2018 is a make-or-break year for Corey Kluber‘s Hall of Fame case.
In fact, one could say that each of the next three seasons carry that kind of weight for the Klubot if he wants to be inducted into Cooperstown someday. See, Kluber only has five full major-league seasons under his belt, which for Hall of Fame purposes is still the dawn of a career. He’s won a pair of Cy Young awards during that time, sure, but if he’s to be considered an all-time great, he’s got some catching up to do. Many hall of famers have a four- or five-year head start on the Tribe ace, as the late-blooming righty began his first full season in the majors at age 27.
Before we dive into this any further, I should make one thing clear: any thoughts of the Hall of Fame or personal accolades are only secondary to Kluber this year. Ask him and he’ll tell you himself, his main goal is to help the Indians win a World Series ring.
That being said, most fans won’t doubt at this point that Kluber will do his part to get the Tribe back to the playoffs. So it’s perhaps more fun to examine Kluber’s upcoming season in a historic context. In that regard, it’s clear that anything less than another excellent season in 2018 will severely damage or outright ruin the reigning Cy Young winner’s shot at Cooperstown.
That isn’t an exaggeration. The average Hall of Fame starter accumulated 73.5 bWAR over the course of his career, and 50 bWAR during his seven-year peak. It doesn’t seem very likely that Kluber will eclipse the first number, as he’s managed just 26.9 bWAR to this point and is entering his age 32 season. Pitchers don’t often resist the typical decline that comes with the aging curve, so the chance that Kluber will average, say, five bWAR per season for the next nine years is pretty similar to the chance that Michael Martinez will hit .300 this year.
Kluber could, however, come close to that second milestone with three more performances resembling his 2018 season. Kluber has put up 26.1 bWAR since the start of his first Cy Young campaign in 2014. That’s not historic, but it’s definitely good. Last year, Kluber accrued 8 bWAR, and he were able to repeat that from 2018-2020, he’d reach 50.1 bWAR across a seven-year stretch. Again, with the whole aging thing, it’s not particularly likely that he’ll do so, but considering Kluber reached that mark last year even though he spent a month on the DL, there’s hope in that regard.
There’s one more way for Kluber to seriously boost his case: win another Cy Young award. Obviously that’s no easy task, but since he’s done it twice already I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s a possibility. In an age where pitchers just don’t go as deep into games as they used to, Kluber’s thrown at least 200 innings in each of the past four seasons. Only Max Scherzer and Jeff Samardzija can claim the same accomplishment, both of whom currently pitch for NL teams. What’s more, Kluber led all of baseball (or shared the lead) in multiple prestige categories last season, including ERA, Wins, WHIP, shutouts, complete games and strikeout-to-walk ratio.
There are exactly ten players who’ve won at least three Cy Young awards. Seven are already in the Hall of Fame. Of the remaining three, two (Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw) are still active and are well into stellar careers. The final player on that list is the infamous Roger Clemens, who would have easily been a first-ballot Hall of Famer if it weren’t for PED violations. If Kluber can put his name in that company, he’ll get a quick and powerful boost to his Cooperstown bid.
There are many reasons we’ll all have our eyes glued to the Klubot each time he takes the mound this coming season. The Hall of Fame implications will definitely be one of the more interesting ones.