The Indians are red hot (they've won 29 of 31), and now a question is gaining steam among Cleveland fans and baseball experts alike: Should Jose Ramirez win the American League MVP?
The discussion is certainly warranted: J-Ram is currently leading the league in extra base hits (51 doubles, 6 triples, 29 home runs), has scored 101 runs, and is slashing an impressive .317/.370/.583.
Yet despite those numbers, most see the 25-year-old as falling just short of players like Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. While Judge was the runaway favorite at the All-Star break (and could very well still win), the award seems to be Altuve's to lose at the moment: The 5-foot-6 second baseman is leading the AL in hits (199), batting average (.348), and WAR (8.2, according to Baseball Reference), to go along with 107 runs scored, 32 stolen bases, and 24 home runs.
Altuve is also an established star who plays on one of the best teams in the game. He finished third in the MVP voting last year, and writers tend to give a player bonus points based on the overall body of work over his career.
From an unbiased standpoint (sorry Tribe fans), Altuve is clearly a step above Ramirez this year. However, there is another Indian who is an even more worthy candidate for MVP. Heck, he's so good, he's currently favored to win one of baseball's other major awards this season.
His name? Corey Scott Kluber.
It's easy to overlook Cleveland's ace. After all, much of the discussion around Kluber this year has focused on the Cy Young, and the MVP is often seen as a position player award except for rare circumstances. But Kluber deserves to be in the discussion for (if not the winner of) the award.
Don't believe me? Allow me to make my case:
1. His sabermetric stats are right there with Altuve's
It can be tough to compare the value of a pitcher versus a position player, but two "new-age" stats are helping us do just that: Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and OPS/ERA+.
WAR (thought to be the most important stat in baseball by sabermatricians) basically calculates how many team wins a ballplayer is worth above that of an average replacement player from the minor leagues. According to Baseball Reference's system, 2.0 is considered starter-worthy, while 5.0 or above is considered All-Star worthy.
Jose Altuve's current WAR is 8.2, the highest in Major League Baseball in 2017. A close second? None other than Corey Kluber, at 7.9. In just the American League, Aaron Judge (7.6) is also right there in third.
Most statistical experts agree that, with such a high degree of variance, a 0.3 difference in WAR is basically no difference at all, which would put Kluber neck-and-neck with Altuve in this all-important stat. However, don't forget Kluber missed a month (about three or four starts) with back problems. Had he played during that time, it's likely his WAR would already be above Altuve's for the best in the league. While players shouldn't get credit for stats they "might have" put up, the fact that Kluber's WAR is this high despite missing a good chunk of the season is incredible.
Corey Kluber through the years
Beyond WAR, we can also use advanced analytics to compare the two very different (yet equally important) stats of OPS and ERA. Altuve's OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) stands at .968, good for third among AL candidates (Behind Mike Trout and Judge). However, using the statistic of OPS+, we can factor in things like ballparks played in and competition faced to determine just how good that number is. Altuve's OPS+ of 166 (also third in the AL) means he is roughly 66 percent better than the average hitter (100 would be average).
The same thing is true for ERA: While Corey Kluber's sports an AL-best mark of 2.35, his astonishing ballpark-adjusted ERA+ of 201 is tops in all of baseball, and also far above Altuve's 166 OPS+. In addition, Jose Ramirez's respective stats (6.5 WAR, 143 OPS+) sit far below both contenders.
Throw in the fact that Kluber also leads the league in several other advanced stats (WHIP, hits per nine innings, walks per nine), and you could argue he is having the best statistical season of anyone in baseball.
2. His statistics are comparable to past MVP pitchers
Since 1968, six starting pitchers have been named the MVP of their respective leagues:
- Denny McLain (Detroit, AL) - 1968
- Bob Gibson (St. Louis, NL) - 1968
- Vida Blue (Oakland, AL) - 1971
- Roger Clemens (Boston, AL) - 1986
- Justin Verlander (Detroit, AL) - 2011
- Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles, NL) - 2014
All of these men went above and beyond what a starting pitcher is expected to do, and also pitched on teams that went to the playoffs (sound familiar?).
