Corey Kluber just put together an amazing May, leading him to become the Tribe’s best starter of the season. We already know that he leads the American League in strike outs for the season, lead it in May and was the first pitcher to strike out 60 in a month since Yu Darvish last September, one of two in the past ten years, and the first Indian to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1976. What we don’t know is what he is going to do. The Indians have a long, impressive history in starting pitching, something that has been a franchise strength from day one (Addie Joss) and even through the poor years from 1956 through 1993 (Sam McDowell, Gaylord Perry and Len Barker). Bob Feller held the Major League record for strike outs in a game and a season until Nolan Ryan came around and he wasn’t even as prolific as Herb Score or McDowell. The point of this will be to project Kluber’s start against these other Tribe greats, especially considering strike outs.
To start, Kluber’s 95 K’s through May already rank him as the 254th best season in Indians history. In two months he has already struck out the same amount of hitters as Mel Harder in 1935, a year he threw 287.1 innings. Assuming he doesn’t get hurt (which we will assume for the rest of this article), even with just five strike outs per start for the rest of the season, he would move into the top 25 in a single season. Of course, Kluber is not the kind to strike out just five per game as he leads the league with a K/9 of 10.7. This is slightly higher than his career K/9 of 8.9, but he is in his age 28 season, generally the year baseball players hit their prime.
Getting deeper into K/9, there are a few Indians who are making a mark right now. Considering career numbers, Danny Salazar currently holds the best (10.9) among pitchers with at least 50 IP and Vinnie Pestano holds the top mark for pitchers with at least 100 IP (10.7). Of course these players, as well as Cody Allen (career 10.7 K/9 in 119 IP) are at the beginning of their careers and will likely see some fall back. Kluber, however, has pitched in almost 300 innings, the mark that is generally used to compare career statistics. Considering just pitchers with at least 300 innings, Kluber would rank seventh all time with his 8.9 with the all time leader being Paul Shuey with 10 strike outs per nine innings. If relievers are removed, Kluber moves to fourth all time, behind just Score, McDowell and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Through his career, Kluber has averaged at least seven strike outs per game, so that should be the base for predicting the rest of his season rather than his almost eight per game this season. This may be a more accurate mark than the 10.7 K/9 as complete games are incredibly rare in modern baseball. Sam McDowell currently holds both the record for K/9 (10.71 in 1965) and K/G (7.79 in 1970) and Kluber is not far behind with a 10.69 K/9 and a 7.92 K/G.
Using these numbers and extrapolating for 30 games at 6.2 IP/G, we can get an idea of where Kluber could end up after a full season. If he strikes out the minimum of five batters per nine innings, he will strike out 162 this season (56th in Indians history), if he keeps at his career pace of 8.9 K/9, he will strike out about 214 (good for 18th all time) and if he can maintain his ridiculous pace of 10.7, he could reach 238 in just 30 games, something only 13 pitchers have done in Indians history.
One thing those top 13 pitchers have is that none pitched in just 30 games. Three made at least 40 starts with even the lowest starting at least 32 games in addition to pitching in relief. Again, assuming he can stay healthy, there is a chance he could pitch in as many as 34 games projecting him to a maximum of around 270 strike outs. Only two Indians pitchers have done this in their career, Feller and McDowell, who reached the mark four times.
It is worth remembering these five great seasons that ended up being the greatest strike out seasons in Indians history. In each season, the pitcher started slow, just as Kluber has this season. So much has been made of Kluber’s 60 strike outs in May, but these five seasons saw twelve such months including four months of at least 70. In general, these aces did slow down as the year went on, averaging over 60 per month in May between them, then dropping to about 52 in both August and September. Kluber can be expected to do the same and even if he does maintain his pace, he most likely won’t near the top of the list due to a lack of innings pitched. We will follow his season nonetheless as he looks to post the highest strike out total since 1970 and the best K/9 ever. He is certainly not a starter you want to miss as he looks to surpass Cleveland’s last two Cy Young winners, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee in July or August.