Phantom Cy Youngs

The 2006 Cy Young Award race in the National League was wide open. Brandon Webb won the award with a so-so 64% award share, but as you may or may not have noticed, Webb didn’t get a single MVP vote. On the other hand, the Cy Young runner-up, Trevor Hoffman, finished a respectable 10th in the MVP voting, with an MVP award share of 10%.

This seemed rather unusual to me. The very same writers who collectively considered Webb to be the league’s best pitcher didn’t consider him to be the “most valuable” pitcher when it came time for them to vote on the MVP. And Hoffman, who garnered just a 48% Cy Young award share, vaulted in front of Webb and all other pitchers in the MVP race. In a way, then, Hoffman could be called the “phantom” Cy Young winner. Webb got the fancy hardware, but according to the MVP voting results, Hoffman was the most valuable pitcher in the league.

How common is this? How often does one pitcher win the Cy Young Award while a different guy leads all pitchers in MVP points? The answer: way more common than I expected. Since the leagues split the Cy Young Award in 1967, there have been 81 winners (the odd number is because Denny McLain and Mike Cuellar shared the award in 1969). Remarkably, a different pitcher has led in MVP points a whopping 33 times. That is, over 40% of the time, there is a “phantom Cy Young.”

What’s more, 24 of those phantom Cy Youngs have been relief pitchers. It seems that the writers typically go for a starting pitcher when they vote for the Cy Young Award, but they often prefer a reliever when it comes time to rank MVP candidates. Actually, I’ll break it down for you: Since 1967, relief pitchers have won just 9 Cy Young Awards (11%), but they have led all pitchers in MVP voting 32 times (40%).

I found a lot of interesting nuggets when I did this little study, so I figured I’d share them with you. At the end of this article I’ll give you a list of every phantom Cy Young since 1967.

- Brandon Webb was just the third Cy Young winner since 1967 to not receive any attention whatsoever in the MVP voting. The other two guys were both Blue Jays – Pat Hentgen in 1996 and Roy Halladay in 2003.

- If we just gave the Cy Young Award to the pitcher who fared best in the MVP vote, the biggest loser would be Randy Johnson. By this method, he loses his Cy Youngs in 1995, 2000 and 2001. Others who would lose multiple awards are Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Bret Saberhagen, Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, and Tom Glavine.

- The biggest winners are relief aces Dan Quisenberry, Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, who each pick up two apiece. Eck is the only one of the group who won a real-life Cy Young Award as well.

- Greg Maddux loses his Cy Youngs in 1992 and ’93, but he replaces them with wins in 1997 and 2000. Tom Glavine is robbed of both of his awards, but he does steal one from Maddux in ’92.

- Only one player, Rod Beck in 1993, has won a phantom Cy Young despite not garnering a single vote in the real Cy Young race. Nine other pitchers, including two closers, got attention in the Cy Young vote. Think about that. The writers completely ignored Beck when they voted for the Cy Young Award. Even relievers Bryan Harvey and Randy Myers got some attention. And then the same writers, apparently using totally different standards, ranked Beck as the most valuable pitcher in the league in the MVP vote.

- Remember Bob Welch’s crazy 27-win season back in 1990? He clearly wasn’t the best pitcher in the league (both Roger Clemens and Dave Stewart were far better) but he won the Cy Young Award with a solid 76% award share. In the American League MVP voting, Welch placed a respectable 9th overall, but it was an unusually strong year for pitchers – four pitchers had more MVP votes than Welch. Clemens led the pack with a 54% award share and an overall 3rd place finish (including 3 first-place votes). Bobby Thigpen (57 saves) and Dennis Eckersley (0.61 ERA) ranked 5th and 6th overall, respectively, and Dave Stewart finished 8th.

So according to the Cy Young vote, Welch was the best pitcher in the league, but according to the MVP vote, he was just the third-best pitcher on his own team (behind Eck and Stewart).

- Pedro Martinez won his first Cy Young Award back in 1997. Despite winning just 17 games, he won the award on the strength of 305 strikeouts and an incredible 1.90 ERA. In fact, he not only won the Cy Young, he did it in dominant fashion, with 25 of 28 first-place votes and a 96% award share. But in the MVP vote, he placed just third among starters, behind Greg Maddux (19-4, 2.20) and Curt Schilling (17-11, 2.97).

