season bests in ERA+ (190), WHIP (0.86), K/9 (10.5), K/BB (5.38) and FIP (1.85). In fact, Kershaw’s 196 ERA+ and 5.67 K/BB, respectively, over the last two years are better than any single-season mark Koufax put up in those categories.
Kershaw will never match Koufax’s innings and strikeout totals (over 300 three times in both categories) and is unlikely to ever match his cultural significance, and comparing their Cy Young wins (they now both have three) is unfair because there was just a single award for both leagues during Koufax’s career. Nonetheless, Kershaw is in the process of opening up a debate over who was the greatest lefthanded Dodgers pitcher of all time. It wasn’t that long ago that Kershaw-Koufax comparisons were largely offered up with a chuckle, if at all. But over the last four years Kershaw’s 172 ERA+ and 4.74 K/BB are exact matches for Koufax’s numbers over his legendary final four seasons.
And I haven't even mentioned that Kershaw made one of the most dominant starts in major league history this year, a 15-strikeout no-hitter of the Rockies that was a Hanley Ramirez error away from being a perfect game. That June 18 gem produced the second-best game score for a nine-inning game since 1914 (which is as far back as we have sufficient data to calculate game scores). Only in a season as great as Kershaw’s could a performance like that be an afterthought. All that remains now is to see if Kershaw will, like Koufax in 1963, add the NL’s Most Valuable Player award to his trophy case, as well.