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Tigers vs. Indians Preview: Corey Kluber is not fair

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The Indians have a chance at history, and their ace is on the mound.

Cleveland Indians v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Predicting who will win any given baseball game is a tough business. Starting pitching matchups only tell part of the story, as just about any pitcher can look like an ace on a given evening. True aces can have off nights and get shelled for eight runs. A bad bounce here or there — or an ill-timed bullpen implosion, as we Tigers fans are all too familiar with — can change the outcome of a game, or even an entire playoff series.

Even the people in the business of predicting these outcomes have trouble. Las Vegas odds rarely favor one team by more than a run or so for a given game, and statistical odds normally hover around 60 percent for even the most lopsided of pitching matchups.

It says something, then, when FiveThirtyEight favored the Indians by more than a 70 percent margin in all three games of this series. Tuesday’s matchup between Corey Kluber and Matt Boyd? FiveThirtyEight gives the Tribe a 77 percent chance of winning.

Let’s shock the world, Matt.

Detroit Tigers (60-83) at Cleveland Indians (88-56)

Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Progressive Field
SB Nation site: Let’s Go Tribe
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Matt Boyd (5-9, 5.93 ERA) vs. RHP Corey Kluber (15-4, 2.56 ERA)

Game 144 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Boyd 109.1 17.7 9.2 4.62 1.4
Kluber 175.2 35.0 5.1 2.60 6.1

A couple months ago, Chris Sale had the AL Cy Young race all but locked up. Sale raced out of the gate with a boatload of strikeouts, and has even generated some whispers about his MVP candidacy. Sale is still the frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, but Corey Kluber is making it a race. The Klubot is currently entrenched his usual second half surge, one that coincides nicely with Cleveland’s surge to the top of the American League. The Tribe have won eight of his nine last starts, with Kluber notching seven wins of his own.

Kluber’s run goes back even further, though. Since coming off the disabled list at the start of June, he has a 1.89 ERA in 19 starts. He has racked up 194 strikeouts in just 138 13 innings, and has nearly matched Sale’s ungodly strikeout rate along the way. Kluber is a rounding error from joining Sale as the only qualified MLB pitchers with a K-BB% north of 30 percent. He trails Sale by a fair margin on the WAR leaderboards, but has also thrown 20 fewer innings. On a per-start basis, Kluber has been the most efficient pitcher in the AL, averaging seven innings per start.

Naturally, this means bad things for the Tigers offense. They have been a league average unit on the year, but managed just a 94 wRC+ as a team in August. In September, that figure has fallen to just 86, fourth-worst in the American League. They have still hit well against Kluber, but have only managed two total runs in their last two matchups against him.

Key matchup: Indians hitters vs. soft-tossing lefties

While their platoon splits are dead even for the year, Indians fans — and fans of 29 other MLB teams, for that matter — will be quick to tell you that their offense struggles against soft-tossing lefties. Call it the Bruce Chen Theorem, if you will.

Matt Boyd might not be the perfect pitcher to test this theory. With an average fastball north of 92 miles per hour, he isn’t exactly a soft-tosser. However, he did beat the Tribe at Progressive Field earlier this year, and has held them to a 2.41 ERA in three starts this season. They narrowly beat him and the Tigers earlier this month in one of the few close games during their incredible streak.

Boyd may not be our first choice to slow down the Indians offense — that guy is pitching for the Houston Astros on Tuesday — but he’s as good a bet as anyone on the active roster right now.

Prediction

The Indians win by a bazillion runs again.