- Of course, Pedro has nothing on Roy Halladay, who had a 97% Cy Young Award share in 2003 but, as mentioned above, didn’t manage even a single point in the MVP voting. In the same vein, Frank Viola 1988, Bret Saberhagen 1989 and Randy Johnson 2001 all had 98-99% Cy Young Award shares and still did not lead all pitchers in the MVP race (each finished second).

This is remarkable. In each of these cases – Pedro, Halladay, Viola, Saberhagen and Johnson – you have pitchers who were far-and-away viewed as the best in their league, each earning over 95% of the possible Cy Young points. And yet all of them failed to lead their fellow pitchers in MVP points.

This obviously calls into question the standards used by the writers when voting on these awards. It seems like the Cy Young Award typically means the “best starter award.” When a reliever wins, it’s usually in a weird year for starters. Well, shoot, there have only been 9 Cy Youngs given to relief pitchers, so let’s look at each situation:

- Mike Marshall, 1974. The year of Marshall’s 106 games and 200-plus relief innings. Also only two NL guys with 20 wins, Andy Messersmith and Phil Niekro. Kind of a wimpy year for starters.

- Sparky Lyle, 1977. Three AL pitchers with exactly 20 wins this year: Jim Palmer, Dennis Leonard and Dave Goltz. Palmer had already won three Cy Youngs in his career, and it was kind of a ho-hum year for him. Both Leonard and Goltz had ERAs in the threes, which wasn’t so grand back then.

- Bruce Sutter, 1979. This is a really strange year. It’s the only time that a reliever won the Cy Young but didn’t lead all pitchers in MVP points. Joe Niekro was the phantom Cy Young on the strength of a 21-11 record, and he finished a close second to Sutter in the real Cy Young vote. Brother Phil also won 21 games, but then again he also lost 20. They were the only NL pitchers with over 18 wins.

- Rollie Fingers, 1981. The strike meant that not one pitcher had even 15 wins, and four AL pitchers tied with 14. A perfect year for a closer to sneak in and win the award. In fact, Fingers was also the AL MVP, beating Rickey Henderson in one of the closest races on record and no doubt helped by the strike-deflated offensive numbers. (As for Fingers’ own stats, he threw 78 innings with a 1.04 ERA and a league-best 28 saves. In a strike year, the closer with the eye-popping stats has an edge.)

- Willie Hernandez, 1984. Hernandez also won the MVP award this year, the second of only three actual closers to ever do that. He was brilliant for the juggernaut Tigers, and just as importantly, Mike Boddicker was the league’s lone 20-game winner. The Cy Young runner-up, Dan Quisenberry, was also a reliever. Incidentally, Quiz finished third in the MVP vote.

- Steve Bedrosian, 1987. Rick Sutcliffe led the NL with a mere 18 wins. In a wide-open year, Bedrosian picked off the Cy Young.

- Mark Davis, 1989. Another weak year for starters. Mike Scott was the only 20-game winner in the NL, and he didn’t even finish in the top 10 in ERA.

- Dennis Eckersley, 1992. The last closer to win the MVP award. And while Eck was brilliant, we once again have an unimpressive field of starting pitchers. Yes, Jack Morris and Kevin Brown won 21 games apiece and Jack McDowell notched 20, but Morris had a 4.04 ERA and Brown and McDowell were in the threes and didn’t look like aces.

- Eric Gagne, 2003. Boy, they sure quit giving Cy Youngs to relievers, didn’t they? This year, only Russ Ortiz reached 20 wins, and with a 3.81 ERA and an ugly 149-102 strikeout-to-walk ratio, he was nobody’s Cy Young. And of course, Gagne had captured the imagination of the baseball world.

Honestly, it’s kind of amazing that Brandon Webb managed to win the Cy Young Award last year, considering everybody and their mother led the league with 16 wins. It was a perfect year for someone like Hoffman to step in and win, but it didn’t happen. There does seem to have been a shift in philosophy since the early 1990s: more than ever, the Cy Young Award is the “best starter award.” Relievers are still winning phantom Cy Youngs, though. There were 7 relievers who led all pitchers in MVP points in the 1970s, 13 in the 1980s, 7 in the 1990s and 5 so far in the 2000s.

