Sep 21, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber (28) pitches in the eighth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field. The Cleveland Indians win 7-2. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
Corey Kluber defied history Wednesday when he beat out Mariners ace Felix Hernandez for the AL Cy Young crown. Kluber didn’t just surprise Mariners fans, he jolted the entire scouting community, which had ignored the Indians new ace since he began his professional career.
For all of the criticisms of prospects – they always fail, they’re overhyped, they’re overvalued – the prospect outlets, particularly Baseball America, hves been remarkably prescient in predicting Cy Young winners. In 2005, Baseball America named an 18 year old Hernandez as the second best prospect. Justin Verlander, who took home the award in 2011, appeared at #8. Three years later BA, slotted Clayton Kershaw in at #7. Also on that 2008 list, future AL winners David Price (#7) and Max Scherzer (#66). In 2007, BA had named Tim Lincecum the 11th best prospect. Fifteen years ago, in 1999, Baseball America ranked Roy Halladay, thin, beardless and already scowling, 12th.
Since 2007, when C.C. Sabathia and Jake Peavy won the coveted honor, all but one Cy Young award winner had previously spent time on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list. The lone exception: R.A. Dickey, a failed first round pick who reinvented himself as a knuckleballer, extricating himself from the standard scouting equation.
And then there’s Corey Kluber, a pitcher who peaked as Cleveland’s 26th best prospect in 2010, who by 2011, had fallen out of the top 30 entirely, When San Diego traded him in 2010, as part of a three-team deal that sent Jake Westbook to the Cardinals and brought the friars Ryan Ludwick, a non-padres scout called the then 24-year old “a fringe No. 5 SP. ”
In an era when the game’s greats are glorified from adolescence, Kluber’s obscure roots render him an outlier. Over the past few seasons, ex-prospects don’t just comprise the Gates and Buffets of the world, they have held a monopoly over pitching’s entire 1%. Of all the pitchers to appear among the top 15 in fangraphs Wins Above Replacement in any season since 2014, only four – Wade Miley, Doug Fister, Jose Quintana and Dickey – hadn’t first appeared on a Baseball America top 100 prospect list. (Excluding Japanese players who never pitched in the minors and were never truly prospects).
A slew of unheralded arms have found fame in the bullpen – the 2014 Royals being most crystallizing example, Craig Kimbrel and Jim Johnson as well – but until Kluber, the days when pitchers like Johan Santana and Mark Bheurle could pop up unannounced seemed over. With the exception of knuckleballers and Asian-imports, every top-3 Cy Young finisher was a former top 100 prospects.
Kluber is unlikely to revert back to a “fringe No.5 SP,” but the question now turns to whether he can maintain this Cy Young Pace. The evidence suggests he might. Kluber’s 2.44 ERA isn’t the result of luck, a few balls bouncing the right way . His Fielding Independent Pitching was a league leading 2.35. His xFIP, which normalizes for “lucky” home runs and 400 foot fly outs and which Fangraphs considers a superior indicator of future success, was 2.52, second in the circuit. He had a higher strikeout rate (28.3%) than Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, and David Price, and walked fewer batters (1.95) per nine innings than all but 8 AL hurlers.
2014 AL Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber is so far removed from 2010 fringe-prospect as to render any comparison completely absurd. His arsenal is fully refurnished, his control is on another plane. Over the last couple years, he has switched to a two seam grip, adding velocity and accuracy. Abonding his mediocre slider, he adopted a cutter in favor of a cutter that scrapes 90 MPH and the fingers of batters. He also has all but ditched his change up. Kluber now throws but one off-speed pitch: a curveball that is (empirically) one of the game’s best.
So it’s possible for a pitcher to re-invent himself. Kluber may well find company with the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom, who recently became the first non-reliever since 2003 to win rookie of the year honors without first appearing on BA’s list. And with high-octane arms seemingly becoming as ubiquitous as chewing gum , we may see more pitchers slip through the scouting cracks. But for every five new pitchers there’s a hundred new algorithms to analyze now Kluber appears as a rare exception to scouting’s modern monopoly.