Due to the way baseball has changed over the years, there are some numbers Kluber cannot possibly match (such as McClain's 31 wins or Gibson's 1.12 ERA in the 1968 "Year of the Pitcher). However, when compared to what the others did in their MVP seasons, Kluber's 2017 statistics hold up remarkably well.
- Gibson - 1.12
- Kershaw - 1.77
- Blue - 1.82
- McLain - 1.96
- Kluber - 2.27
- Verlander - 2.40
- Clemens - 2.48
- Gibson - 258
- Kluber - 201
- Kershaw - 197
- Blue - 183
- Verlander - 172
- Clemens - 169
- McLain - 154
- Gibson - 11.2
- Blue - 9.0
- Clemens - 8.9
- Verlander - 8.4
- Kluber - 7.9
- Kershaw - 7.5
- McLain - 7.4
- Blue - 301
- McLain - 280
- Gibson - 268
- Kluber - 262
- Verlander - 254
- Kershaw - 239
- Clemens - 238
Strikeouts per 9 innings
- Kluber - 11.9
- Kershaw - 10.8
- Verlander - 9.0
- Blue - 8.7
- Clemens - 8.4
- Gibson - 7.9
- McLain - 7.5
- Kershaw - 7.71
- Kluber - 7.28
- McLain - 4.44
- Verlander - 4.39
- Gibson - 4.32
- Clemens - 3.55
- Blue - 3.42
- Kershaw - .875
- Clemens - .857
- McLain - .838
- Verlander - .828
- Kluber - .818
- Blue - .750
- Gibson - .710
Walks/hits per inning
- Gibson - 0.853
- Kershaw - 0.857
- Kluber - 0.861
- McLain - 0.905
- Verlander - 0.920
- Blue - 0.952
- Clemens - 0.969
Fielding Independent Pitching
- Gibson - 1.77
- Kershaw - 1.81
- Blue - 2.20
- Kluber - 2.51
- McLain - 2.53
- Clemens - 2.81
- Verlander - 2.99
Not only is Kluber better than at least two past winners in each of these stats, he currently leads the American League in ERA, ERA+, winning percentage, and WHIP, along with wins (18), complete games (5), and shutouts (3).
The statistics prove it: For a pitcher, Kluber is having an MVP-worthy season.
3. He is already the Indians' most valuable player
To win an MVP, you have to have a special impact that goes beyond just raw numbers. We as fans have been privileged enough to see that from Corey Kluber for years now.
No disrespect to guys like Ramirez or Lindor or even the rest of the pitching staff, but the Indians would not be in a position to win the World Series without Kluber. He's already won one Cy Young award, and before the 2016 pennant run he helped keep an otherwise mediocre team in the playoff picture. When the Tribe finally was in a position to contend for a title last season, his postseason performance (4-1, 1.83 ERA) did not disappoint.
Also think about how his mere presence in the rotation has boosted the team thus year: Not only is Kluber 15-2 with a 1.62 ERA and 221 strikeouts since coming off the disabled list in June, but the Indians also went from just three games over .500 to 40, while running away with the AL Central.
The MVP is often thought to go not just to the best player, but the "most valuable" to their team. Corey Kluber certainly fits that description.
Kluber does face a few drawbacks: The most games he can win this year is 19 (all starting pitcher MVPs since '68 won at least 21), and the fact that he missed a month will hurt his case (although Clayton Kershaw missed a similar amount of time when he won in 2014). Additionally, Altuve's all-around offensive numbers and Judge's second-half surge (along with record-setting home run numbers) could draw voters away from a pitcher they already expect to win the Cy Young Award. Truth be told, if I had an MVP vote, I'd be very torn between Altuve and Kluber.
However, Corey Kluber's stats more than speak for themselves: He is one of the most valuable players in all of baseball, and should be right up there in the MVP conversation. To not bring his name up with the likes of Altuve, Judge, Trout, and Ramirez is to unfairly discredit the tremendous season he has had.
It should shock no one if Corey Kluber becomes the first player in Indians history to win both the MVP and the Cy Young. While those around baseball have already given him plenty of credit, he deserves even more. Regardless, those in Cleveland certainly know just how special he is.
Statistics taken from Baseball Reference.