What’s the lesson from all this? Clearly, the baseball writers view the Cy Young Award differently than they do the MVP. The Cy Young usually goes to the best starter (or the starter with the gaudiest record), though in weak years a reliever might win it. The MVP is more complex, with a continual debate over the meaning of the word “valuable.”

Actually, come to think of it, the names of the awards themselves may be the key to this whole mystery. The Cy Young Award is named after one of the greatest starting pitchers in baseball history, the all-time leader in career wins. The MVP, meanwhile, with that vague word “valuable,” suggests to many writers something that is only partially quantifiable, thereby opening the door for relievers and all their “high pressure” and “save situations” and “closer mentalities.”

References & Resources
That’s all I’ve got. Here’s the master list of phantom Cy Youngs and their real-life counterparts:

 Year  Lg  Pitcher               CYPt   CYRk   MVPt   MVrk    MVPit  S/R
 2006  AL  Johan Santana          100      1     29      7        1   S
 2006  NL  Brandon Webb            64      1      0     99       99   S
 2006  NL  Trevor Hoffman          48      2     10     10        1   R
 2005  AL  Bartolo Colon           84      1      1     23        2   S
 2005  AL  Mariano Rivera          49      2     15      9        1   R
 2005  NL  Chris Carpenter         82      1     12      8        1   S
 2004  AL  Johan Santana          100      1     30      6        1   S
 2004  NL  Roger Clemens           88      1     14      8        1   S
 2003  AL  Roy Halladay            97      1      0     99       99   S
 2003  AL  Keith Foulke             1      7      5     15        1   R
 2003  NL  Eric Gagne              91      1     32      6        1   R
 2002  AL  Barry Zito              81      1      6     13        1   S
 2002  NL  Randy Johnson          100      1     28      7        1   S
 2001  AL  Roger Clemens           87      1     17      8        1   S
 2001  NL  Randy Johnson           98      1      5     11        2   S
 2001  NL  Curt Schilling          61      2      5     10        1   S
 2000  AL  Pedro Martinez         100      1     26      5        1   S
 2000  NL  Randy Johnson           83      1      1     17        4   S
 2000  NL  Greg Maddux             37      3      3     12        1   S
 2000  NL  Robb Nen                12      4      3     12        1   R
 1999  AL  Pedro Martinez         100      1     61      2        1   S
 1999  NL  Randy Johnson           84      1      5     15        1   S
 1998  AL  Roger Clemens          100      1     12     11        1   S
 1998  NL  Tom Glavine             62      1      0     21        4   S
 1998  NL  Trevor Hoffman          55      2     26      7        1   R
 1997  AL  Roger Clemens           96      1     14     10        2   S
 1997  AL  Randy Myers             10      4     33      4        1   R
 1997  NL  Pedro Martinez          96      1      2     16        3   S
 1997  NL  Greg Maddux             54      2      4     12        1   S
 1996  AL  Pat Hentgen             79      1      0     99       99   S
 1996  AL  Mariano Rivera          13      3      7     12        1   R
 1996  NL  John Smoltz             97      1      8     11        1   S
 1995  AL  Randy Johnson           97      1     28      6        2   S
 1995  AL  Jose Mesa               39      2     33      4        1   R
 1995  NL  Greg Maddux            100      1     64      3        1   S
 1994  AL  David Cone              77      1     10      9        2   S
 1994  AL  Jimmy Key               69      2     26      6        1   S
 1994  NL  Greg Maddux            100      1     34      5        1   S
 1993  AL  Jack McDowell           89      1     13      9        1   S
 1993  NL  Greg Maddux             85      1      4     13        2   S
 1993  NL  Rod Beck                 0     99      6     12        1   R
 1992  AL  Dennis Eckersley        76      1     78      1        1   R
 1992  NL  Greg Maddux             93      1      4     11        2   S
 1992  NL  Tom Glavine             65      2      5     10        1   S
 1991  AL  Roger Clemens           85      1     15     10        1   S
 1991  NL  Tom Glavine             92      1      5     11        2   S
 1991  NL  Lee Smith               50      2     26      8        1   R
 1990  AL  Bob Welch               76      1     14      9        5   S
 1990  AL  Roger Clemens           55      2     54      3        1   S
 1990  NL  Doug Drabek             98      1     18      8        1   S
 1989  AL  Bret Saberhagen         99      1     21      8        2   S
 1989  AL  Dennis Eckersley         2      6     30      5        1   R
 1989  NL  Mark Davis              89      1     23      6        1   R
 1988  AL  Frank Viola             99      1     10     10        2   S
 1988  AL  Dennis Eckersley        37      2     40      5        1   R
 1988  NL  Orel Hershiser         100      1     33      6        1   S
 1987  AL  Roger Clemens           89      1      2     19        4   S
 1987  AL  Jeff Reardon             3      8      9     11        1   R
 1987  NL  Steve Bedrosian         48      1      2     16        1   R
 1986  AL  Roger Clemens          100      1     86      1        1   S
 1986  NL  Mike Scott              82      1     10     10        1   S
 1985  AL  Bret Saberhagen         91      1     11     10        2   S
 1985  AL  Donnie Moore             1      7     24      6        1   R
 1985  NL  Dwight Gooden          100      1     48      4        1   S
 1984  AL  Willie Hernandez        63      1     78      1        1   R
 1984  NL  Rick Sutcliffe         100      1     45      4        1   S
 1983  AL  La Marr Hoyt            83      1      6     13        2   S
 1983  AL  Dan Quisenberry         58      2     27      6        1   R
 1983  NL  John Denny              86      1      7     13        2   S
 1983  NL  Al Holland               3      6     12      9        1   R
 1982  AL  Pete Vuckovich          62      1      3     18        3   S
 1982  AL  Dan Quisenberry         29      3     10      9        1   R
 1982  NL  Steve Carlton           93      1     12      9        3   S
 1982  NL  Bruce Sutter            21      3     40      5        1   R
 1981  AL  Rollie Fingers          90      1     81      1        1   R
 1981  NL  Fernando Valenzuela     58      1     27      5        1   S
 1980  AL  Steve Stone             71      1     14      9        3   S
 1980  AL  Goose Gossage           26      3     56      3        1   R
 1980  NL  Steve Carlton           98      1     40      5        1   S
 1979  AL  Mike Flanagan           97      1     26      6        1   S
 1979  NL  Bruce Sutter            60      1     21      7        2   R
 1979  NL  Joe Niekro              55      2     22      6        1   S
 1978  AL  Ron Guidry             100      1     74      2        1   S
 1978  NL  Gaylord Perry           97      1     13      8        1   S
 1977  AL  Sparky Lyle             40      1     20      6        1   R
 1977  NL  Steve Carlton           87      1     30      5        1   S
 1976  AL  Jim Palmer              90      1     14     10        2   S
 1976  AL  Bill Campbell            6      7     17      8        1   R
 1976  NL  Randy Jones             80      1     14     10        1   S
 1975  AL  Jim Palmer              82      1     24      6        2   S
 1975  AL  Rollie Fingers          21      3     38      4        1   R
 1975  NL  Tom Seaver              82      1     19      9        2   S
 1975  NL  Al Hrabosky             28      3     20      8        1   R
 1974  AL  Catfish Hunter          75      1     32      6        2   S
 1974  AL  Fergie Jenkins          62      2     35      5        1   S
 1974  NL  Mike Marshall           80      1     43      3        1   R
 1973  AL  Jim Palmer              73      1     51      2        1   S
 1973  NL  Tom Seaver              59      1     17      8        2   S
 1973  NL  Mike Marshall           45      2     28      5        1   R
 1972  AL  Gaylord Perry           53      1     26      6        2   S
 1972  AL  Sparky Lyle              2      7     47      3        1   R
 1972  NL  Steve Carlton          100      1     37      5        1   S
 1971  AL  Vida Blue               82      1     80      1        1   S
 1971  NL  Fergie Jenkins          81      1     21      7        1   S
 1970  AL  Jim Perry               46      1     19      9        1   S
 1970  NL  Bob Gibson              98      1     33      4        1   S
 1969  AL  Mike Cuellar            42      1     16      8        2   S
 1969  AL  Denny McLain            42      1     25      6        1   S
 1969  NL  Tom Seaver              96      1     72      2        1   S
 1968  AL  Denny McLain           100      1    100      1        1   S
 1968  NL  Bob Gibson             100      1     86      1        1   S
 1967  AL  Jim Lonborg             90      1     29      6        2   S
 1967  AL  Joe Horlen              10      2     32      4        1   S
 1967  NL  Mike McCormick          90      1     26      6        1   S
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